On the 14th stop of the Professional Bowlers Association winter tour, in another fluorescent bright bowling center surrounded by the lights of another commercial strip, Joe Berardi is drinking draft beer from a plastic cup and checking his vital signs for bowler burnout.
"This is the toughest individual sport in the country to make a living at," says Berardi, who grew up hustling games in the Bronx and, after 11 years of perfect games and impossible splits, still looks like a young Sinatra waiting for a cue. "There is no more tedious life in the world."
When the PBA barnstormed into Baltimore this week for the $120,000 Fair Lanes Open at Woodlawn, half a dozen of the best players on the tour had jumped ship, opting for a week of rest before the rich, prestigious Firestone Tournament of Champions in Ohio at the end of this month.
Some of the bowlers who came sounded eager for sleep after 14 consecutive weeks of competition in 10 states, from California to Connecticut.
"There is a fry factor on this tour," says Guppy Troup, a South Carolina pro who got his name from an amateur league in which he once bowled and his reputation for flamboyancy from the wild, multicolored pants he wears to every tournament. "There is just so much pressure on you, week in and week out."
The PBA tour is somewhat similar to the PGA golf tour. Approximately 90 pros follow the circuit for 37 weeks each year. Rabbits (now gone from the PGA Tour) qualify on Monday. The pro/am is Tuesday. The field is trimmed to 24 on Thursday, then to five on Saturday when the ABC cameras are rolling and the big money is on the line.
But the differences between pro bowling and golf couldn't be much greater when you get to paycheck time. The winner of this week's tournament will receive $18,000. A pro golfer with a bum elbow and fading eyesight could almost earn that much in a month just by making the cut. The only bowler to earn more than $1 million in prize money is Earl Anthony, the Babe Ruth of bowling and at 44 still the best in the world. And it took him a dozen years to earn it.
"We've got an image problem," says Berardi, a 29-year-old with gold chains around his neck and brown, blow-dried hair. "Bowling centers are still associated with pool halls. Mention one and you get the image of a guy lying on a bench under a cloud of smoke."
The PBA tour has never been an easy trek, since it was organized in 1958 by an Ohio attorney. The best bowlers were then in the Midwest, representing breweries and competing on weekends. In 1961 the tour gained financial respectability when ABC began televising the final day of match play. In its Saturday afternooon time slot, pro bowling has never been beaten in the ratings, not even by college football or the Masters golf tournament.
But the PBA audience is largely blue collar and advertisers will not pay top dollar to reach it. While the PGA tour is a weekly parade of many fair-haired, aristocratic types descending on the playing fields of the rich, the bowling tour is more like a traveling circus, moving from town to town in cars and motor homes.
"I dream of unlimited water," says Barb Spigner, one of only a dozen wives who tour with their husbands. She, her husband Bill and their 2-year-old son Robby live in a motor home that is usually parked behind the host bowling center. "I've stayed in some of the finest parking lots," she laughs while trying to keep Robby from knocking down the other tour kids smaller than himself. "I don't have time to sightsee. I don't need to go to the zoo. I have my own wild animals right here."
If the reality of the tour is often grueling, to the local fans who have been paying $3 to get inside Fair Lanes this week it all seems very glamorous.
"These guys are the best. I mean they can do things consistently that I can do maybe once a year," says Art Muldane, a 35-year-old Baltimore plumber and amateur bowler who took an extended lunch break on Wednesday to watch Earl Anthony and Co. bowl. "I watch these guys every Saturday. And here they are, just walking around like anybody else."
Between games, players like Anthony, Troup and Ernie Schlegel, another flamboyant bowler on the tour who favors sequins and gold shoes, stood and talked to their audience about bowling, and signed autographs.
It is more than physical proximity. Most of the players came from the same blue collar background as their fans. Anthony was a wholesale grocery worker. Troup was a machinist. Except for a few big names, many of the pros will resume such occupations when they retire from the tour.
Ken Fernandez is one who left the tour, tasted that reality and returned. The 25-year-old from Grants Pass, Ore., population 20,000, despaired after two years on the tour and went home to work in a bowling shop.
"After punching the clock for a while, putting in those 40 hours a week and watching these guys on television every Saturday, I decided this life wasn't so bad after all," says Fernandez, one of the more popular players on the circuit.
There is a camaraderie among the players that is born of necessity. There are so many nights, in so many strange towns with nothing to do, they keep themselves company by playing cards or going in a pack to a local bar. Tuesday night, for instance, about half the tour ended up in a Ramada Inn lounge in Baltimore.
"Nobody ever said bowlers were not partiers," says Troup, who has been on the tour long enough to think about leaving it. "When I was a kid, my mother would have to drag me out of the local bowling center by the ear every night," he says. "Sometimes I wish somebody would come and drag me away from here now."
He laughs. "But I'm not ready to give up yet. Not until I have something to go home to."