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One Man’ Passion For Pinball Turns Into A Business, Place For Local Enthusiasts

Ted S. Warren

Eric Thomas has an addiction.

There's no rhyme or reason to it, he said, but he's chasing the euphoria. It can hit all of a sudden, and just about anyone can get hooked.

"That's pinball," he said. "It only takes one ball."

During the last six months, Thomas' addiction has turned into a passion — and now, a business, Retro Arcade, which is located inside Vaporosity at 138 W. State St. in downtown Sharon.

The Sharon High School graduate's passion started modestly last year with just five pinball machines. He has since traveled the country visiting dealers and warehouses to grow his collection to 36.

"I'm much better at buying them than I am at playing them," Thomas said. "But pinball people feel strongly about it and will seek it out."

Word of his collection has spread quickly. Players, young and old, have started to become regulars at the arcade.

Sixteen of Thomas' regulars packed the arcade on a recent Wednesday night for the intermediate-level pinball league playoffs. It is Retro Arcade's first ranked pinball tournament. All scores are logged and sent to the International Flipper Pinball Association headquarters in the Netherlands for international ranking consideration.

On the line at Wednesday's playoffs — a little bit of cash and a whole lot of pride.

John Tomsich, whose near-7-foot frame is more indicative of the NBA's Washington Wizards than Retro Arcade's resident pinball wizard, was the favorite to win.

The Youngstown native is ranked as the fifth-best pinball player in Ohio, and 254th nationally, according to IFPA's website. Tomsich pulled out a first-place regular season finish in the Retro Arcade league to earn a first-round bye in the tournament.

His accolades have even earned him a sponsorship from Birdfish Brewery in Columbiana, Ohio, which supplies its star player with "quarters and porters," he said.

But despite holding high scores on a number of Retro Arcade's machines, the pinballer stayed humble as he awaited his turn at the machine Wednesday.

"That first-place finish doesn't mean a whole lot," he said. "It's a single-elimination tournament, and all that could be for nothing."

Not everyone at the arcade's tournament was a ranked player. In fact, most people involved were fairly new to the "competitive" pinball life.

"It can get pretty loud in here," said Kelly Gearhart of Sharon. "There's a lot of trash talking, but it's all good sportsmanship. We're all pulling for each other."

She even recruited a few folks to step to the flippers at Retro Arcade's beginners' league, which meets on Tuesdays. One was her mother, who, against all odds, stole the beginners' league crown the day before.

If her mom can get into the game, Gearhart said, anyone else should be able to, as well.

"I absolutely think it will grow," she said of pinball. "And I hope it will."

But Gearhart quickly learned there is a lot more to the game than many people think.

"It's challenging," she said. "You have to be on your toes."

Part of the challenge, Tomsich said, is to always be thinking one step ahead.

"It's all about risk-reward," he said. "There's a lot of game planning involved. You have to think about what to do to safely get a certain amount of points without losing a ball."

Every pinball machine is built and scored differently, he said. Each requires a separate approach and presents its own unique challenge to the player.

"Once you get past the fundamentals, it all comes down to the machine," Tomisch said. "There's definitely some skill involved, but also a lot of luck."

As much as Thomas loves playing, he said most of his satisfaction comes from buying new machines for the arcade to challenge for the players.

"It's very rare to have 36 machines in the same place," Tomsich said. "A lot of places only have 8 to 10, and that's considered a lot."

Thomas knows there isn't a ton of money to be made in pinball, but it doesn't matter, he said. He's just in it for the love of the game.

"There's nowhere around here really to play pinball," he said. "I see kids on drugs, sitting outside on the curb just doing nothing. I wanted to bring something in for people to do. And if no one shows up, it doesn't matter because I still love playing."

Not only have people have shown up. They have developed their own tight community.

Tom Butler, a Sharpsville native and another tournament competitor, said he has only had good experiences when dealing with other pinball fanatics.

Butler, a serious pinball collector in his own right, said his 12-machine collection was the best in town before Retro Arcade hit the scene.

"I've traveled all over the place to buy machines," he said. "And pinball people are some of the most polite, down-to-earth, nicest people you'll ever meet."

And none of them, he added, are in it to get rich.

"They always say, 'If you want to sell it, call me first,'" Butler said. "They just want it to be played and enjoyed."

That sentiment permeated the room on Wednesday as the remaining competitors battled it out for bragging rights and beer money as the tournament wound down.

"We're spoiled here," Butler said. "It's like a paradise right here in downtown Sharon."