"Please don't print that," begs Ivan Hulan, a short, spiky-haired man with the shifty-eyed look of William H. Macy playing a salesman.
Sorry, man. That's our job.
Hulan takes a step back, arms akimbo, and bows his head. Hulan believes in darts with all his heart. Darts are moving up. People are excited about darts. It's got the Everyman appeal, the gritty bar setting, the possibility of big, corporate-sponsored tournaments. And now, it's as if this newspaper is going to publish the first-ever negative story about a darts league. (All right, there was that 6,000-word story in Sports Illustrated in 2001, showing how the game, even at the highest level of play, is inseparable from beer. This infuriated dart enthusiasts everywhere, including those I'm now interviewing, who are pretty much breathing Amberboch.)
This could be bad for darts.
A few minutes later, Hulan tries again. "I'm asking you not to include that," he says, his eyebrows pinched with concern.
In October, a player in the South Palm Beach Dart League got seriously pissed off and, we can assume, a little drunk and threw a dart at an opponent. Pitched it like a fastball. It stuck in the man's arm. The police came. No arrests were made, but both players were suspended from the league for a few months.
Hulan is probably fuming as he reads this, calculating how many nights of league play have transpired without violent incident. Hundreds! Indeed, most people you talk to in the league will tell you that it's about fun and games. Er, scratch games. Darts is a sport. It's fun and sports. It's a time for folks to gather and socialize and forget the pressures of daily life. A time to stand 7 feet 914 inches from a sisal fiberboard and peg it with winged, steel-tipped darts that land with a satisfying "thunk."
All this thunking seems to have started in the Middle Ages, when bored soldiers and archers, waiting for their respective Crusades to get off the ground, began throwing broken arrows at upturned wine-barrel covers. As time went on and humans seemingly became less barbaric, their love of darts did not waver, particularly in the United Kingdom, where the game is most widely followed today.
There has also been a recent push in the United States to elevate the game of darts the way, say, hold 'em poker got elevated to a national pastime. An estimated 18 million people were throwing darts in American pubs in 2005, and new leagues have been springing up all over the country. Although ESPN's World Series of Darts attracted a limited following in 2006, it will be replaced this season with a U.S. Open darts tournament, which begins in May and is open to international players. Some dart fanatics insist it will someday become an Olympic sport.
The same dart fanatics are taking the fun out of the SPBD league, according to at least two ex-players. The dart-through-the-arm incident was just one good example, they say, of how the league is full of ultracompetitive a-holes who take the game way too seriously.
On a recent Tuesday night, a stout Massachusetts transplant named John Saxe puffs a Marlboro and gulps Bud at the Downtown Duck, one of ten Boca Raton Irish pubs and dive bars that host dart league play. Saxe wouldn't be here he dropped out of the league last year except that he lives across the street, and his sister is throwing darts tonight. He wants to keep an eye on things.
He doesn't trust this league, no sir. He's seen guys punch through walls and throw beer bottles. If you want proof, look over there, he says, pointing at the wall. The Duck has a sign lined in chicken wire over a hole in its north wall that reads "Punch This!" The chicken wire bloodies the knuckles and leaves the wall intact, bartender Lilly Cox explains.
Saxe has also witnessed the tantrums of "Budweizer" by far the most despised guy in the league, many say. Anybody you ask will tell you Budweizer (who according to some reports may have legally changed his last name to Budweizer, yes, with a z) is an obnoxious human being. He harasses other players. He makes uncouth comments to browbeat opponents. Infuriatingly, he's also one hell of a darts player.
With strivers like Budweizer making the game so competitive, guys like Saxe who is no darts champion didn't get in the game much.
"It got to be such a fuckin' drag," Saxe says. "Before I shot everybody, I figured I'd quit. They all suck. It's all the people who can't get laid."
Next to Saxe at the bar, another man says he quit the league too. He's not giving his name, because he doesn't want any trouble.
"I quit because of all the little babies," he says, rolling his eyes.
Those guys were in the B League supposedly the less competitive one. How much worse could it get? When New Times shows up to watch some A League play at Turn 3 (where the Florida Dart Association rep tried to thwart this story), a manic John Ferger is celebrating his team's win in the semifinals. Ferger is the South Palm Beach County Dart League president, and he looks particularly fierce in his salt-and-pepper mustachio and black do-rag. It's clear he's got a passion for the game of darts.
"It's in your soul," he says.
Thickly bearded league CEO Bill Scileppi, whose team won the other semifinal match that night, nods in agreement. Scileppi, a receiver for U.S. Foods Co. and a darts player all his life, has three upside-down, Vortex darts peeking out of his front pocket. He assembled these himself, and they each weigh 21 grams, he says.
Ferger has been in the league since 1993, Scileppi the CEO since 1999. They've watched it double in size in recent years and become competitive at the state level. Their league is one of 19 in Florida and also part of the American Dart Association.
The league has definitely had its share of drama, they concede. Budweizer had to be dealt with. The guys involved in the dart pegging had to be dealt with. They all went before a disciplinary board, which temporarily suspended all three. Yep, even the guy who became a human dartboard got suspended.
"We don't tolerate it," Scileppi says of violence and misbehavior. "It's like taking a baseball bat and throwing it at the pitcher. You don't do it."
Across town at East Boca's Downtown Duck, two B-league teams face off in the semifinals. Except for the darts players, the bar is pretty much empty. Like all the league hosts, who also sponsor the teams, the Downtown Duck has run up some decent tabs on darts nights. The games last from around 7:30 to 10:30 p.m., and with at least five members to each team, that's a lot of beer.
Sheri Petagno, a stay-at-home mom on the Downtown Duck team, guzzles one before her turn. She's got coifed, Marilyn-Monroe-blond hair and wears thick, black mascara and eyeliner. Teams get built around women like Petagno, with dart-pitching skills; every team must have at least one female.
Tonight, Petagno is on, leading her team in the game of 501 in between interview sessions. Coincidentally, the guy who "accidentally" pegged a competitor with a dart used to be on Petagno's team, and she saw the whole thing. The consensus is that John Redhead got what was coming.
A quick check in the court database reveals that Redhead is one of those guys whose been in and out of court four times over domestic violence. He's also got a penchant for banging beer bottles on the bar to distract people while they're throwing darts. That's exactly what he did on October 17 while John Dixon was about to pitch his, and it distracted him. Drove him a little crazy, in fact.
Dixon turned away from the board and pegged the steel, sandpaper-sharpened dart in Redhead's direction. Dixon swears he was just trying to give Redhead a scare, and if you believe that, well, his aim was very poor. The dart sailed directly into Redhead's left biceps, sinking a quarter of an inch into the flesh. The bar fell silent and time seemed to stop as the dart stuck in, then dangled from Redhead's arm like a misplaced earring. Everybody stared. Nobody moved. Then Redhead yanked it out and called 911.
When police arrived, Redhead showed them the red mark on his arm, but he had already calmed down. He didn't want to prosecute Dixon on aggravated battery charges; he just wanted him to know what he did was intolerable.
They finished the game that night, although nobody remembers who won.