Flipper fanatics - Pinball fans find their niche in Portland

By Marty Smith of the Portland Tribune
It's Sunday night at Southeast Portland's Clinton Street Pub, and gang activity is rampant. Members are openly flying their colors. Rowdy gang slogans fill the air. An in-your-face 5-foot rendering of the gang's insignia brazenly adorns the barroom wall. Worst of all, several members are dueling openly in the corner, occasionally complimenting one another on particularly accurate shots.
Yet, as gangs go, this one isn't particularly dangerous - unless you challenge one to a quick pinball game.
The occasion is the more-or-less weekly meeting of the Crazy Flipper Fingers, the self-described "Hell's Angels of pinball," and while the proceedings may get a bit raucous at times, so far no one's lost an eye.
"We're a drinking gang with a pinball problem," says John Wray (aka "Tilt"). His ZZ Top beard and plentiful tattoos lend some weight to the Hell's Angels comparison, though the most threatening thing about him probably is his inexhaustible supply of utterly unprintable one-liners.
Pinball has had its ups and downs since it took on its modern-day look in the mid-1800s (it traces its roots to a game created in France, bagatelle, in the 18th century). After recent decades of being overlooked in favor of flashy console video games, it's back again, and it's no surprise that Portland, with its mania for retro Americana, is one of the nation's leading hot spots for the venerable electromechanical game.
If the Crazy Flipper Fingers (CFF for short) aren't the city's most visible sign of the game's resurgence, they're certainly the most audible. Though there are only about 15 members in attendance, what with all the trash-talking, the machine-slapping and the occasional choice obscenity directed at a recalcitrant table, the bar's decibel level is comparable to that of a sustained, low-level riot. And every time a member has to go home (for gangsters, a surprising number of them appear to have to work in the morning), the entire group lets fly with their earsplitting rallying cry "CFF: Till death!"
"We look death in the eye and say, 'Bring it, (expletive)!' "
Jay "Kickback" McDonough says, adding, "One of us has to get arrested tonight!"
Founded three years ago by Wray and fellow sharks Louie "Replay" Hamlett and Russ "Skillshot" Wallis (other pinball gangs are just ripping them off, they say), the Crazy Flipper Fingers represent the boisterous, beer-and-sawdust contingent of pinball aficionados - folks who would be right at home at an old-school punk rock show.
Paean to pinball
Kitsch-loving rebels are not the only Portlanders to have fallen under the silver ball's spell.
Across the river in Old Town, competitors in the Portland Pinball League have gathered at self-styled "retrocade" Ground Kontrol, and while the voices here are more muted, the players' enthusiasm for the game is not.
The room itself is a testament to pinball's quiet comeback. Originally best known for classic console video games like Tron and Galaga, Ground Kontrol has turned its top floor into a virtual shrine to pinball's history. More than a dozen tables run the gamut from classic '70s single-decker boards to modern gee-whiz marvels so tricked out with ramps, targets and kickouts that an amateur scarcely knows where to send his ball.
Jeff Eberlin, a software engineer and PPL regular who recently moved to Beaverton from San Diego, says this is the kind of display he could only have dreamed about in his hometown. "Look at that," he says, indicating an older machine (called, bizarrely, "Space Invaders"). "There's probably not another one of those within 300 miles.
"Portland is a Mecca of pinball. There are so many places to play. You go to Red Robin, and they have pinball. That would have been unheard of in San Diego."
The league's meetings are more controlled affairs than the CFF's blowouts, with tournament-style brackets and season standings carefully recorded on spreadsheets by league organizer Jeff Weston, also a software engineer. Few players down more than a beer or two, and the festivities will conclude well before 10 p.m.
Still, the reverence in which the game is held is obvious.
"When you're in the zone, you can have balls that are magic," says Eberlin, who, like an increasing number of devotees, has a couple of machines at home as well. "Your first ball may be lousy, and then you can get a ball where you're hitting all the shots and the combos, and you really feel that there's no way you're ever gonna lose it. It's almost a Zen thing."
Aging gracefully
Unfortunately for pinball's Zen masters, there aren't many new games upon which to hear the sound of one flipper flipping - of the five companies that were building games in 1996, only one is still turning them out. But players seem happy to play on the older machines.
"Business is as good, if not better than, it was five years ago," says Mike Mahaffey, vice president of sales and marketing for Portland's Quality Entertainment, a leading provider of tables for local bars and arcades. "(Pinball is) very popular. We get calls two or three time a week from people wanting to buy a machine for their home. People think it's cool to have a pinball machine in their game room."
Mahaffey should know: He owns 36 of them himself. "Sixteen in the house and 20 in the garage," he laughs.
When asked what drives his passion, he grows thoughtful.
"When you play a machine that you played back in those carefree times when you were younger, maybe 15 years ago," he says, "it brings that time back a little bit - kind of nostalgia thing. I think that's why people like it."

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