Amleto Monacelli pops out of the dim light of the Galaxy Lanes in Venice, his bangs bouncing, his pleated trousers billowing, and shields his eyes against the midday Florida sun. He has already blocked out his failure, moments earlier, to make the round of 24 at the Bowling Proprietors Association of America U.S. Open, not to mention the thought of the 30-hour drive to Chicago that awaits him the next morning. But Monacelli can't ignore the iridescent glare from the monogrammed, rainbow-striped alpaca sweater that's dead ahead.
It is draped on the squat body of J.O. King, a gravel-voiced 60-year-old West Palm Beach retiree and bowler of dubious repute whose mastery of bluster—"When the pins go crash, I pick up the cash"—has earned him tenuous license to hold court around young pros. As King modestly explains, "These guys know they'll never meet anyone like me again."
"Am-LE-to Mo-na-CHEL-ly," King shouts from the parking lot with Cosellian grandeur. "Choked. Died on the lanes like a dog. Sorry, kid, it's time to go back to the Orinoco River basin."
Monacelli smiles at the allusion to his Venezuelan homeland, where 24-year-olds are expected to show respect for even the most obnoxious of elders. But this is America, and, particularly on the bowling tour, ego-busting is a game for all ages. "Never forget, buddy," he tells King in a voice that is part Dead End Kid, part Julio Iglesias, "I kick a lot of butts out here. Especially old hackers who wear ugly sweaters." King has to laugh.
Monacelli has a gift for making just the right adjustments, even as he battles the uncertainties of a new language, a strange culture and a nomadic existence. It's a talent that serves him well in his sport, in which success often depends on discovering the best combination of speed, angle, spin and ball composition to negotiate the thin but ever-changing sea of oil that flows almost invisibly across each lane. "Adjust or perish," the saying goes on the Professional Bowlers Association tour, and no one among the 100 or so competitors who make a living from tournament play has had to adjust more than Monacelli.
In just four seasons in the U.S., Monacelli has established himself as the best foreigner ever to compete on the PBA tour. Last year he finished 13th on the money list, with $81,083, and fifth in per-game average, with 212.978. He made the televised finals in five tournaments, finishing second three times. This year he has made $31,700, and two weeks ago he finished second in the Lite Beer Open in North Olmsted, Ohio, losing to Mal Acosta 235-195. In fact, Monacelli is so well adjusted to tour life that his peers now refer to him as the American Dream. He may even become the PBA's first sex symbol.
"I've never seen a bowler go from being seemingly very mediocre to the verge of stardom as impressively as Amleto has," says PBA Hall of Famer Nelson Burton Jr. "He knows he belongs, and when he gets a win under him, it's going to be the start of something very big."
The PBA hopes so, because Monacelli's bright disposition and exotic flair give him the aura of a dashing prince, something not easy to cultivate amid the motor homes, smoky lounges, suburban shopping centers, all-night eateries and roadside motels that make up life on the tour.
For example, Monacelli does not cotton to the polyester collection of snug Sansabelt slacks and stretchy, shiny shirts that are the staples of bowling fashion. It's a look that PBA veteran Guppy Troup, who favors green-and-yellow flowered ensembles and shoes decorated with fish (get it?), speaks for when he says, "I think those guys on Miami Vice ought to gain 50 pounds so they can fit into their clothes."
Monacelli, grandson of a tailor and son of a haberdasher, is apologetic but firm. "I'm sorry," he says. "I hate this polyester." Instead, he wears loose-fitting, contemporary styles by designers like Enrico Coveri and Giorgio Armani. "Amleto has got style," said a young spectator at the recent St. Louis Open. "The stuff he bowls in, you could wear outside and look sharp."
The nearest Monacelli gets to bowling kitsch is when he dons shoes of different colors—a practice he began two years ago after accidentally mixing up a red pair with a white pair and finding that the combination somehow improved his balance.
Monacelli also throws a wrench into the collective unconscious that still holds up Ralph Kramden and Fred Flintstone as archetypal bowlers. A fit 5'7", 150 pounds, Monacelli never wants to forget that he was once a 5'2", 195-pound 14-year-old. "It was easier to jump over me than go around me," he says. He trimmed down with a strict diet and exercise, and these days he eats to win. He won't touch alcohol.
Monacelli's exercise regimen is probably the most rigorous on the tour. He runs four miles a day and jumps rope 2,500 times. "I'll be dragging back to my room at 6 a.m., and I'll see Amleto bouncing up and down," says Acosta. "It just makes my headache worse." Monacelli has also drawn a few odd looks for his adherence to the yoga-oriented "Raquel Welch Total Beauty and Fitness Program." His frequent traveling partner, pro Tony Cariello of Chicago, says, "I'll walk into the room and he'll be all twisted on one leg like a damn flamingo, staring cross-eyed at a spot on the wall. Hey, that's not normal for a bowler."
The elegance and athleticism are in concert on the lanes, where Monacelli is most distinctive. He throws one of the truly explosive balls, combining speed and rotation to produce a late-breaking urethane express train that is as close as bowling gets to a Dwight Gooden curveball. And just as Dr. K really doesn't have to spot his pitch on the black, Monacelli's ball carries so much power and hits the pins at such an angle that he doesn't need to be dead-solid-perfect to strike.
It's a style that's at the forefront of the trend toward power and hook, and away from the finesse of "spot" bowling. Of course, when Monacelli or other "crankers" are off their form or confused by changes in lane conditions, they can be wild, peppering their scoresheets with open frames. In the championship match of the Southern California Open last year, Monacelli had three open frames in the first six and lost to Dennis Jacques 212-146.
