'He's one of a kind'

Originally featured in the Dec. 2023 edition of Bowlers Journal 

Newcomers to Ocean Lanes in Lakewood, New Jersey, can be forgiven for failing to size up Vinnie Orobono as one of the best bowlers in the house. But they will pay dearly for underestimating the man.

“If you watch him bowl, you’ll think, ‘Oh, this guy? He’s nothing.’ You’re gonna take him for granted. And when you’re done, and he has walked all over you, you’re gonna go, ‘Oh, my God! How did that just happen?’” says 35-time PBA Tour champion Parker Bohn III, whose local house is nearby Howell Lanes in Howell Township, New Jersey — home to the Bohn family’s Bohn’s Elite Training operation.

That’s where three-time PBA regional champion John Furey has drilled Orobono’s equipment for years, out of his Furey’s Solid 10 Pro Shop. No one needs to remind Furey of Orobono’s capabilities.

“He’ll come in and tell me in the pro shop, ‘Oh, I won the strike jackpot. It was $1,200,’” Furey says. “Sometimes it’s even more than that. I mean, he gets it done.”

But how? First-time onlookers likely pondered that question at Ocean Lanes the night of Aug. 16, 2023, when they would have observed Orobono absolutely tearing it up. Again. In a way they had never seen before.

“I wasn’t planning on shooting 836. It was summer league. We were in first place. My teammate said something [to a player on the opposing team] like, ‘Take it easy on us.’ The guy said, ‘No,’” Orobono recalls in a gruff, Jersey accent.

That, it turned out, provided all the incentive Orobono needed.

“So I just concentrated on winning points and trying to get first place, and I ended up shooting 836.” 

A notable lisp with his pronunciation of the letter “r” as he speaks lends one a first glimpse of the mystery behind the man. The mystery deepens as you watch him bowl. That muggy Jersey night in August, as he was splintering the rack to pile up points and avenge his unruly opposition, featured much the same spectacle the 42-year-old has exhibited on the lanes since his days as a high-school bowler under a skeptical coach.

His bald head gleaming beneath the overhead lights of Ocean Lanes, Orobono takes the approach sporting a dark pair of bowling shoes crowned with white socks pulled about a quarter of the way up his shins. His footwear is so plain and simple as to be virtually indistinguishable from a pair of street shoes.

His untucked purple Hammer jersey, splashed with zig-zagging stripes of a lighter hue, sways at his waist. An understated pair of black gym shorts with stripes lining each thigh completes a getup as unflashy as his game.

“Vinnie doesn’t look like your typical bowler. He’s not gonna be coming in with the nice slacks. He’s not gonna be wearing the $300 shoes. He’s not gonna be turning the ball and having it read 25 boards. But he’s a fierce competitor and his game is so simple that it actually frustrates some people because they just can’t replicate what he does,” says George Williams, President of the Ocean County New Jersey USBC Association and an Ocean County USBC Hall of Famer who met Vinnie through a bowling league in Lakewood about 15 years ago.

Hardly a second ensues between the time he jams his right hand into his bowling ball with a few flicks of the elbow and the time he begins his unforgettable approach to the line — a plodding, uneasy and rhythmless saunter so casual it’s as if he’s merely gotten up to clear some dead wood from the gutter. 

But there is a bowling ball in this man’s hands — with a black wrist guard, to boot! — and he is, once again, about to invest every fiber of his being into this next shot.

This shot will be special. It will be the one that Hammer, Orobono’s favorite bowling ball brand, will feature on its Instagram page on Sept. 6. There, it will elicit more than 70 comments featuring a mixture of bewilderment, awe and, as always, the usual critics deriding Orobono for being a little different. Sure, Vinnie Orobono is a different guy. But this is how he’s always done it, and that’s fine with him.

By the time Orobono makes it to the line, he has taken no fewer than seven steps. He does not let his arm drop into his swing until step five, by which point he rears up with a shoulder-high backswing, hunches over, and, as Furey describes it, “rips the holes out of the ball.” 

But this right-hander lays the ball down on the left side of the lane, and his ball will, from this point on, bear every resemblance to a southpaw’s shot. Vinnie Orobono, easily one of the country’s most accomplished amateur backup bowlers, on this night will punctuate his 836 series with a 300. And that will follow the 289 he shot the game prior. And, oh, did that 289 hurt. Just ask Orobono.

“The second game should have been a 300, but I left a 7 pin!” he laments.

