By BOB ETTINGER
For the Star Beacon
During the winter in Northeast Ohio, there isn’t a whole lot to do to pass the time. The Browns usually out of contention by then and counting snowflakes as they fall is hardly fun.
John Johnson, owner of Chick’s Bar, and his friends have a fun and inexpensive way to pass the time with the Ashtabula Dart League.
“We start in September and play through April,” Johnson said. “The first Saturday in May is our banquet. The season wraps up around the end of March and the playoffs are around the beginning of April.”
“It’s one night a week, Tuesdays. We play every Tuesday, unless the roads are so bad you can’t get out.”
The league was formed in 1986 and has been in play ever since.
“It was a fast-growing sport in bars,” Johnson said. “You can play for nothing and people were looking at that. It was something different than pool and the bowling machines.”
The biggest draw was that people didn’t have to pay to play. Even now, playing in the league costs almost nothing.
“It really is an inexpensive sport,” Johnson said. “It’s $15 for a team per night. You can have between four and eight people on your team. Four people have to shoot and each person shoots six times each.
“We had 10 teams this year before a couple dropped out. We were around a membership of 80.”
It isn’t hard to put a team in the league.
“Anybody can be a sponsor,” Johnson said. “They just have to have a dart board and a team. Say we have 26 weeks. They will play 13 weeks at home and 13 weeks on the road.”
The league isn’t restricted to just bars in the city of Ashtabula. Essentially, anybody in the county can be a member.
“Our boundaries go from the Conneaut line going east,” Johnson said. “On (Interstate) 90 heading west, we had teams out in Geneva around State Route 534 and Geneva-On-The-Lake. Going south, it’s Orwell and north is Lake Erie.”
In the early days of its existence, the league enjoyed its greatest membership.
“It hasn’t come back to where it was,” Johnson said. “In our best year, 1993-94, we had 42 teams and 301 members. In 1994-95, we had 42 teams and 277 members.
“There was a drop off for different reasons. The smoking bans in bars and DUIs are always in effect.”
At one time, the league was responsible for helping a worthy cause quite a bit.
“For nine years, 1986-94, we had at the banquet a wheel for Children’s Services,” Johnson said. “We raised $16,367 for Children’s Services.”
As league president, Johnson is hoping to preside over a boom in growth after watching membership dwindle year after year.
“Where the ball was dropped was the people who were supposed to take care of the league got the material out late,” Johnson said. “We’ll have a flier out in bars next month and it will say that people interested in learning how to play can get in contact with us and we’ll show you how to play, how to keep score. Whatever they want to learn, we’ll teach them. The rest is on you, how good you want to get.
“Every year, it got smaller and smaller and smaller and nobody seemed to do anything. We want to get it back to where everybody is having fun again. I don’t think you’ll see it like the old days with 42 teams, but 20-24 teams would be nice. Right now, we’re looking to get 12, 14 or 16 teams and we’d be happy. That would mean we improved by at least 50 percent.”
Even novices have a place in the league, so skill level shouldn’t keep prospective players away.
“The way we set things up, we put everybody on the same skill level together,” Johnson said. “The beginners we put in the lower division and the more experienced players are in the upper division. If you’re a weak player and get put in the upper division, you’ll always be getting your butt kicked and you won’t want to come back. We don’t want that.
“We want everybody to have fun and play at their own competition level. It’s relieving. In a bowling league, you might play a hot-shot team that shoots a 900 as a team. And it might be a 700 handicap. You’re beaten before you even pick up the ball. (The dart league) is man-to-man. There’s no handicap.”
Improving isn’t difficult, nor is setting up a place to hone your skills.
“For $100, you can set yourself up (at home),” Johnson said. “You can get a dart board, a light, a score pad and a set of darts and practice all you want. It’s not like pool where you have to set up a big spot in your house. You need a spot that’s about 10 feet by four feet wide and you can put a board up. You only need a little space. It’s the same distance wherever you play.
“There’s no hitting the ball off the wall and getting a roll into the corner and it drops. There’s no hitting a lucky pin and getting a strike. There’s no luck and the skill you have depends on the work you put in. To practice bowling, you have to go to the bowling alley and pay $2 or $3 a game. For pool, it’s at least a dollar a game.”
The league provides a way to bring people together.
“It’s just being out together with your friends on a given night,” Johnson said. “You’re out with your buddies playing a game that’s inexpensive to play.”
It doesn’t take more than a telephone call to get signed up to either be a sponsor or become a league member.
“If people want information on being a sponsor of a team, they should contact me,” Johnson said. “I’ll speak to anybody who wants to be a sponsor. We’re eager to expand the league. If a team needs a sponsor, we’ll help them find one. We’ve got people who want to be sponsors but can’t find a team. Myself, I could put five people in a dart league at my place. We could have 10 teams playing on any given Tuesday.”
Visit the Ashtabula Dart League's website: www.ashtabuladartleague.com.
Johnson can be reached at 812-0034.
Ettinger is a freelance writer from Ashtabula.