The Baseball Desert

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Re-kindling an old flame

Last week I met with a friend of mine for a few beers and a catch up on life in an Irish pub here in Paris. Now, "Irish pub" is usually expat speak for "French bar which serves Guinness and Kilkenny", but in this case, it did have one authentic touch that you don't often find in French bars: a dartboard.

When the evening began, there was barely enough room to squeeze up to the bar, pint in hand, but as the young, beautiful Parisians left to go and do whatever it is young, beautiful Parisians go to do on a Thursday evening, the space around the dartboard cleared. As it did so, a couple of the regulars, who were neither young nor beautiful - my kind of people - grabbed the darts from behind the bar and started to play.

This is the kind of scene that plays out every day in pubs all over the UK, but I've been away so long that I'd almost forgotten what a dartboard looks like. But here, as I watched the two guys play, a vivid slice of my past life flashed before my eyes. I was suddenly taken back about 18 years, to a time when the great sport of darts ruled my life somewhat like baseball rules it now.

Back in the early 80s, my parents bought a dartboard for my brother and me and set it up in our bedroom. In hindsight, it seems surprising that they ignored the obvious danger inherent in letting two teenage boys loose with sharp projectiles, but I think that the theory was that if we were inside throwing projectiles at the wall, then we couldn't be outside getting up to potentially greater mischief. The upshot was that we spent hours playing darts and annoying the hell out of our parents with the rhythmic, dull "Thud!" of the arrows on the board hung up on the wall adjoining their bedroom.

I never played outside home, and so darts was only ever a family pastime for me. And when I left home to go out into the big, wide world and get myself an education, if I was thinking of any kind of sporting glory at all, it was in more classical realms. When I got to college, I quickly realised that rowing - although one of the ├╝ber-status symbols of life at the University of Cambridge - requires not only a good deal of strength and skill, but also involves getting up at 5am four times a week in the freezing cold to get yelled at by some power-crazed midget enthusiastic coxswain. And so my dreams of sporting glory faded, leaving me to concentrate on other obsessions.

Then, one night in the college bar, as I sat supping a pint of IPA and wondering whether prolonged over-exposure to Deep Purple's Smoke On The Water could leave you permanently brain-damaged, I noticed a bunch of guys in the corner playing darts, and playing it quite seriously. When I sidled over there to get a better look, I realised that this was an actual darts match in progress. Darts! At Cambridge!! Stereotypes toppled in my mind like so many dominoes.

It turned out that this was the Fitzwilliam College darts team, playing one of their weekly matches against one of the other Cambridge colleges. When the match was over, I asked if they were looking for new players. An impromptu 'tryout' ensued (a couple of dozen throws and one or two vague questions about experience and availability), and I was invited to turn out for a 'B' team match the following week.

The match went well. So well, in fact, that my career in the 'B' team lasted all of one game. The senior players present decided that my darting talents would be wasted at this level, and I was immediately promoted to the 'A' team. That eventually led - the following year - to captaining the team and playing for the University, but that was a little way down the road. Right then, just being on the team and having some measure of recognition was enough for me. It wasn't exactly getting drafted in the first round by the Red Sox, but it was pretty much the first time in my life I had discovered something that I enjoyed and that I was actually good at. Good enough, in fact, to win the annual University-wide darts competition and have my name engraved on the trophy: "1988 - Iain Cash (Fitzwilliam)", a proud moment indeed.

Of course, breaking down the public-school, rugger-and-rowing stereotypes came at a price, and that price was the ridicule - sometimes gentle, sometimes not - of fellow students who claimed that darts was not a sport, but just an excuse to go down the pub and have a few beers. Of course, they weren't completely wrong. The beers are definitely a good selling-point, but I did end up trying to counter the "it's not a sport" argument on more than one occasion. No, it's not a sport that demands rigorous physical training, but it does require a lot of practice, a good head for mental arithmetic (or at least, a good memory for the combinations of trebles and doubles that allow you to finish a game) and solid nerves. I won several free pints in the college bar by challenging darts' most vehement critics to a game, with a generous head-start, the size of which depended on how much they had drunk. Those who took up the challenge quickly realised that throwing a 24-gram projectile over a distance of eight feet into an area about the size of a postage stamp is not quite as easy as it might look.

There are criticisms that can be leveled at darts, but lack of skill is not one of them. To illustrate my point, I would often refer to the professionals playing the game. For those not familiar with the game, you begin at 501 and count off the totals of your throws, down to zero, finishing on a double (the small 1/2-inch ring around the outside of the board). The minimum number of darts you can throw to achieve this is nine, in three visits to the board: 60, 60, 60 - 60, 60, 60 - 60, 57, 24 (or 51, 54, 36 or some other such combination of 141). For an amateur player, the nine-dart finish is an almost theoretical notion, a mere dream, and even for the professional, the skill and mental toughness needed - albeit over a period of maybe 2 minutes - mean that it is still the Holy Grail, as rare as a perfect game in baseball.

This was all brought back to me the other night in the bar, watching the two guys play enthusiastically but terribly, just beneath a TV which was showing a professional darts tournament. I tried to explain to my friend that, although the pros made it look easy, the amateur level was more the norm. I did my whole "See - darts is a real sport" speech, and after a few wild throws that went nowhere near the board, but which did endanger the lives of several people entering and leaving the men's room, he concurred, and another small battle in the war for recognition - a war I hadn't fought for years - was won.

I wanted to drive my point home with one last illustration, but the bar lacked the tools I needed. However, on my return home I found what I needed: a PC and an Internet connection. I looked up the very first televised nine-dart finish in professional darts, and - God bless YouTube! - it was there. So, for your education and amusement, here is my all-time darts hero, John Lowe, in 1984, with a little bit of perfection:

I'm willing to bet you anything you want that, with $175,000 at stake, 1,000 rowdy darts fans watching in the auditorium and hundreds of thousands more watching on TV, you wouldn't hit that double-18 if you kept throwing all night.

So now the question is: can anyone tell me the way to the nearest darts club?