"Mark is still a little shy," says fellow bowler Joe Berardi Jr.
"Mark is a quiet guy," says Dale Glenn, another member of the Professional Bowlers Association.
"Mark Roth? His personality is bland," says Avin Domnitz, Roth's agent.
"Mark's a man of simple tastes and simple habits," says John Jowdy, a bowling-ball salesman and Roth's adviser.
May 14, 1978
Mark Roth is in his hotel room preparing for a day at the lanes. Shy, quiet, bland, simple Mark Roth starts by vigorously thrusting both fists into the air and emitting a primitive shriek. Then he pounds his fists on the bed, stomps his feet on the floor and produces guttural babblings, an occasional "Wahoo!" and an "Eeeiii!" or two. Sunbeams that poke through his window are clobbered into yellow shards by roundhouse punches.
Then for the next 30 seconds Roth stares out the window while chattering the same word over and over: "Firp, firp, firp, firp...." After that, he hurtles through the air, plops on the bed and buries the end of a "Let's go!" yell into a pillow.
Roth now lies motionless, soundless. Has the routine ended? Not quite. Slowly he rolls off the bed, stands up and glances in the mirror. He bellows unintelligibly, spins around, picks up a pillow and slams it against the wall. As feathers flutter to the floor, Roth opens the door of his room and nonchalantly steps into the corridor. He nods at a startled maid who has been listening, says, "Good morning," and is off to work.
"When I first saw him go through his routine, I thought he was a basket case," says bowler Teata Semiz, who often rooms with Roth. "Then I realized that this was his way of letting everything out and his way of getting psyched up. And let me tell you, Mark is always psyched up."
To begin to comprehend Mark Roth, one must first understand that he is essentially shy, quiet, bland, simple. Next, one must digest the fact that Roth has a complex psyche that is somehow connected to his stomach, a bubbling caldron where his emotions simmer and seethe. Finally, it must be conceded that there is method in Roth's occasional madness, for at 27, the Brooklyn-born bowler is currently the most successful practitioner of his trade in the world.
Ordinarily Roth proceeds through life in what seems to be a semicomatose state. Within him, however, juices are burbling and he is sometimes unable to control them. In February, while bowling in the Pro-Am event before the $150,000 Burger King Open in Miami, he got so excited that he was almost beside himself.
"I'm tingling all over," Roth said in the car going back to his motel. While waiting at a red light, he spotted a sign bearing a phone number to be called for "advice and help." "Quick, call that number," Roth said. "I need help." Then in a louder voice he said, "Someone stick a fork in me. Let this stuff get out of me."
Letting this stuff get out is what Roth's routine is largely about. He would never describe his ritual as primal scream therapy or even as an emotional release. "I do it because it makes me feel better and it helps my bowling," says Roth, matter-of-factly. "It took a while before I tried my routine on the tour. Since I started it, I've bowled better.
"Hey, I don't go through that stuff all the time. Just when I need it." Roth smiles, an indication that he is somewhat proud that an introvert would have such an outlandish habit. "I used to be really crazy. I kicked ball racks, I cursed and lost my temper at the lanes. Now I've quieted down. Sometimes all I do after a bad night is get in the shower and scream."
Roth's view of the pressures of the PBA tour is that they cannot be handled in ordinary ways; there is more to the game than the game. It has become extremely complicated for him now, creating a mishmash of emotions and conflicts: how to be himself while being a winner; while communicating with the media; while trying to be alone; while trying to rest amid jangling phones; while trying to please those who tug at him for advice, endorsements, investments and autographs; while doing his sunbeam smashing; while avoiding psychological downers; while trying to act like a man-hero; while wanting to be a boy. It is to Roth's credit that he has dealt reasonably well with the above, especially since he handled most of them badly not long ago.
This past winter PBA Commissioner Joe Antenora called on Roth to discuss his relationship with the press. It had been Roth's habit to shirk interviews or to give terse replies to reporters.