“We get all types of submissions for honor scores, but not everyday do you see a guy throwing a backup ball and shooting 300/836!” says Nick Smith, Hammer’s Digital Media Manager. “I knew the video would get watched on the Hammer pages, and it proves one thing about bowling: There is no one way to knock down 10 pins. You just have to be consistent and create enough entry angle to the pocket — whichever pocket you want to aim at, in Vinnie’s case. Very impressive!” 

Vinnie’s father, Joe, is equally impressed.

“When he was a little boy, he saw a lefthander and wanted his ball to do that, and I said, ‘Vinnie, we bowl right-handed, our ball hooks to the left,’ but he wanted his ball to curve the other way. He throws one hell of a powerful backup,” says Joe.

This 836 was no fluke. Reams of honor scores populate his membership profile on Bowl.com, including six certified 800 series and nearly two dozen certified perfect games dating back to the 1999-2000 league season. He bowls two leagues, one Wednesday night and another on Thursday nights, both at Ocean Lanes, and he averages nearly 230 in both of them.

Johnny Petraglia, the 14-time PBA Tour champion who also happens to bowl out of nearby Howell Lanes, says, “I know Vinnie Orobono very well. When you watch him bowl, you actually lose track of him being a backup bowler. He has a very, very solid game, and it just seems so natural when he does it that you forget that’s what he’s doing.”

When that skeptical high-school bowling coach couldn’t bring herself to forget what Vinnie was doing, he settled that score, too.

“I quit bowling school after my sophomore year,” he says. “The coach wouldn’t let me throw backup. I actually got pulled out of a match. She had her stars, and I wasn’t one of them. So, while I was still in school, I went adult and I shot a 300 just to try and prove a point.”

Proving points. Defying the odds. Doing things his way. Vinnie is gifted with a tenacity all his own. It’s that tenacity, perhaps more than anything else, to which he owes his life.

Miracle Birth
To this day, more than 42 years later, a quiver overcomes Joe Orobono’s voice when he thinks back to April 14, 1981. That was the day his son Vinnie was born prematurely at all of 1 pound and 15 ounces.

“My wife, her water broke, and thank God the doctor said, ‘We’ve got to helicopter this kid and this mom to Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia immediately,’” Joe recalls.

How did Vinnie overcome such brutal odds of survival? Joe has his theory.

“I was in the Marine Core, and there was a Father (priest) stationed at the Philadelphia Naval Yard, and I told him my wife was going to go into labor, and she was going to deliver a baby under two pounds. He says, ‘Joe, I’ll be right there.’ He came there, and I said, ‘Please, in Latin, please pray in Latin,’ so nobody in there knew what he was saying. He kept praying and praying in Latin.”

Baby Vinnie spent the next three months in the intensive-care unit.

“We kept waiting for a phone call, ‘Your son didn’t make it. Please come in.’ And it never came. He fought to live.”

That fight dad identifies in his son is a trait that did not fall far from the tree. One reason Petraglia is not surprised by the things Vinnie is able to pull off on the lanes is that, “He comes from an athletic family. His father was a prize fighter.”

Asked of his past as a prize fighter, Joe pauses as if stunned, lets out a kind of hushed chuckle, and then relives the memories of that former life.

“Listen,” he begins softly, “I got 52 fights in the ring as a young man, okay? I won 39 out of 52. I fought in the Marine Core. I beat Frank ‘The Animal’ Fletcher. When we get off the phone, bring his name up on the computer. Frank Fletcher from Philadelphia. They call him ‘The Animal.’ I’ve got the newspaper clipping. I beat him in 1974 when we both were amateurs in South Philadelphia, and one of my best friends lost to his brother Anthony the same night. He was a lightweight; I was a middleweight.”

Frank ‘The Animal’ Fletcher took up boxing during his time in prison, a place he frequented throughout his childhood. “He was knocking out inmates by the dozens,” one story goes. That penchant ultimately landed him in higher-profile battles on ESPN, ABC and NBC, with Howard Cosell calling some of the matches in which he fought.

But Fletcher’s days as a pro fighter gave way to more years in prison — 22 of them spent at a maximum-security federal penitentiary in Beaumont, Texas.

With a father who faced down foes like Fletcher in the ring, maybe Vinnie’s success in surviving his birth as a virtually weightless preemie is a little less shocking than it might have been otherwise. But Vinnie’s life would be permanently challenged by those turbulent beginnings.

In a 2015 story about Orobono for the Asbury Park Press, Shannon Mullen reported that Orobono “Didn’t speak until he was about 4 years old. As a child, he struggled with autistic-like communication and behavioral issues that kept him in a private, special-education school through the eighth grade.”