According to Bill Taylor, a veteran bowling observer who contends that new exotic balls made of urethane compounds, which track better on oily lane surfaces, and highly resilient pins are making the game too easy, "Monacelli's is not a good game. He plays an area. He survives because the target in bowling has become like an eight-inch cup in golf."
Others disagree. "Go ahead and call it an area game, but Amleto creates the area by getting so much rotation on his ball," says John Jowdy, who coaches many pros. "He has the quickest hand in the game, and that's the most important thing today—a good, fast hand. Plus, he doesn't back off."
Says Mark Roth, who started the cranker revolution in the '70s: "All Amleto needs to do is learn to shoot his spares better. Otherwise, his talent is pure."
Talent is the only way to explain Monacelli's unorthodox mechanics, which have earned him another nickname, the Contortionist. Monacelli stands near the end of the approach and takes two quick steps before moving into four longer ones—a powerful six-step delivery. His arm swing is pronounced, but it's the way he takes the 16-pound ball outside the target line that makes him unique. At the height of his arm swing, Monacelli's palm is facing almost skyward, setting up maximum wrist rotation. When he brings his arm back inside—"like a whip," says Jowdy—he genuflects hard and releases his wrist. "You just about can hear the ball coming off his fingers," said pro Jeff Mackey while watching Monacelli in action.
Monacelli holds his follow-through until the ball makes its improbable break into the pocket. As the pins scatter, he puts his right fist next to his cheek and closes his eyes, as though something very wonderful has just happened.
Of course, it usually has. "All I've ever wanted to do was bowl," says Monacelli. Though his first name is Italian for Hamlet, there has never been any vacillation in him. When Amleto was 11, and already a promising bowler, his father, Rodolfo, used the profits from his successful clothing business to build Bowling 20, which is the only public bowling facility in Barquisimeto, a city of 459,000 about 165 miles west of Caracas. Bowling is primarily a sport for the upper-class few in Venezuela, and for 10 years the place operated at a loss. But Rodolfo Monacelli—himself good enough to be the 1981 South American Champion—gladly kept the 16-lane center going, particularly when he found that his eldest son loved the game as much as he did.
Amleto first bowled at age eight. "I scored a 94," he says. "I remember it was a Sunday afternoon, and I liked it more than anything." He bowled the first of his 19 perfect games at 12. Two years later he had an average of 204.
"My father used to say, 'Engineers? Too many. Lawyers? There are too many. Pro bowlers? There are only 300. Amleto, be a bowler.' "
But only the U.S. has big-time professional bowling, and Monacelli soon longed for the PBA tour. He kept the dream alive by watching tapes of pros and borrowing from their strengths. "From Marshall Holman," says Monacelli, "I take the aggressivity. From Mark Roth, his hand action and the way he shoots spares. From Earl Anthony, his bowling mind and the way he acts on the lanes." He also made sure the lanes he used at his father's center were difficult to score on. "It was so tough there, I think that's why I'm so good here," he says.
Monacelli vividly remembers the sense of loss he felt on the rare occasions in his life when he couldn't bowl. When he was 14, he had to leave Barquisimeto to attend a boarding school for four years. "I tried hard to study," he says, "but all day in class I would just draw pictures of pins, of balls, of lanes." Once, after Amleto "gave the bird" to a 7-10 split, his father took away his bowling privileges for two weeks. "I always remember that lesson," he says. "Now when things are going badly, I almost never show emotion on the lanes."
When he was 19, Monacelli, who grew up speaking Spanish and Italian (his parents, like 15% of Venezuela's population, are Italian immigrants), traveled to Hattiesburg, Miss, for a nine-month English-language program. In 1982 Rodolfo staked his 20-year-old son to $3,000 and sent him on tour. Amleto made the round of 24 in his third tournament, earned $1,200 and was on his way. "It was not just something to try," he says. "I was going to make it. I came out here to stay."
Not that there weren't frustrations. Driving 30,000 miles a year between tournaments was difficult. There was the added problem of returning to Venezuela every six months to renew his visa. Getting back into the U.S. wasn't always easy, either. In Miami, customs officials, suspicious of a young, well-dressed South American, would routinely go through his possessions, even reading letters from his girlfriend. Once, in the Oakland airport, Monacelli was thrown against a wall by police who had mistaken him for a suspected drug smuggler.
"I think America is the best at a lot of things," says Monacelli. "But sometimes it can be cold. Some people were nice to my face, but then I'd find out I couldn't trust them. Also, I like talking to everyone, and when somebody didn't say 'Hi' back to me, it would bother me."
He earned but $10,588 his first year, $24,568 in 1983, and $17,765 in 1984. In the words of PBA veteran Wayne Webb, "Everyone's a foreigner when they first come out here."
Ultimately, Monacelli adjusted. He became more consistent, less susceptible to being mentally wounded by a bad game. Last year he averaged $2,795 per tournament in 29 events.
"I used to ask, 'Why do I have problems?' " he says. "Now I just look for solutions. I feel so strong that way. Now when I'm bowling, I don't care about anybody. After I finish, then I can be a different Amleto."
Others have noticed the change. "He's not as concerned with being a nice guy," says Dick Weber, who has always been impressed with Monacelli's physical talent. "He's become a very selfish individual at the approach." Says Roth, "He's got the right attitude—he just wants to kill everybody."
Even J.O. King sees a difference. "He's getting to be like me—a tremendous pressure bowler," says J.O.