Bowling for perfection

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR STAFF
jbirchfield@starhq.com

   Ordinary bowlers dream of having just one 300-game. Larry Graybeal is no ordinary bowler.
   On Thursday, March 28, the Elizabethton bowler recorded his 17th official perfect game in a career that spans almost 40 years.
   "I've had more that I've bowled, but that was the 17th sanctioned one," said Graybeal. "In a normal year, my average score is around a 210. Sometimes it's around 211, 214 -- it's around 212 this year."
   In the Thursday night Men's League at Johnson City's Brunswick Holiday Lanes, Graybeal has been a fixture for the last 25 years.
   "When the bowling alley closed in Elizabethton all of us came over here and started bowling," said Graybeal. "Of course, some of us are with different teams now since we moved to Johnson City to bowl."
   While Graybeal enjoys playing at the local alley, he has traveled to compete in tournaments all across the nation.
   "I've bowled Vegas, Oregon, Georgia, Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, all kinds of places," Graybeal commented. "In fact, we're starting in Ohio the 27th of this month.
   "We're going to be on the road for two weeks, come back for two weeks and go back for two more. There's three tournaments in two weeks in Ohio, then we go to Tucson and from Tucson to Las Vegas."
   For bowlers, like boxers and rodeo cowboys, Las Vegas is the key showplace for their sport.
   "Vegas is my favorite place to go," Graybeal admitted. "I might be broke after I leave Vegas, but it's a good place to bowl. There's a lot of tournaments and things going on there."
   Although the public perception of bowling and golf have been very different over the years, the two sports share plenty of similarities. Just as two golf courses are never identical, Graybeal says the same holds true for bowling alleys.
   "They're very different," said Graybeal. "It depends on the conditioner that they put on the lanes, what kind of shots you have. They can determine if you bowl well or if you don't bowl well.
   "Some places still have the wooden lanes and a lot of them have gone to synthetic materials which we have here (in Johnson City). You can have good shots and bad shots on both types of lanes. Whoever finds it (the groove) is the one that scores, everyone else goes home."
   The comparisons don't stop there. Equipment has become increasingly advanced over the years to help participants in each sport. Golf clubs used today are designed to increase accuracy, the same holds true with bowling balls.
   "I've got a truckload of bowling balls," said Graybeal, who exclusively uses 15-pound bowling balls. "Sometimes, that still isn't enough. You have to have different balls for different conditions.
   "You have different surfaces on the balls. If you get in a lane with a lot of conditioner on it, you've got to have a ball with a surface to make up the difference. If you don't, they will just slide. About 15 years ago, they came out with reactive balls. We used to throw rubber, plastic, and urethane. After they came out with the reactive balls, I went down from 16 pounds to 15 because they hit just as good."
   The sport has been a family affair for the Graybeals. His wife, Vada, has also been a longtime bowler as has his daughter, Nancy Bailey, who works for the Rescue Squad. Larry worked at Paty in Elizabethton, Holston Defense, Finley Structures and Hampton Transfer before retiring.
   A perfect game is always a memorable experience and Graybeal and friends still can recall his first 300-game.
   "One of the boys bowling in this league came down after I rolled this one and said, 'I saw you roll your first 300-game,'" stated Graybeal. "It was 1978 here in Brunswick Lanes. There weren't any 300s thrown at Elizabethton. That was a tough thing to do. I shot a 780-series there. That was the highest ever bowled in that town.
   "You concentrate a little more when you've got a perfect game going. If it's just an ordinary game, you might talk and go on. I don't talk a lot if I'm close to a perfect game."
   Like several others, Graybeal has suffered his share of disappointments in the final frames while closing in on the magical mark.
   "I had four or five 299's where the last pin didn't fall," said Graybeal. "I've had one 298 and lots of 279's. There's luck to do it. You can throw 12 perfect balls and that doesn't mean you're going to strike all 12 of them. I'll be the first to tell you that."
   Even the days when his game is far from perfect doesn't keep Graybeal from regularly going to the bowling alley just as he has since 1963.
   "I like the competition and it's good exercise," Graybeal remarked. "People don't think it is, but try it two or three games and see how sore you get.
   "I really enjoy it because it's a challenge each game. You never know what you're going to do from night to night. It always brings a different challenge."
   For Larry Graybeal, his challenge could not be any clearer: to do what he has done on so many other occasions and record an official 18th perfect game.