When it comes to candlepin bowling around these parts, one name sticks out among the best.
Mike Sargent was the unparalleled “kingpin” of his sport. You could create a case about international standards, but candlepin enjoys its popularity pretty much in New England and maybe some other parts of the East Coast.
You might also debate the fact that his son Chris was a more elite bowler. But who taught Chris? You must respect the 245 the younger Sargent rolled in 2011, tying the world record.
And sure, there were others from Haverhill who could stake a claim, like Eddie Arsenault who was a champ a generation or two ago. Safe to say that Sarge took charge whenever the pins were set up. For that, he was enshrined into the Haverhill Sports Hall of Fame.
When guys like Sil Angelotti, owner of Pilgrim Lanes, and Ernie DiBurro, owner of Academy Lanes, welcomed Sarge to their establishments, they laid out the red carpet for this guy. No one did more for candlepin bowling in these parts than this dynamic duo, who admitted their protegé was in a class by himself.
For three decades — from the 1970s to 1990s — Sarge was one of the most dominant bowlers in the country, let alone the state. His record included seven Massachusetts or New Hampshire championships between the years of 1972 and 1990; five world titles; WCBC Bowler of the Year award in 1974; and several runner-up finishes.
The World Candlepin Association also found it fitting to induct Sarge into its hall of fame. His credentials proved worthy of that honor since he was a force to be reckoned with nearly his entire career.
You’d find him on all the top candlepin shows, racking up money in tournaments, never mind the hardware. He was one of the best at ruling the Sweepstakes, winning more than 20 titles. The highlight, perhaps, was the 10-string total of 1,407 he rolled in the 1994 Ficco Open.
We often crossed paths, whether it involved a story or tournament coverage. The TV show "Candlepins for Cash'' was popular in its day, and Sarge bolstered a reputation that often preceded him.
Watching him clear the lanes was poetry in motion. With a windup like baseball great Sandy Koufax, he’d find the lead pocket almost automatically, toppling the wood with reckless abandon.
I once saw the man knock down the two farthest-apart pins for a spare, which is all but impossible in the business. Sarge could maneuver the perfect roll in a dire situation.
Calm, cool, collected Mike. He had ice water in his veins and a concentration that would defy any opponent. To him, bowling was not only sport, but a business. When you’re the marksman, others are looking to take you down a peg. But Sarge seldom faltered under the gun. That’s what made him so good.
So why not take on the best? Candlepin bowling was also my favorite pastime and I was quite content reaching the 90s in a league while pursuing the elusive century mark.
One year, I sent out a challenge to the man that he could not refuse. We would meet up for a match and the proceeds would go toward the Gazette Santa Fund. There would be a side bet of $50.
But money wasn’t everything. Pride was at stake here. Our kids played youth hockey together and my wife was friends with his wife, Mary. Sons Chris and Michael were exceptional skaters, while daughter Kimberly was another quality athlete.
“You can run, but you can’t hide,” I remember telling Sarge. As a Gazette sports columnist, I could usually manage the last word.
“You better hide because I’m about to bowl you over,” he snickered. “Just to make it even, I’ll let you use a 10-pin ball and I'll bowl left-handed.”
Back and forth went the vibes. Hey, a guy could always get lucky and the champ could be a chump this one day. Maybe he’d show some compassion and let down his guard.
My family and friends came along for the cheer. Clearly, they were behind this underdog, who had the audacity to dare a world champion. Mike had his backers, too. He made have offered them a cut of the winnings.
When the final score was tallied, Sarge prevailed, but not without a fight, 140-135. Okay, so he spotted me 50 pins — but still. Christmas wasn’t far away and Gazette Santa was watching.
I shed a tear when I saw his obituary in the paper May 4. Mike had some diabetic complications I knew about which led to his death at age 67.
The next time you hear thunder in the heavens above, it’s probably Sarge bowling another strike.
Writer and photographer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.