FINE POINTS : With Game of Darts Drawing Participants and Fans, Can Song and Movie Be Far Away?

Let's see . . . there are a couple of country songs about pool. "The Baron," by Johnny Cash, for one.

Surely there must be a tune about one of the more popular and up-and-coming American pastimes.

If not, there will be soon. Blueberry Hill, a prominent recording label, is conducting a national songwriting contest about darts. The idea is to cut a hit record and have it on the jukebox of every dart bar in the country.

That is just one indication of the kind of respect being given darts, a simple and inexpensive game nearly everyone has either played or seen played.

Another is that world-renowned Buck Knives Inc. of El Cajon has created a new division called Buck Darts. The company researched the market extensively before going with the dart line, and its findings indicate that more than 18 million Americans own and play darts. In 1988, 5 1/2 million dart sets were purchased.

C.J. Buck, whose great-grandfather, Hoyt Buck, made knives around the turn of the century, said the company's dart products are selling very well and that projections show national darts sales doubling in the next six years.

But perhaps the greatest barometer of the popularity of darts in San Diego County is the number of boards being hung in local pubs and bars.

Four years ago, Scolari's Office in North Park did not have any dart boards. Pool was the rage then, and Scolari's had pool tables.

That changed one day.

According to a regular named Turk Doerr, "This little guy . . . brought in a cabinet that . . . had a (dart) board inside. Guess what happened? Pretty soon we had a line going all the way to the bathroom. Everybody wanted to play darts.

"I used to shoot in pool leagues for money. But they had to keep pulling me away from the dart boards when it was my turn to play pool. I started thinking, 'Something's going on here.' "

Scolari's now has six boards, most of which are in use every night of the week. And your name does not have to be listed in Donald Trump's Rolodex for you to know that barkeepers who keep customers in their bar earn more money.

It is not just the traditional metal-tip darts. Many bars are installing plastic-tip dart board machines with electronic scoreboards. For 25 or 50 cents, the machine will tabulate your score in popular games such as 301, 501 and cricket.

What does all this mean? Well, someday there may be a nationally televised Levi's 501 Open or a Walt Disney's Jiminy Cricket Classic offering big-time prize money. And Jack Nicholson or Robert DeNiro may star in a box office smash called "One Flew Over The Triple 20" or "Raging Bull's-Eye."

"If somebody like Tom Cruise would do a movie on darts, it would really take off, like pool did after the Color of Money," said Steve Sturn, 39, who shoots darts at Mother Murphy's in El Cajon.

For now, darts is played by gentlemen and ladies. It is a genteel sport with no handicaps or reasons for such. It is played mostly in bars, living rooms and backyards but occasionally at big hotels in tournaments reaching $50,000 in prize money.

The Greater San Diego Darting Assn. (founded in 1974) has an annual St. Patrick's spring darts tournament that has a $30,000 lure for some of the world's top players. This past March, it attracted more than 2,000 entries to the El Cortez, according to Mike Mezzanotti, president of the GSDDA.

In December of 1988, the South Bay Darting Assn. sponsored its own $15,000 South Bay Open.

There is no official tour yet, as in golf or bowling. But there are a number of West Coast tournaments this time of year that attract marquee names such as England's Eric Bristow, "The Crafty Cockney," who is to darts what Jack Nicklaus is to golf. The Los Angeles Open (Aug. 11-13) offers $30,000, and the North American Open in Las Vegas (Aug. 18-20) awards $50,000.

Last weekend in the 501 singles at the $20,000 Lucky Strikes Roadrunner tournament in Phoenix, Paul Lim of San Bernardino won the men's title and Kathy Maloney of Florida the women's. Last year, Lim was the leading U.S. money winner with $30,948. Maloney was second among the women with $17,488. Both are atop the money list this year.

Len Heard of Poway and Ron Deanne of San Diego combined to finish third in the men's 501 doubles.

Heard, 47, is the president of the North American Professional Dart Players Assn. He does not compete as much as he did when he was the No. 10 player in the world in 1980 and '81, but he still does well in the 12 or so tournaments he does enter.

Heard said he first started playing in his early 20s in his native England.

"I got my tail kicked every day," he said. "And every game you played over there cost you a beer, a pint. For the first six months, it cost me a fortune to play.

"(In England) there's a pub on every corner. There's nothing else to do, especially when it's raining, which is all the time. Everything revolves around darts there. The only reason it has been so slow in our country is that we have so many other options."

The sport has grown relatively slowly in the United States, but the pace has started to pick up the past few years.

Said Deanne, 43, who as the touring pro for Buck Darts gives clinics around the country: "We're trying to appeal to the grass-roots player. These are the players that make the sport what it is. We can't put the cart before the horse."

On any given night, darts are played in leagues and tournaments throughout the county. Some places, such as the Hearth House in La Mesa, The Longshot Saloon in San Marcos and Babe's Place in Poway sponsor as many as 15 to 25 teams a season, which last 10 to 14 weeks before a new season begins.

The increasing number of boards in the bars and households captures the attention of novices or those who have never played.

Typical were Beth Keene, 21, and friend Steve Prince, 23, who went to Kelly's Pub near San Diego State last week for a night out.

Said Keene, "He was ready to leave about two hours ago, and I said, 'Let's play some darts.' Now I can't get him out of here."

Alongside Keene and Prince were Sherry Newman, 21, and Karen Witten, 21. Said Newman, "I'm not very good. I don't play that much, but it's fun. I'm learning."

Moments later, Newman dropped a dart point-down on her sandaled foot. Newman learned the hard way that lesson No. 1 is . . . Aim for the board.

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