June 1, 2010
He inspires critics to yearn for days when bowlers kept score by abacus, the lanes were lit by gas lamp, and any display of passion more boisterous than a golf clap warranted permanent expulsion from the bowling center.
He has turned a ham hock into the most bitterly polarizing symbol the sport has ever known.
He is . . . well, maybe not quite the most interesting man in the world, but if you listen to his hissing chorus of detractors, you just might think so. All he needs now is a bottle of Dos Equis and a gruff Latin accent.
He is Rob Stone, Lord of the Hambone, jester in the royal court of future hall of famer Randy Pedersen, and the face glued to dart boards in the homes of bowling purists from coast to coast.
“Whose decision was it to choose this guy to sit next to Randy Pedersen on the Sunday telecasts?” Steve Gorches spewed in a 2008 column for Indiana’s Post-Tribune.
Just as Gorches wanders off to discuss the five-pin spare that Patrick Allen failed to convert on a recent telecast, an artless transition illustrates the desperation of Stone’s critics.
“But back to the moronic portion of the PBA season,” he huffs. “That would be Rob Stone.”
That also would be the righteous outrage of a faction in the bowling community whose fondest PBA memories were made in a time when you didn’t have to lose a bet to show up on national TV in plaid pants, when Ernie Schlegel’s sequined suits and shades provoked the ire of PBA brass, and chances were that come Saturday you would find Mark Roth charging the foul line on ABC once again like a bull about to skewer a matador to the fence.
“The PBA was extremely fortunate to have a man of Chris Schenkel’s stature affiliated with the sport,” Tom Clark, Deputy Commissioner of the PBA, says of the man who shared front-row seats to that history with Bo Burton. “His presence alone signified credibility and prestige. But Rob is the perfect voice for this new era in professional bowling on ESPN. Rob is fresh, inviting to new audiences, and he and Randy Pedersen have a growing chemistry that makes the shows enjoyable.”
No one who has the slightest understanding of PBA history will deny that the years Schenkel spent manning the booth with Bo Burton defined an unforgettable era — plaid pants and all. And no one who speaks with Stone will interpret his “presentation” as disrespect for that history.
“These guys, what they do week in and week out, the sacrifices they make are amazing. I am constantly blown away by what these guys and gals go through because they love the sport so much, and I don’t think people realize what they’re doing to continue to bowl professionally,” Stone says.
It is nearly midnight, a solid 14 hours into a day that began with preparation for another telecast — this time the PBA Experience Showdown at the International Training and Research Center in Arlington, Texas. Another endless day awaits as the PBA Women’s Series Showdown looms. But Stone, wiping his hands over his face as he breathes a sigh of exhaustion, eschews rest in favor of beer at a local sports bar (no, not Dos Equis) and yet more bowling talk.
“Being on the road for months away from your wife or kids, bowling with a thumb that looks like hamburger, being in a bowling center for eight hours and having to find dinner at 10 o’clock, driving from venue to venue — particularly in the winter,” Stone continues. “A lot of long drives. I don’t think a lot of people realize that these guys are driving from venue to venue, sharing a room with guys to save money, and if you don’t make the show, you’re not making much money.”
While his critics sneer at the “Hambone!” signs that writhe across the crowd on PBA telecasts these days, Stone himself speaks with the sincere compassion of a genuine bowling fan, a guy whose years alongside Pedersen have imbued him with a love for the sport every bit as intense as the disdain of the purists that loathe him.
“I feel bad for these guys. They’re out here grinding it out all week and all they get are these little golf applauses,” Stone says, “and I’m like ‘These are professional athletes! This is a sport! Cheer them on! Have fun! Get into it!’ If you want to let loose with a hambone sign and scream and yell on the TV show today I say ‘Let it rip, man. Let it go.’ Because it’s really good for everybody. It may bum some people out but the majority of people have fun with it.”
To say “it may bum some people out” might be a rare understatement for the otherwise bombastic Stone. In fact, if a slab of ham strikes you as an unlikely basis for organized protest, you’ve never been to a PBA event in Motown.