As Joe puts it, “My son went through hell in school. His speech, this and that. He was tortured, and I thank God that there were a couple guys he bowled with who protected him. They would go up to the punks who would bully him and say, ‘You bully him one more time and I’m gonna kick your ass.’”

To this day, there is no shortage of people eager to stand up for Vinnie Orobono.

One of the Good Guys
Jim Caudill, Vinnie’s league teammate for about the past quarter-century, says that, “He’s had problems with abilities and stuff like that, and people would mock him, but just about anyone at the bowling alley will always stand up for him, because that’s the kind of guy he is.

“He’ll get on Facebook and he’ll say something, and, you know, maybe he’s not the best speaker, and they’ll make fun of him. But then these other guys will get on there and trash the hell out of those guys for picking on him.”

Williams agrees.

“There’s a lot of people in the league who just kind of root for Vinnie and like seeing him do well,” he says. For him, that goodwill Vinnie has cultivated in his league peers boils down to the many endearing qualities he has brought to New Jersey bowling centers for decades.

“Vinnie, when he’s in competition, he’s laser focused,” Wiliams says. “The majority of bowlers might drink a beer, talk about their day, but Vinnie? Vinnie’s going to sit in the chair, cross his legs, cross his arms, and just wait for the arrows to come up on his name. All he cares about is winning and earning points. That’s it.

“He’ll sit there quiet for three hours. It’s funny because you’ll talk to him and he’ll blab your ear off, but, as soon as practice ends, he puts his towel down and he just sits in the chair and he doesn’t want to talk to anybody.”
Williams learned quickly that Vinnie lets his bowling do the talking.

“Vinnie throws the ball a little bit unorthodox, like a backup bowler, but he throws it well as a backup bowler,” he says.

For Caudill, who was there the night Vinnie shot 836 with a 300 and 289, perhaps no trait of Vinnie’s is more endearing than that walk to the line.

“I’ve seen backup bowlers, and they have their nice, normal approach with a traditional stance. But Vinnie, he just gets up there and he just starts walking. That’s what gets me. And he’ll take like 30 steps or whatever, and he just waddles up there. I mean, it’s crazy,” Caudill says. “I have no idea how he does it. He’s definitely one of a kind. He’s got the weirdest stance, the weirdest release, but the kid scores.”

Even better, Caudill says there is absolutely no circumstance under which he would give up Vinnie as a teammate in the doubles league they bowl together.

“No matter what he does when he gets on the lanes, he will give it 100 percent. Even if he’s bowling bad, he’s gonna give it everything he’s got. I would never get rid of this kid. People ask me to bowl with them, I say, ‘I can’t. I’m bowling with Vinnie.’ Even my son asked me to bowl with him. I bowl with my son in other leagues, but I said, ‘No, I can’t just drop Vinnie like a hot potato.’”

When Vinnie blasted that 836, Caudill says, “He gave me this big tight bear hug like you wouldn’t believe.”
It’s that joy Vinnie brings to the lanes that strikes Bohn. 

“Everyone in bowling should take his demeanor on the lanes,” Bohn says. “He wants to bowl well and, like all of us, he will get the downers for a second when something is not right, but Vinnie really is that happy-go-lucky guy who enjoys bowling for what bowling has to offer.”

A Controversial Style
Caudill has seen Vinnie’s style engender its share of detractors over the years.

“Sometimes people make fun of him because he’s a backup bowler, but he’s mastered it. He’s got multiple 800s, multiple 300s,” Caudill says.

Matthew Stephens, a 2017 Dexter-USBC High School All-American who won New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association Bowler of the Year, is all too familiar with the haters the backup style can attract. Himself a backup bowler hailing from the same New Jersey bowling community as Vinnie, Stephens has seen Vinnie bowl and took the backup game to soaring heights himself.

“It’s pretty impressive,” Stephens says of Vinnie’s backup style. “Seeing someone other than me throw it backup was so cool for me because it was so rare. I thought I was the only one.”

Far more common, in Stephens’ experience, is the criticism that comes with the style. There is, it turns out, a certain audacity required of someone cocksure enough to take a backup ball into competitive settings, no less over the course of years and many honor scores.

“When I made the state high-school championships my senior year, I walked into that tournament, I put my shoes on to practice, and everybody looked at me and they said, ‘Well, who’s that guy?’ And then they watched me bowl and they said, ‘Man, this guy’s awful.’ And then I proceeded to lap the field by more than 200 pins and I set the state six-game average record,” Stephens recalls.

