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Baltimore Hall of Fame bowler shines in fading sport

Thursday - 12/5/2013, 10:00am  ET

danny-wiseman.jpg
Maryland professional bowler Danny Wiseman was inducted into the Maryland State Athletic Hall of Fame last month. (Courtesy Danny Wiseman)

SYDNEY PAUL, Capital News Service

COLLEGE PARK, Md. - The pins cracked in the ninth frame and Baltimore's best bowler, Danny Wiseman, saw his dream slowly slip away as he lost his lead in the 1992 Firestone Tournament of Champions semi-final match.

In order to move on to the championship game, he needed two strikes and two pins in the 10th frame. Unfortunately, one pin remained standing after he rolled the first ball. Almost immediately, he buried his head into his hands as the room went silent. Game over.

It was a hard loss to swallow knowing he couldn't win for his father, who was sitting just a few feet behind him. It was the last tournament his terminally-ill father watched him compete in before he died.

"Not winning that title has always bugged me," he said. "It's one that hurts. I wanted to win for my dad, and that one didn't happen."

He did go on to win many tournaments -- 12 national Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) titles, and 12 regional ones -- a feat that was recognized by his home state last month.

Wiseman, a Dundalk native, became the first ten-pin bowler to be inducted into the Maryland State Athletic Hall of Fame, on Nov. 14, where he joined past honorees like Cal Ripken, Jr.,and Babe Ruth.

Unlike the baseball greats, the bowling star isn't a household name partly because his sport isn't as popular as it used to be.

Over the course of Wiseman's nearly 30 year career, bowling transformed from a popular sport that regularly aired on television to a game better known as a recreational activity.

"There's no question that it was more popular back then. Bowlers were the cool guys," said Bowlers Journal International president Keith Hamilton of competitive bowling 50 years ago. "Look at kids today and what they have to choose from-- video games, technology and social media--that competes against bowling."

YOUNG PHENOMENON

Wiseman, now 46, began his love affair with the game as a toddler at Fair Lanes East Point with duckpin bowling -- a version of the sport that originated in Maryland.

He started ten-pin bowling and joined a youth league at age seven at Fair Lanes Dundalk, where he immediately became a standout among his peers.

Bernie Kuhn, Wiseman's childhood friend and bowling partner, said many of the local adult bowlers recognized his dedication to the sport as a child, and knew he would become a great bowler.

"He lived, ate and drank bowling. If he wasn't practicing, he was watching the adults bowl," he said. "Danny would always be talking to good bowlers. He was enamored with bowling."

Wiseman progressed very quickly as a junior bowler. At 15, he became the youngest bowler in Maryland to bowl a perfect 300 game.

"In that era, a 15-year-old shooting a perfect game was unheard of, especially in this area," Wiseman said.

A PROFESSIONAL CAREER

Wiseman continued to perfect his game, moving up to the local adult league right after high school. He transitioned to the PBA tour circuit in his early 20s.

Wiseman started his professional career just as the sport's popularity was beginning to wane. Though many well-known bowlers were still competing, the game was overshadowed on television by other sports like football, according to experts.

At that time, many corporate sponsors were pulling their support and television networks had stopped airing tournaments, Hamilton said. Today, ESPN is the only network that broadcasts tournaments during the PBA season.

Kuhn said that local bowlers recognized Wiseman as a "top dog" in Baltimore. But Wiseman knew he had to adapt to larger tournaments, Kuhn said.

"I found out that I was a big fish in a little pond, so to speak," Wiseman said of his early local career. "These guys from around the country and the world -- they could bowl."

During his first season, he won a few tournaments locally, but in his second year on tour failed to win on any of the six stops he made.

In 1990, Wiseman started competing full-time on tour, winning his first national title at the Fair Lanes Open in Baltimore. It was one of the proudest moments of his career, he said.

"So many people said, ‘Ah, you'll never make it,' and it pushed the right button because it made me fight even harder to prove them wrong." Wiseman said. "No one had ever really won a title from Baltimore, and I did that."

Wiseman beat a field of 160 competitors in that tournament, which included bowling greats like Marshall Holman, Mark Roth, and Earl Anthony -- hall of famers who rank in the top 10 of the greatest bowlers of the last 50 years, according to the PBA.

Wiseman said his win, along with a handful of other victories in his first two years on tour, were nothing compared to the legends he was competing against.

"You had all these superstars from the ‘70s and ‘80s that were still bowling when I went out," he said. "Nobody even knew who the hell I was."

AN ESTABLISHED PRO

At the tail end of the 1990s, Wiseman became more established among his peers and bowling fans.

In 1998, he won both a national and regional title, which set him up for a great deal of success moving into the new millennium.

As Wiseman got better, the sport's popularity was headed in the other direction. Professional bowlers struggled to remain publically relevant.

Doug Schmidt, bowling historian and author of "They Came to Bowl," noted that younger people weren't as interested in bowling as previous generations. They became more individualistic and preferred not to do things in organized groups, he said.

Wiseman won several titles in back-to-back years from 2000 leading up to his major title win at the Miller High Life Masters in 2004. It was another memorable moment in his career, which took him back to his childhood.

The tournament's stage was constructed in the center of Miller Park in Milwaukee. Baseball was one of Wiseman's passions as a kid. Bowling on the first base line of the ballpark with 5,000 to 6,000 people watching was huge, he said.

END OF HIS CAREER

Wiseman dealt with serious injuries as his career continued. In 2005, a car accident injured his neck and gave him a concussion. He also broke his ankle and a toe, which hurt his game.

Wiseman said he never felt the same after those injuries and has struggled since then, though he still loves the game and continues to perform rather successfully.

In 2008, he won the PBA Exempt Doubles Classic with his tournament partner Michael Fagan.

"Danny was always a good sport," Fagan said. "He was always there helping other guys, especially in a sport that was all about the individual."

Over the course of his career, Wiseman won one major title -- the Miller High Life Masters -- and 23 other regional or national titles.

Today, Wiseman considers himself a semi-retired bowler.

In October, he competed in the 2013 World Series of Bowling in Las Vegas, where he placed 30th overall -- missing the top 24 by 30 pins.

Going forward, Wiseman said he plans to bowl more regional tournaments closer to home and help shape the state's next generation of competitive bowlers.

Wiseman already sponsors an annual youth tournament in Maryland, which has grown larger over the past two years. He's also done some one-on-one coaching with local children.

Vickie Machin, director of the Danny Wiseman Junior Scholarship Tournament and a personal friend, said that Wiseman has been getting a lot more involved in coaching Maryland youth. She said he often comes to talk to kids in his hometown of Dundalk.

"At this time in his life, he's giving back to the community and where he comes from," she said.

Down the road, Wiseman said he will probably offer lessons by appointment and perhaps open a pro shop.

With the injuries he's collected over his career, he can't go out and practice as often as he used to, he said. But, he said, he would probably bowl for the rest of his life.

Wiseman said his career has come full circle. Looking back at it now, he recognizes how much he has changed and continues to grow along with the game.

"When I go through all the old stuff that I've saved, it's amazing that all that I've been through in the last 25 years -- this is the reward for all that hard work and I'm very proud," he said.

(Copyright 2013 by Capital News Service. All Rights Reserved.)