“Pockets of fans in Detroit the past couple of years have ganged up against it in a concerted effort,” Clark says of Stone’s “Hambone” reference for four-baggers, “but the overwhelming majority of fans have joined in the fun, making signs that take things up a notch for a four-bagger.”
When Pete Weber's match against Billy Oatman at the 2008 Pepsi Championship turns into a Hambone fest,
Weber responds with a tribute to Stone that no one will soon forget. "Thank you, Pete! I'm blushing!" Stone says.
Those sign-wielding fans are the bowlers shouting “Hambone!” in leagues across the country tonight as Stone seeks a brew in Arlington after another grueling day of show prep and prime time.
“We all know it sounds pretty silly,” Jerry Partch asserted in a story for the Rockford Register. “But then this week, it happened: The telecast descended into league bowling. During our weekly league at Forest Hill Lanes, for the first time I heard other people start to refer to the four-bagger as a hambone. Jackie Lamb threw a four-bagger, and all of his other ‘Lambs Flock’ teammates started yelling ‘hambone!’”
If Stone’s antics inspire anything other than snarling columns from Steve Gorches and friends, it might be this: Every night a dozen Jackie Lambs at a center near you rediscover in Stone’s catch phrase the passion that brought them there to begin with. Their pumping fists and hambone shouts might not resemble your grandma’s bowling league, but maybe that’s the point.
The days when plaid pants were as common a sight on PBA telecasts as Schenkel’s smile were also days when viewers had just three TV stations to choose from. They were days when it was not so long ago that Don Carter inked the first million-dollar endorsement deal in the history of professional sports. They were days in which phenomena such as a “24-hour news cycle” or ESPN did not exist.
“Sometimes you’ve got to mix things up in today’s sports landscape to get somebody’s attention, to try and make an impact,” Rob Stone explains.
Many more competitors crowd that landscape now than in the days of plaid pants and plastic balls.
When Stone is not mixing it up behind the glass of the booth he shares with Pedersen on Sunday afternoons, he is mixing it up behind the scenes.
“Rob was directly involved with bringing Woody Paige to last season’s plastic ball event as well as with getting Bill Simmons to work a PBA show this past season,” says Mike Jakubowski, the PBA’s Mike J. Laneside. “Rob is an ambassador for the PBA Tour in his travels for ESPN.”
“Sometimes you need to do those things to get outsiders to at least give you a chance to be accepted,” Stone says. “I don’t mean any disrespect to anybody, be it the fans, or anybody associated with PBA or USBC or the bowlers themselves.”
Stone will tell you that at the time ESPN executives offered him the opportunity to be “the voice of PBA bowling,” he was already covering college football as well as soccer for ESPN. He also will tell you that his wife was pregnant with twins and that he looked over his shoulder in the hope of spotting the person to whom they were really offering the gig. He will tell you that the seat he occupies next to Randy Pedersen is the last seat he ever expected to sit in.
“Without saying ‘No’ I gave them a lot of reasons not to do it,” Stone says, “not the least of which was that my good friend Dave Ryan was doing it, and I don’t like taking work from anybody, particularly my friends. But they basically said ‘Well, great! The next tournament is in a couple weeks in Milwaukee. Go get it!’”
But another thing Stone will tell you is that the job he never asked for now stands as one of the most rewarding of his career.
“I love it, I really do,” Stone says. “I do enjoy it, I have fun, I love the people I work with, I love the pros. I like seeing these guys, and I enjoy coming out here on the tour and seeing the fans and trying to do what I can — what little that is — to help this sport grow.”
It is no secret that Stone’s background is chiefly in soccer — “The World Cup this summer is going to be a blowout like you have no idea,” he says — but even Stone, who captained the soccer team at Colgate University before covering the sport for ESPN, admits the soccer memories he has gathered over the years are giving way these days to the memories he makes on the road with the PBA Tour.
“Soccer’s a part of my life that will never, ever leave me, but I’m getting a lot of bowling memories the last couple of years that don’t leave,” he reveals.
If it takes a convert to convert others, Rob Stone clearly is the man for the job.