To those skeptical onlookers, the feat might have seemed otherworldly. But from Stephens’ perspective, “I didn’t really think much of it. It felt great, of course, but, to me, it was just another tournament because I’ve shot honor scores in tons of different tournament settings. The people who really knew me as a bowler were the people I traveled a lot with, like Parker [Bohn III] and Leslie’s kids. Johnny [Petraglia], [PBA Tour champion] Matt Russo. I spent a lot of time with them. It was pretty cool to be able to do what I did.”

Another occasion, at a youth tournament Stephens bowled in Las Vegas in 2014, amplified the haters through that trusty old megaphone known as Facebook.

“I had actually bowled very well in that event, and the PBA put a post about me on their Facebook page, and there were some good comments, and then people shared it, and then there were a lot of not-so-good comments,” Stephens recalls. “That was the first time I had actually seen that, ‘Well, okay, maybe what I am doing is actually great because people are actually aware of what I can do as a bowler.’”

The comments he saw on Facebook echoed the kind of chatter he had heard around him at tournaments for long enough.

“They just said, ‘This isn’t real bowling. How does that even work? This kid’s gonna break his arm in like a year.’ Just normal stuff like that,” recalls Stephens, who today works as a batch tester for Kegel.

“It was just one of those things where, you know, if it wasn’t working, then I wouldn’t have been doing it and I wouldn’t have been scoring as much as I was. So, [the criticism] didn’t affect me personally, even though there definitely were some rough times that I had when I was younger and I started doing well at the bigger events. That’s when I started getting a lot more criticism.”

But the question, ‘How does that even work?’ is not an altogether bad one when based on genuine curiosity rather than the outright contempt Stephens observed in those Facebook comments.

Caudill may marvel at how Vinnie manages to repeat shots and score with his unique brand of backup bowling. But the things Stephens saw in Vinnie’s game were plenty familiar to him.

What Vinnie does, he says, “Is about the same thing as any other bowler. Once you get comfortable, you have a good feel for the game and you have some rhythm, it’s all the same,” backup or otherwise, he says.

For Stephens, there always have been some keys to success throwing a backup ball, however.

“It all depends on the strength level that you have, the amount of flexibility that you have, the amount of explosiveness,” Stephens says. “It’s all different from person to person. It all depends on your build as an individual.”

One universal trait common among most successful backup bowlers, though, is flexibility of the wrist.

“You do have to have a lot of flexibility to be able to do it,” Stephens says. “You need a lot of flexibility, a lot of mobility, a lot of strength, because there are a lot of moving parts. The average person wouldn’t be able to throw a backup ball consistently because there are so many things that have to go right.

“You have to have your hips going in the proper direction, the hand has to rotate a certain way, you have to have really good finger dexterity because, if you can’t get your fingers out of the ball fast enough, then there’s no way you can throw it backup.”

Williams spots some of the physical assets in Vinnie’s game that Stephens identifies as indispensable.

“Just because it’s unorthodox doesn’t mean it’s incorrect,” Williams points out. “When you see the ball come off Vinnie’s hand coming from the left side of the lane, he gets his body out of the way so he can get some rotation up the left side of the lane. It’s just something that he’s very comfortable with.”

Furey observes that Vinnie’s “armswing is pretty straight. You can get there a lot of different ways, but when the swing is pure and straight, you can get it from point A to point B really well. He has some sharp edges, let’s say, in his approach and his footwork, but he gets it to work. He repeats it, he’s methodical with it, and he’s deliberate.”

Williams says that, “Every once in a while, we’ll joke with him, like, ‘Hey, can you throw it normal?’ And every once in a while, he’ll throw it normal, and it’s like, ‘Dude, that’s not a bad ball!’”

“I had a back injury, and when I came back, I bowled one summer from the right side,” Vinnie recalls. “I averaged about 190. I’m not as consistent.”

Ordinarily, Vinnie does slow-hook the ball across the lane to convert 7-pin spares.

“I have a ball drilled for the right side just for 7 pins,” says Vinnie, whose other stuff Furey drills for a lefthander but with a right-hander’s pitches.

There are times when Vinnie forgets that trusty 7-pin ball home.

“When he doesn’t have that ball with him, he uses mine,” Caudill laughs. “He always steals my ball and I yell at him.”

To be clear, this backup ball style, however successful it has been for the likes of Vinnie and Stephens, is not for everyone.

