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Baseball and bowling: The unusual two-sport combination

It was a random decision by his father that introduced Jason Leblebijian to baseball. One day, when he was 10 years old, his father came home and announced he had signed up Jason and his older brother, Jack, for Little League in suburban Chicago.

It was a random decision by his high school basketball coach to scrap practice one day and take the team bowling and Leblebijian found another athletic outlet. Bowling became his second favorite sport, one that played well with his competitive nature.

"You never know," Leblebijian said. "That's why you should try as much as you can and see what you enjoy."

Leblebijian discovered an aptitude for baseball, which took him first to Bradley College then to the prosl. Baseball brought him to Buffalo, where he's had a breakout season, ranking fourth in the International League in hitting (.314) with 21 extra-base hits while driving in 34 runs. Baseball has also landed him in a spot which just happens to be one of the queen cities of bowling.

"I did not know that," the Bisons infielder said of Buffalo's bowling status. He's rolled a high-game of 267, a number he's pretty proud of, but hasn't found his way into a Western New York alley for game this year.

It's not your typical two-sport combination, baseball and bowling.

But it's not unheard of, either in Buffalo or in Major League Baseball.

Rolling with the Herd

Bowling in Buffalo is a big deal. There are 12 bowlers who have been inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. The popular "Beat the Champ" has returned to local television. Western New York's own Liz Johnson has won five U.S. Women's Open titles, was a trailblazer on the PBA Tour when the women's tour suspended operations, and was inducted into the United States Bowling Congress Hall of Fame.

Baseball is big in Buffalo, too, and it wasn't much bigger than 1988 when the new downtown ballpark, then called Pilot Field, opened and the Bisons played to capacity crowds. Outfielder Tom Romano was in the last two seasons of his 10-year pro baseball career when he came to Buffalo in 1988. The Syracuse native would drive in 41 runs over 139 games for the Bisons, hitting .255.

While in Buffalo, he happened into a bowling alley, watched the Summer All-Stars league, and was instantly hooked on the sport. He became a pro bowler after his baseball career ended in 1989.

"When I first joined the Bisons, I walked into Thruway Lanes before a game one Wednesday night and was really impressed by the league," Romano told The Buffalo News in 1991. "I said to myself, 'Jeez these guys are really good. I've got to look into this league.' I never took a lesson, just learned by observation … worked hard and practiced a lot."

Major League lanes

Finding an outlet for a lifetime built on athletic competition can be difficult once a pro sports career is over. Romano found his second sport in bowling. So, too, did John Burkett, who found his way onto the PBA Senior Tour after his 17-year pitching ended in 2003 with the Boston Red Sox.

Boston is home to another mad bowler – Mookie Betts, the the 24-year-old Red Sox outfielder who landed in the All-Star Game for the first time in 2016.

Anytime Betts would want to hang up his cleats for the PBA Tour, he is most welcomed.

In 2015 he competed in the PBA World Series of Bowling in Reno, Nevada, where he rolled a 224 in his first game, averaged 196 over nine and finished 212th out of 240. He would have returned in 2016 if he wasn't recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery.

His affinity for bowling is real, dating to his days at John Overton High School in suburban Nashville, where he averaged 240 for his high school team. If he wasn't such a gifted baseball hitter, Betts may have pursued pro bowling.

"It's something I definitely thought about, "Betts told ESPN.com about bowling in a March article. "I've been bowling for so long, and I really, really enjoy it. It definitely would've been something I pursued."

Relaxing at the lanes

Leblebijian doesn't have the PBA tour in his sights. But bowling has been an important part of his athletic life nonetheless.

It started with his high school basketball coach, who was a big bowler and liked to keep the team loose.

"I forgot what happened but he decided to cancel practice and we all went bowling as a team," Leblebijian said. "We had a good relationship and I was playing in his lane and he just started teaching me some things. All of a sudden I kinda got hooked on it. My brother got big into it and then it just turned into me, my brother and my friends basically going every Monday. We'd go play for a couple of hours and just enjoy each other's company. It was just fun for me.

"It's just something I enjoy and it's good to get away from baseball sometimes and do something else competitive. Especially when you're there with your older brother, who's probably better than you but you still want to beat him. It's nice to do something away from baseball. It's you and your brother and whoever wins is going to have bragging rights for rest of the week."

There's no comparison between Betts and Leblebijian at the lanes. Betts has seven 300 games while Leblebijian has that 267.

"I think that was a lot of luck though," he said of his high game. "But I'll take it because I can brag about it. It's just one of those things, you practice and maybe one day if you get good enough but if not, obviously I'm there to just enjoy it."

 

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