The man who most needed to know the score had no idea what it was.
"I knew I needed a strike and a count to win, but I didn't know the numbers," Nelson Burton Jr. of St. Louis confessed yesterday after winning the $11,000 first prize by beating Matt Turina, 200-194, in the title game of the $90,000 PBA Fair Lanes Open in Adelphi.
"Everybody knew the score but me and the official scorer. I've never been in a position where I didn't know the score, but I couldn't see one of the boards because it was blocked out."
He would not have liked what he saw. He was trailing Surina, 177-151, entering the ninth frame. Surina had started the day in third place and qualified for the title match by defeating Teata Semiz, 234-209, and second-place qualifier Mike Aulby, 193-167.
"It sounds ridiculous, but I felt like I wasn't going to lose," said Burton, who became the sixth bowler in PBA history to earn more than $500,000 in a career.
"I might get beat, but I wasn't going to lose. I was convinced I could bowl a 211, which meant that he would have had to throw two more good balls. He'd thrown eight real good ones, but nobody throws 10. And if he had, well, then I would have been shut out and there would have been nothing I could have done about it."
But when Surina, who had not won a title since 1973, threw a gutter ball on a 10 pin in the ninth frame, Burton was far from shut out. After striking in the ninth, he sat down and waited. After Surina threw another gutter ball in the 10th for his second consecutive open frame, Burton couldn't wait to get up.
"I knew, absolutely knew, that I could get one strike," he said. "I just didn't know where."
Where else but the one-three pocket. From the moment the ball left Burton's hand, there was no question about his ultimate destination. Burton's final stopping place was three alleys to his left, where he gave the ball return a kick that would have made Mark Moseley envious.
Then his troubles began. Burton's strike in the ninth frame meant that Surina had to mark in one of the last two frames to insure victory. When Surina opened in the 10th, missing in an attempt to convert the 6-7 split, Burton's following strike meant that he had to pick up seven pins to win. The scorer, however, told him he needed only four. Then his main concern became not hitting his ankle with the ball.
"I've been working on a new swing for a few months, and I've been hitting my ankle a lot," Burton explained. "So when he said I only needed four pins, which just about anybody can pick up, I wanted to throw it as fast as possible, because I knew the television program (on which he is the color commentator when not bowling) was running late, and not hit my ankle and get a gutter ball."
Burton threw the ball, with which he got a nine, so quickly that he just missed hitting the ball rack before it receded. And the television show was so late that viewers didn't see his final spare. By then, it didn't matter.
"This is one I'm never going to forget," said a saddened Surina. "It's going to take years and years and years.I can't believe I did that. I've seen people lose before but this is ridiculous. I really thought I was going to do it."