"Antenora also asked me to speak to Mark about the situation," says Frank Esposito, a Paramus, N.J. bowling-alley proprietor and coordinator for ABC telecasts. "I suggested that Mark take a Dale Carnegie course. He wouldn't do it. But Mark has come to realize how important it is to be aware of the media. After winning two tournaments in a row early this year, he was unable to make it to the third because of a snowstorm. [Actually, Roth missed his chance for a record-tying third straight victory because, instead of leaving early for Cleveland, he saw his beloved Rangers play in New York. The next morning, the East was weathered in.] I called Mark and told him that his absence was news and that we would call him at his home during the TV finals and have him say a few words over a telephone hookup. He didn't want to do it. 'People have been bugging me all week,' he told me. I told him, 'We'll call you. It'll be a nice touch.' He insisted that he didn't want to do it. I told Mark, 'We'll call you.' We called. It went over very well. Mark has apologized half a dozen times since for his initial reaction. He's beginning to understand the media."
Roth has just come off the lanes after a dismal six-game block. His scowl is fearsome, the most forbidding on the tour. A local radio reporter, tape recorder in hand, thrusts out a microphone. Roth tucks his bowling ball more tightly in the crook of his arm and glares darkly at the man. But instead of stalking into the locker room as he often used to do, Roth says, "Give me 10 minutes to cool off and I'll be back." The reporter nods.
Amid the hubbub of the paddock, as the bowlers' locker room is called, Roth lights a cigarette, blows out the match and with a quick wrist snap, wings it floorward. He finds his bowling bag, contemplates mashing it with his 16-pound ball—as he has done numerous times in the past—but then gingerly places the ball on the floor.
He slumps into a chair, expels a cloud of smoke and locks his lips as if he will never speak again. A deep sigh is followed by a look around the paddock, a glance not intended to see things but rather a prelude to letting his eyes roll upward and almost under his lids in a favorite expression of disgust. Slumping deeper into the chair, Roth mutters an imprecation. Then, the wrath of Roth having subsided, he walks out of the paddock, seeks out the reporter and dutifully answers all questions.
Exploring Roth is like rummaging through an attic: one finds unexpected treasures. Roth's psyching-up procedure is one. Also startling is his bowling style, the most explosive on the tour. Roth's style is so theatrical and convoluted, so swashbuckling that it sets him apart from all the other bowlers. Seldom has anyone thrown a ball with such fury, speed and striking power, a combination that no one savors more than Roth himself.
"You know that every time Mark throws the ball he's saying mentally, 'Look at that. Will you look at that,' " says Domnitz.
"Sometimes I throw rockets," Roth says with a boyish grin. "My ball can even overpower lane conditions at times."
Roth is a hurry-up bowler. Once he has planted his feet on the approach, he pauses only a second. He hunches slightly, taps the top of the ball with the fingers of his left hand and twists his right hand, which supports the ball, so severely that the palm is straight up. And then he is off.
His footwork is a shuffle-stumble of small steps while he whips the ball through one of the most exaggerated backswings of any bowler. Three things give Roth command of his complicated form: he keeps his head straight, he maintains a proper center of gravity with his body, and he counterbalances the wrenching forward swing of his right arm by a final backward sweep of his left arm and leg.
Roth forsakes the conventional slide to the foul line with his last foot movement, preferring to stop his left foot just short of the stripe so that it can withstand the force of his powerful follow-through. As Roth moves the ball through his forward swing, his right hand is set so that his palm faces the pins. Then he adds a ferocious inward twist of the arm and wrist. Roth is 5'11" and 170 pounds, and throws so hard because he drives the strength of his body through his right shoulder and into the ball. His ball takes a fairly straight path for about 45 of the 60 feet down the lane. Then it happens: all that power and all that twisting send the ball suddenly hooking left toward the 1-3 strike pocket.
To get strikes, most bowlers must hit the pocket squarely, or within a two-inch margin to either side. Roth, however, can be off target by much more and still strike. His cranking release gives the ball more revolutions than most—16 or 17 as opposed to the normal 13—and causes it to hook sharply. Both the revs and hook provoke a mixing action among the pins, toppling many that would otherwise remain upright.
Roth's style is so vigorous, in fact, that it is painful to watch. Jerry Levine of the PBA staff recalls that in 1970, when Roth first gave the tour a brief and unsuccessful try, many pros said, "He'll burn out in a year or two. The crankers and throwers don't have a chance out here anymore. Now you need finesse."
"I've known Mark since I was about 14 or 15," says bowler Johnny Petraglia, who is 31. "He lived about 15 minutes from me in Brooklyn. Mark bowls now the way he did then. I thought he'd do well on the tour, but that his hand problems would force him out."
