By Gianmarc Manzione
Originally published in Bowlers Journal International
When Ricky Ward pocketed forty grand and a Rolex watch one January afternoon in 2002 at the inaugural PBA Medford Open, narrowly shaving a 7-pin spare in the tenth to edge out Ryan Shafer by a pin en route to his 6th title in less than nine years, who could have told him that it would be the last time he stood to smile for cameras with the champion’s check in his hands?
Or that the rookie he would defeat in his third consecutive telecast later that month, a then-unknown kid by the name of Tommy Jones making his debut appearance on TV, would soon beat him out for a spot on the “50 Greatest Players in PBA History” list that the PBA released in 2008 to celebrate its 50th anniversary?
These days, Ricky Ward puts in afternoon shifts at PBA Hall of Famer Larry Lichstein’s pro shop at Cape Coral’s Bowland in south Florida.
“I have a family,” Ricky would say upon winning that final title in Medford, his mind heavy with thoughts of Hannah, his first child, born just seven months prior. “But, you still have to pay the bills.”
That was then, when “paying the bills” meant the glamour of hot lights frying a pair of lanes on TV and a generous slice of the tournament’s cash pie to take home. But no cameras accompany him to the door at Bowland this afternoon, and those hot lights have been cool for years now.
Welcome to the other side of the PBA’s exempt tour, where yesterday’s champions become today’s forgotten bowlers. They are beveling thumb holes in the pro shop up the block, selling cars somewhere in the next town over, or gutting it out in another grueling TQR, most of them earning in a year what they might have made in a week not too long ago.
“Be ready,” a fiery Larry Lichstein warns me when I inquire about speaking to the former PBA rookie of the year. “I was angry from 2003 ‘til about 2007, but you have to move on after a while,” he says of the PBA’s move to an exempt tour, sounding not quite as at peace as he suggests.
Lichstein, one of the PBA’s living legends, lambastes the PBA with an explosive barrage of contentions that clearly derive from a deep concern for fellow bowlers such as Ricky Ward, weaving a tragic tale in which the likes of Ward, Bryan Goebel, Steve Hoskins and other champions abruptly found themselves out of work after devoting decades to the tour.
“Bryan wasn’t ready to go home,” Lichstein says. “Steve Hoskins wasn’t ready to go home.” And neither, apparently, was Ricky Ward. According to Lichstein, Ward is neither eager to discuss his fate at the hands of the exempt tour nor terribly delicate when he does so.
After pacing back and forth to rave about the time when, rooming with PBA Hall of Famer Ernie Schlegel in his first year on tour, he nearly burned down a Travelodge in Redwood City when he accidentally left a shirt hanging over the heater in his room, Larry pauses in a sudden and reflective hush behind the counter of his shop. Scraping off crusts of glue with a razor blade, he explains how Ricky Ward fell from a spot on top of the leader board to a spot behind the drill press of a Cape Coral pro shop.
“When he had his job stolen from him by the PBA, a job that he was banking on,” Larry argues, “Ricky fell into what I believe was a severe depression, unemployed. But he had to humble up and get some work; he was out of a job. So he came here — not because it’s Larry, but because it’s a pro shop. Even though this is not his shop, and he only makes an employee’s wages.”
Ricky, though, seems remarkably indifferent to the income he once enjoyed — $615, 822 in career earnings altogether.
“Money comes and goes,” Ricky begins with a resigned wave of the hand, chewing a small bloom of tobacco and spitting into a muddied Styrofoam cup in his hand. “It’s the competition that I loved, bowling against guys like Weber, Duke, Walter Ray.”
Ricky looks away for a second, his face partly shadowed by the bill of a drab and torn baseball cap, then continues.
“I had that bulldog mentality,” he says, recalling the nickname, “Bulldog,” that Johnny Petraglia fashioned for the gutsy six-time champ. “I never gave up. I always tried to be a handful for anybody, whether it was a 40-time titlist or some guy who’d never bowled a PBA event before. I always put everybody in the category of ‘dangerous people.’”
“That’s — that’s all history now,” he says, twisting off the top of his can of chew again.
It may be history, but it’s a history that clearly lingers with Ricky, a history that remains very present in Lichstein’s shop.
“If I got a few Long Island Iced Teas in me, there’d be some ‘bleeps’ in there,” he says, gesturing toward the notepad in my lap.
And though Ricky repeatedly expresses a sincere gratitude for his time with the tour, thankful for the lifestyle it allowed him for 12 years, the chance to strike friendships with stars he idolized on TV, and the high level of competition he enjoyed over that time, it’s the indignity he associates with his final days on tour that gnaws at his pride.
“That’s just not the way I wanted to go out,” he tells me. “Personally, I just thought the PBA was too quick to spring this exempt tour thing on us, knowing there would be collateral damage — and that’s me,” Ricky tells me from a corner of the shop where stacks of undrilled balls in boxes assemble a towering wall.
“Forget me, this ain’t about me,” he continues, “but when you knock 60 titles off the tour and replace them with eight guys who don’t have ten titles between them?”
It’s the first of many questions that seethe in Ricky’s mind. Why were the tour trials on wood lanes that year, he asks, when the vast majority of tour stops were played on synthetic lanes? Why did the points system not apply to the Tournament of Champions? Why were so many legends — Randy Pedersen, Steve Hoskins, Bob Learn Jr., Bryan Goebel — suddenly given just 20 weeks to win or go home after committing so much of themselves to the PBA?
“I am not pointing fingers at any bowler,” he explains. “God bless the guys that are out there right now — I mean that. I remember how hard the grind was. But I don’t think half the righties on tour right now are as good as Steve Hoskins, a ten-time title winner,” Ricky asserts.
“It is what it is,” he concludes, dismissing the possibility of pursuing a second shot on tour. “I’d have to start from scratch again,” he laments. “I have no contracts, no incentives, and the money’s just not there.”
And anyway, the wife is on the phone now, Larry’s ready to call it a day, and there’s a shop to close. Ricky gets up, takes a cluster of keys in his hands, and closes the door of the shop behind him as he walks me out.
“I get to be home with Mama and the baby now,” he tells me before leaving, a stark contrast to so many years on tour that required him to be away from his family. “I’m happy.”