Somewhere in greater Portland, a pediatric neurologist is searching for his squirrel costume.
That can mean only one thing: The world’s best bowlers are back in town.
Mayhem and merriment will descend upon Bayside Bowl this week as the Professional Bowlers Association returns to Maine for a third consecutive year. The expanded lanes will host an expanded eight-day format culminating in the festive, made-for-TV Elias Cup team competition.
ESPN will tape the event and air it on four consecutive Sundays, beginning April 23, but stream it live.
New this year will be a doubles tournament with 32 teams, including three from Maine. ESPN will provide live coverage of the MaineQuarterly.com Roth/Holman PBA Doubles Championship next Sunday, April 16.
A $3 million construction project at Bayside Bowl added eight lanes and a mezzanine for viewing. That expansion from 12 to 20 lanes allowed for a larger field of pro bowlers and double the number of fans, who already snapped up all 450 tickets for next weekend’s quarters, semis and finals of the L.L. Bean PBA League Elias Cup, paying as much as $225 apiece for access to all events.
Next weekend, many fans will hold signs or Big Head foam board cutouts featuring the oversized mugs of characters from “Kingpin” or “The Big Lebowski” or popular pros such as Pete Weber, Walter Ray Williams or Jason Belmonte.
There’s even the face of a bespectacled squirrel in honor of E.J. Tackett, the 2016 Player of the Year whose nickname inspired the local neurologist into the gray-and-white costume for last year’s Elias Cup. (He requested anonymity, as you might suspect of someone donning rodent duds.)
Also on the docket are two pro-am events, one for charity Sunday night and the other for the Bowl Portland league Thursday night. Finally, the PBA is resurrecting a three-way invitational contest called “The King of Bowling” last held in 2009 and won by Wes Malott. He’ll face off against Tackett and Belmonte, a three-time Player of the Year, on Wednesday night.
Practice sessions for the doubles tournament begin Sunday. Qualifying will be held Monday and Tuesday based on 24-game totals. The top eight teams advance to Wednesday’s competition, 16 games played under Baker format (partners alternate frames), with four advancing to the stepladder finals on ESPN next Sunday.
Tickets for any of the pre-weekend events cost $10 and are available at the door. Admission to Sunday’s practice sessions (noon, 3 p.m.) is free.
Sarah Pelletier of Lewiston and Joe Ramsdell of Skowhegan won a local tournament last month to gain entry into the doubles field. When two more spots opened up, James Goulding of Lewiston and Jimmy Clark of Topsham, and Terry Robinson of Gray and Charlie Mitchell of Portland jumped in. Mitchell is co-owner of Bayside Bowl.
Two years ago, PBA Commissioner Tom Clark had to convince skeptical pros to take a chance on a small alley in a gritty area of a city unfamiliar to most of them. What they discovered that first year was a vibrant subculture of fans who treated them as rock stars.
“It’s definitely a little bit smaller a venue than we normally bowl,” said Carolyn Dorin-Ballard, manager of the New York City WTT Kingpins last April, “but this is a unique event. (Fans in Portland) are so passionate about just having fun. It brings such an exciting chemistry to the event that I think bowling needs. And the players tend to feed off that.”
Tim Mack, manager of the Portland Lumberjacks (who exist only for this event), said bowling within a few feet of a loud and zany horde of fans, many of whom will have been tailgating since early morning, is wild.
“I don’t care how many times you’ve been in the lights, and how many times you’ve won tournaments,” Mack said, “that environment there, you can’t practice that. That’s experience and experience only.”
“It’s going to be interesting for the guys who haven’t been here before because it won’t seem as rowdy at first,” Mitchell said.
“We used to do the big show on the weekend and then the tournament, and now it’s like a build-up. They’ll still be surprised when they get to Saturday and Sunday, because it’s a completely different animal.”
If you don’t believe Mitchell, trust the squirrel. When the tour touches down in Portland, the locals go nuts.