For a few years, Roth was the most prominent member of the PBA's walking wounded. His exaggerated twist of the ball upon release left his thumb frequently looking like raw meat. There were times when he took a week or more off from bowling so that the thumb could heal.
Assorted remedies were tried. "The best was soaking my thumb in Johnson's Foot Soap," Roth says. Such relief was only temporary. Just when it appeared that Roth might need a thumb transplant to continue bowling, his problem was solved by Bob Simonelli, a bowling equipment dealer and a longtime pal from Brooklyn. Simonelli changed the angle at which he drilled the thumb hole on Roth's ball so that Mark could yank his thumb from the ball quicker and cut down on abrasion. "That was about four years ago and I haven't had much trouble with my thumb since," Roth says.
Thumb mended, Roth began to blister the tournament circuit. In 1976 he led the pros with an average pinfall of 215.970 per game. In 1977 he was the PBA's Bowler of the Year and again led in average pinfall, with 218.174 per game. Roth also became the only bowler other than Earl Anthony to earn $100,000 in one year, finishing with $105,583. Most impressive of all was his feat of extending to 51 the number of consecutive tournaments in which he won cash—to bowlers, a record roughly comparable to Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. The previous high for "cashes" (only one-third of all bowlers at each event share in the prize money) was 32 by Wayne Zahn. When Roth's string was ended last fall it was by one pin. He immediately started a new streak, now up to 15.
Roth won four tournaments in 1977, three of them in a row to equal the mark held by Dick Weber and Petraglia. That streak also was broken when, by two pins, he lost his try for a record fourth in a row. Following that event, Roth left the tour for a few weeks, not because of new thumb trouble, as many suspected, but to escape the demands and pressures that had almost driven him to a frenzy.
At the first tournament this year, Roth's right ring finger became torn. The night before the TV finals, he went to a hospital for treatment. "When I started practicing before the finals, it hurt so bad that I saw stars," Roth says. "Then the pain went away."
Roth qualified second in a field of 144, and needed two wins to take the title. In the first match, he wiped out Joe Nuzzo 236-181. His sore finger held up through the next game as Roth broke open a tight struggle with Lee Taylor by rolling five strikes on his last six shots for a 212-192 triumph and the $15,000 top prize.
His healed thumb wasn't the only factor that enabled Roth to attain prominence. He also learned to control the hook on his ball, he polished his spare making and he mastered a shift in lane conditions.
"When Mark first came on the tour, all the big winners were strokers, guys like Dave Soutar and Dick Ritger," says Petraglia. "Since then the lane conditions have changed because they're using new finishes on the alleys. Now it's the crankers who are winning and the strokers who are having trouble. Another thing that's helped Mark is that he has learned how to be loose when he's on the lanes."
With his game sharpened, with the bowling lanes to his liking and with a more relaxed attitude. Roth has won 11 tournaments. Three of those victories came in his first four tries this season. He has already earned more than $80,000 this year, giving him a fine chance to surpass the $100,000 mark again.
Three months ago in Miami, Roth shared a motel room with Gil Hodges Jr., a childhood friend and the son of the late Dodger slugger and Met manager. When Roth tried to demonstrate his bowling form in the room, he said, "I can't do it without a ball. I don't know how I use my hand or feet unless I've got a ball."
"How can you not know how you bowl?" said Hodges. Most pros are deep into detailed analyses of bowling. Not Roth. He is an instinct bowler who makes minute changes in his delivery at the last instant and who is satisfied that he has perfected his own style. "The big thing for me is that I know what to do and when to do it," he says. "When we were in New Orleans early this year the lane conditions were bad for me. I had no shot at all. My ball hooked too early. So I called Simonelli and told him to send me a ball I knew would do better. I called him after the first block on Wednesday. Thursday at 10 a.m. I had the ball. It had a harder shell and went farther before it hooked. With that ball I did better and won $1,300.
"When I was a kid I saw Carmen Salvino on TV. He really cranked the ball. I liked his style and built mine after his. I'm really a self-styled bowler, though. Nobody taught me. They all told me to change. They said I'd never last."
Few people know Roth well—among them, Berardi, Petraglia, Hodges and a girl named Jackie Dente, to whom Mark is, as he puts it, "just about engaged." When asked about Roth, otherwise-talkative pros have little to say other than, "He's hot now," in reference to Roth's bowling; and, "He's 27 going on 12," about his personality. Indeed, as Berardi says, "Mark's childhood will never leave him. We were in Las Vegas for a tournament a few years ago. I was too young to go to the casinos, but Mark could have gone. There he was, in the hot spot of the U.S., and he stayed in the room, and we played his tabletop hockey game until 5 a.m. He'll always be a kid."
