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Because Sports: Pittsburgh’s Pinball Love Story

EVERYONE LOSES, IT’S NOT A BIG DEAL

“Three years of trying to be the winner of a group in a game where everyone loses. Every game ends with striking the machine while using the choicest expletives. This is followed by a deep breath, before appreciating the points received instead of the ones that were left on the table.”

There are very few things in life that I can say I started doing because I saw pretty girls doing them. Pinball is one of them. A few beers into an evening at my favorite watering hole, disinterested in my friends’ conversation, I decided to approach two women playing with a new, large mechanical box where a coat rack used to stand. Having struck out in the companionship department, I went home that Spring night with nothing but a budding interest in pinball. A few short days later, I found that a good friend of mine in the neighborhood also played.

Weeks later I made the singular decision to allow time to foster my interest in this new hobby, and got fired from my job. This job could at best be described as an empty, loveless relationship that had been allowed to go on far too long. More accurately, it was like two strangers with nothing in common sitting across a table from each other for three and a half years, waiting to pull the trigger.

Inches down this time line that I’m building, my friend, let’s call him Frank for simplicity’s sake, took me to the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association facility in Carnegie. I began to realize that the pinball iceberg was much larger than what I had perceived.

web1In a part of the city I had no reason to visit previously, behind a crumbling warehouse, stood another warehouse. Inside was everything I ever wanted in a casino which, pretty much, is not a casino. I found wall to wall machines creating sound and light. The first game I recall playing was a dirt bike racing themed table with an upper vertical playing field named, Banzai Run. In order to play the last game, the latest-and not really the greatest-Avengers themed machine, Frank and I left his family waiting in the van. Later, I found out this event was the World Championship of Pinball.

Discovering that such a thing happens, and has been happening, in the city where I live is the closest I will ever come to believing the Earth is the center of the universe. This is where life comes from. This is important.

Still unemployed throughout that Summer, it was easy enough to find me. Check the pool, check the library, check the pinball machine at the Rock Room. I spent too much time and too much money playing the AC/DC pinball machine they had in their back room.

If my interest in pinball was budding in the Spring, it didn’t properly bloom until Frank told me about the Pittsburgh Pinball League.

I remember the first game I played, X-Men, a game I had played many times at Gooski’s. This time was different with the anxiety of playing around so many strangers, and the lack of alcohol coursing through my system. After the first multi-ball on that game, I was shaking. I’m not that great at pinball or writing, but I’ve always been adept at pointing out how ridiculous I can be, and thereby managed to calm myself down enough to keep playing.

Today my favorite bar has three pinball machines, and it’s still the safest place to find me if I’m not at home or at work, which I unfortunately had to start doing again. I’m in a pinball gang, club, team… whatever. My self-defeatist nature has probably kept me in the league for what is now my tenth season and third year of playing pinball. Three years of trying to be the winner of a group in a game where everyone loses. Every game ends with striking the machine while using the choicest expletives. This is followed by a deep breath, before appreciating the points received instead of the ones that were left on the table. Providing, of course, that you didn’t have a crap ball. In that scenario, you’re just mad.

And that’s what I say to everyone who tells me, “I’ll play, but I’m not good.” No one is. Everyone loses. It’s not a big deal. Just keep the ball in play. And when you’ve figured that out, aim for lights. If you manage to get that part of the game down, figure out what the lights mean and how to light them.

The best thing that can be hoped for is a free game, usually signified by a loud screeching sound emitted from the machine that has been described as: “tires rubbing against a curb” or “someone kicking a puppy.” If you do really well, you get to spell your initials in LED’s, so others can see who got lucky.

I encourage you to pull the coat off of the machine at your local drinking establishment, pump in some quarters, and enjoy this part of Pittsburgh’s competitive culture. If the machine is busted, say something. It’s worth it. And if a pretty girl joins you, well, that’s like a free game.

Bob Stallsmith is a sports writer, comic book enthusiast, and a semi-professional pinball player with Polish Hill ‘Full Tilt’ Pinball.