By Gianmarc Manzione
Originally published in Bowlers Journal International
“Dude, that guy was Superman,” one local bowler called him in a Tampa Tribune story.
But even Superman has them: ghosts. They are the people we were, the places we went, the things we did.
Most ghosts go forgotten, but not those that belong to Mark Roth. They bust out of a bowling alley at 22-years-old with $4,500 and pay cash for a new Dodge the next day.
They smash 16-pound bowling balls through the floor, get married in a New York Rangers jersey, take down the 7-10 on national TV.
No, these are not your usual ghosts. And if a man’s true age is measured by how many he has, then “Superman” is going on 750 years and counting.
But when Roth wasn’t running for the Dodge dealer, he was running for his life.
“Yeah, guy pulled a gun on me once,” he says outside Clearwater’s Florida Lanes where he works, “It was 7 o’clock in the morning, and I called last game. I won, but the guy starts yelling for one more, and when I said no, he pulls out a gun. He was drunk. My buddy just went and pushed him, and he fell over.”
I do not remember the first time I heard about Mark Roth, but I never forget the first time I saw him.
Cradling a blue Brunswick Zone while stepping into his next shot at New Jersey’s Carolier Lanes, his physical appearance hardly screamed for attention: a plain-red polo shirt tucked into a pair of blue cotton slacks.
But the name stitched in bold black thread across the back of his shirt screamed all sorts of things: warrior, pioneer, Superman.
Then the man called “Roth” launched into a seven-step charge to the foul line like a bull about to skewer a matador to the fence; a cupped wrist braising his right ear as he followed through.
He made his point: legends don’t wear great clothes; they do great things. Mark Roth did not win that week, but for a man who won eight titles in a single year and 34 altogether, there isn’t much left to win.
Today, I find him hunched over a pack of Marlboros on a bench outside the lanes. He leers over his shoulder at the crunch of my shoes in the parking lot gravel. A thinning mat of black and silver hair clings to his broad, round head. Again, he is dressed simply: a white AMF polo shirt and black slacks.
It is a humid afternoon in Clearwater, Florida, where bad investments, an expensive divorce and other adventures led Roth to become manager of Florida Lanes.
“It’s a long story, I don’t wanna talk about it,” he says with a dismissive wave of the hand.
Watching Roth work here is like watching Lance Armstrong change your rusted chain at the local bike shop. That sounds ridiculous because it is ridiculous, and Roth’s blunt embitterment makes no bones about it.
As Gene Stus and George Pappas unpack their equipment at Seminole Lanes for the PBA Senior St. Petersburg/Clearwater Open, I ask Roth what he is doing here.
“What do you know about the PBA?” he growls, “I’m gonna ask you questions!”
This is not a happy man, but nor are many other PBA seniors. Around the time new owners bought the PBA, the seniors lost their contract with ESPN. Now they bowl for a paltry $8,000 top prize on lanes that are not even stripped between squads. Roth prefers to take a rain check.
“The PBA doesn’t care,” he says, “You either play by their rules or you leave. That’s how it is.”
So the ghost man left.
“I don’t wanna talk about the PBA,” he spits again.
But the changes ravaging a game Roth once reigned over extend far beyond the PBA.
“What we did with our ability and our hands you can buy out of a box now,’” he says, recalling days when he and Marshal Holman raked in the dough with plastic balls and attitude.
Before the thermal-nuclear devices that pass for bowling balls today –- stuff that hooks across twelve lanes and transforms into a dump truck at the breakpoint –- Roth invented “revs” at a time when “hook” meant that the ball moved across a board or two.
But when Mark Roth swung plastic across five boards in the late 70s, it came back across seven and did to the pocket what Hurricane Charley did to Charlotte County.
The story is nothing new: reactive balls changed the game so drastically that its masters faced the task of learning it all over again.
“We tried to compete with the old stuff anyway,” Roth says of himself and Holman as technology pulled the game they knew out from under their feet, “but we were getting beat. The game changed, and we had to change with it.”
As Holman packed up his Hall of Fame career, Roth stuck it out, winning Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year on the PBA Senior Tour in consecutive seasons.
But the fairytale ended there. Roth hardly salivated at the chance to bowl for $2,000 more in 2002 than he made for a championship twenty-five years ago, and the PBA’s indifference drove him away for good.
“I don’t like what I heard at that meeting,” he says, referring to a PBA meeting he attended in 2002, “I don’t want to name names, but when I heard a guy say ‘I don’t care about the senior tour,’ I walked away.”
He takes a sip of icy soda and looks away.
Nonetheless, there is a lot more to Mark Roth than the PBA or reactive resin. Before becoming Rookie of the Year in the pros, Roth made his living on the streets of Brooklyn, taking money from guys twice his age.
“The night I remember most? The time I picked up the 7-10 split against a guy named Sal,” he reminisces.
As he sucks his cigarette down to the filter, I notice a knob of callus protruding from his gnarled bowling thumb, bloated and misshapen with so many games.
“I’ve done a lot of things,” he says, “but it doesn’t matter anymore.”
Though with talk of a new senior tour in the works by promoter Steve Sanders, maybe it will matter. Sanders promises tournaments that will welcome back the game’s legends for real money.
“I’d bowl,” Roth admits, “I love this sport,” a strip of smoke spiraling from his cigarette as he gestures his right hand.
Until then, though, there are people on the phone, questions at the desk, and, anyway, it’s hot outside. Mark Roth takes a last drag, stomps it out in the trash by the door, and returns to the banalities that replace the glory he knew.