"I'll never forget a call from Mark in December of 1976," Petraglia says. "My wife Pat answered the phone about 10 o'clock that night and Mark asked her, 'Is it all right if I come over and play with Johnny?' He and a friend came over and we had a table hockey tournament until four in the morning. He was as happy as a kid because he won."
Hodges and Roth grew up together in Brooklyn's Sheepshead Bay section, where Mark's late father was a postal worker. As teen-agers, they cruised the streets in Hodges' GTX. They often drove to Nathan's hot-dog emporium on Coney Island, where, as Roth says, "We stole things like salt-and-pepper shakers. Those were sick days. But we had fun, Gilly and me." Those also were the days of street hockey on roller skates, bang-up games in which a hard check left an opponent draped over the fender of a parked car. Roth also took an interest in two other things: buses and bowling.
Roth sat near the windows in junior high school, the better to keep track of the buses passing outside. Before long, he knew precisely when they would pull up and what their route numbers and destinations were.
Roth began bowling when the Rainbow Lanes were built three blocks from where he lived. "By the time I was 13 my average was 160," he says. "When I was 15 it was up to 188, and when I was 17 it was 195. There was lots of action. A bunch of us won $10,000 one night."
"Mark and I bowled lots of doubles matches against other guys for $1,000 and as high as $3,000," Petraglia says.
"I rode the buses from one bowling center to another and sometimes I was still out at three or four in the morning," Roth says. "I got thrown out of lots of places. They got tired of me winning, so they said, 'Get out and don't come back.' "
Despite his winnings then and now, Roth's tastes always have been modest. His only recent extravagance has been to buy a $150 white-gold, angular Star of David necklace. He also spends a bundle on phone calls to Jackie, a computer-systems coordinator in New Jersey. Every night that Roth is on the road he calls her to tell her what time to give him a wake-up call the next morning. "I call him and say, 'Good morning, Big Firp. This is Little Firp,' " she says. "Those are silly, meaningless nicknames we have for each other. Mark's a wild Ranger and Met fan who yells a lot at games. I bought him a three-foot, black-and-white stuffed penguin and when Mark drives alone in his van he puts it on the seat next to him. My dog Caesar reacts the same way every time he hears Mark's name—he runs and gets his toy bagel." Jackie indulges Mark's whims but winces when she says, "He wants to get married on a bus. He's a bus freak."
Indeed he is. Roth has an assortment of destination scrolls from buses—44 TO FULTON STREET, EXPRESS, NO PASSENGERS—and mounts one in his van when tooling around. He also is given to wearing a bus driver's shirt and cap, and when he stops he calls out to his passengers, "Watch the doors, please." With the broadest of grins, he tells of how he was once permitted to drive a bus for a few blocks and of how his pal Richie Tauber, a bus driver, "took me on his route one Sunday and we stopped every 15 minutes for hot dogs."
"Mark has no idea of his worth," Avin Domnitz insists. "He doesn't recognize that he's a marketable athlete like a Johnny Miller. Mark's idea of heaven is to be the owner of a 36-lane house on Staten Island."
Roth agrees with that celestial vision and says, "If some Jewish people on Wall Street want to do a Jewish boy a favor, maybe I'll have my own lanes. I don't want to bowl forever. Five more years, then I want to get out of it." His somewhat wistful tone betrays a possible willingness to stick around longer. One reason he might lengthen his career would be the chance to prove that he is a truly great bowler, a stature he will attain only if he piles up more wins in more tournaments and survives the changes in lane conditions that will surely emerge in the next decade.
Several years ago Roth bought a house on Staten Island. He lives there with his widowed mother and sister. When home, he bowls in the Paramus (N.J.) Eastern Classic League on Mondays as a member of the Joseph D'Amato Paperstock squad. Roth also travels to Brooklyn to visit Hodges and Tauber. "Same now as when he was a kid," Hodges says.
While lounging in a motel room recently, Roth snapped up a ringing phone and said, "Huwo. Who ish dish? Bye-bye." Then the shy, quiet, bland, simple world's hottest bowler slammed down the phone, fell back on the bed and let out bellows of laughter.