“I can’t do it,” says Petraglia. “I’ve tried. When my wrist goes in that direction, the furthest it gets is for me to throw a straight ball.”

Furey points out that, “It’s easier to throw a backup ball without your thumb in it. The fact that Vinnie is doing it with his thumb in it, and the fact that he lifts up so hard — most of the time, you would hurt your wrist doing it that way for so long. He is a strong guy.”

The Man Who Paved the Way
No one embodies that audacity a committed backup bowler has to possess more fully than Ernie Hoesterey did back in Petraglia’s day on tour. Half a century before Anthony Simonsen won the 2018 Gene Carter Classic using a backup ball in the title match against lefthander Matt Sanders, Hoesterey hit the tour, albeit as a part-timer, throwing the backup ball — not just when conditions called for it, but as his only game.

Hoesterey, who won four New England Bowlers Association titles in the 1960s and 1970s as a backup bowler and cashed in three PBA Tour events, was an exceptionally rare breed at the time.

“It was really unusual. Hardly anyone back then, male or female, threw a backup ball. It has changed as time has gone by, and now you have Anthony Simonsen do it whenever he wants,” Petraglia says of Hoesterey, who enjoyed a career-high PBA Tour finish of seventh in the 1965 Boston Open.

A Sept. 5, 1967 Omaha World Herald story that ran in conjunction with the PBA Nebraska Centennial Open, held in Omaha’s Rose Bowl Lanes that season, rather unflatteringly described Hoesterey’s shot as a “screw ball.”

Like Vinnie, Hoesterey, too, took his shot at a more conventional game but, as he told the Omaha World Herald, “I couldn’t get the ball to hook and I wasn’t getting any strikes.”

He had no problem striking in the USBC Open Championships that year, when the tournament was held in Miami Beach. There, Hoesterey’s backup ball proved golden, as he fired the highest back-to-back sets ever bowled in the event’s Classic Division at the time — 751 in doubles and 712 in singles. He finished third in Classic All-Events that year with 2,027, a 225 average.

“Ernie was very, very, very high-skilled,” says Bowlers Journal Instructional writer Bill Spigner, who personally knew Hoesterey from his own time coming up through the ranks in the New England bowling scene. “He was a right-handed backup bowler, so he played the lanes like a lefthander, and the rotation he had on the ball was beautiful. He had the good tilt, the good rotation. It was like a high-level release,” says Spigner, a Gold coach and USBC Hall of Famer with three PBA Tour titles. “It was pretty amazing. He was very well-known in NEBA, and around the world for his high finishes in the PBA.

“I went to his house once, and he had a drill press in his basement. He had an AMF ‘Sidewinder’ as we called them, and he drilled his own bowling balls. He also sponsored Paul Moser on tour for years.”

Moser, in fact, won the U.S. Open in 1976 after Hoesterey, who also was a bowling proprietor in Massachusetts and highly successful in the medical supply business, began sponsoring him. Moser told the Akron Beacon Journal at the time, “I was going to buy a Volkswagen Rabbit at the end of this year’s tour, but Ernie said if I won, he’d buy it for me … He flew down and watched me win the U.S. Open, and then he bought me the Rabbit.”

It is from Moser that Hoesterey, who died in 1991, enjoys the most unequivocal praise of his pioneering ability as a backup bowler.

“He was the best ever, I think. I’ve never seen anyone throw a backup ball better than him,” Moser says today. “I called it a reverse curve, and he was very, very good at it. He was very smooth and a fierce competitor with a good mental game.”

Vinnie, for his part, shrugs off the idea of following Hoesterey’s footsteps into the PBA realm.

“I don’t have the time,” he says curtly.

“That’s the God’s honest truth,” says Furey, who knows a thing or two about the unholy work hours Vinnie logs at Ocean University Medical Center in Brick, New Jersey, where he works in Environmental Services, collecting trash and linens. He previously worked at bowling centers throughout his area in New Jersey.

At the hospital, he says, “I work 40 hours plus they give me lots of overtime. I go in at noon; I work ‘til 11:30 at night.”

Weekly, Vinnie says, it is not uncommon for him to exceed 100 hours of work. That’s the boy Joe knows.

“They love him at the hospital because he is a worker; he doesn’t play around on his phone all day!” Joe says. “He is the only one who gets overtime there. The other guys don’t get overtime because they’ll just come in and look at their phones for 10 hours! I am so proud of him. I want you to know, I’m so proud of him.”

As are so many throughout the New Jersey bowling community where he has become — it’s an overused word these days, but one so perfectly appropriate here — a legend.