Baker Is on a Roll Again : Garden Grove Bowler Makes His Comeback

Times Staff Writer

It was in Riverside at the Southern California Open where the middle-aged woman was beaming like a polished hubcap as she headed for her target.

Reaching him, a young blond man in tulip-yellow pants that at any moment threatened to slide under and be trampled by his red bowling shoes, she held out a felt-tip pen and nodded at her wind breaker gone wild with autographs.

“Mark, I’ve got all the pros to sign my jacket but you,” she said, sheepishly.

Finally locating an open patch of red in the siege of black ink, Mark Baker obligingly put down his bowling ball and signed his name. Then he walked back to the lane he was using for practice and knocked over all 10 pins.


The woman beamed brighter and walked back toward the bleachers. Baker seemed happy, too, for there was a time when he wasn’t signing autographs, let alone tournament checks.

“Everything I’ve ever done in my life I’ve been pretty damn good at,” he said.

That was certainly true of basketball. As a 6-foot 3-inch senior forward at Garden Grove High School, he had a silken outside shot and averaged 27 points a game.

In baseball, he was an All-Garden Grove League selection in 1979 as a senior infielder.

But in bowling, he was royalty.

He joined the Professional Bowlers Assn. tour in 1980, the year after he graduated from high school. His third-place finish at last week’s Southern California Open at Riverside’s Town Square Lanes earned him $6,000 and increased his seven-year career earnings to $402,312.

In 1984, he earned $90,240, 10th on the money list, and bought a used Porsche with the money he made from his first PBA tournament victory, the Miller High Life Classic in Miami.

In 1985, he finished sixth on the money list with $90,925 in earnings. Even though he didn’t win a tournament, he was bowling with more consistency, and his 213.718 average won him the George Young High Average award. He was second in four tournaments and had more Top 24 finishes (23) than any competitor. A PBA spokesman said he was arguably the tour’s best bowler.

And the pins kept falling wonderfully into 1986. That March, he won the King Louie Open at Kansas City, ending a two-year victory drought. He said that previously, he would win big in a tournament’s early rounds, only to embarrass himself in the televised finals. He was no longer doing that, no longer psyching himself out in those seemingly unending lapses when he could only nervously watch his opponent bowl.


“It took me awhile to figure out,” he said. “I was living and dying with each throw. I used to get so mad I couldn’t talk to anybody for a couple of days afterward. Now it’s just me and the pins.”

His confidence had shot up like a missile.

“I’ve never been more ready to bowl than this year,” he said in January 1986. “My confidence is finally starting to get up there. You see the (Mark) Roths and the (Marshall) Holmans and the (Pete) Webers and the (Mike) Aulbys. . . . When they get (that confidence), they know it. Now I’m finally starting to feel I can bowl with those guys. I’m really looking forward to this year.”

It was worth getting excited about. While most 26-year-olds were worried about paying next month’s rent, Baker owned a condominium and, with the help of a shoe company sponsorship, was taking home about $100,000 a year.

“Things were going great,” he said. “I had more money than I ever had in my life. I’d been touted as one of the next superstars.

“And I was getting to be a fixture in the finals. People would come to the bowling alley and know I was one of the guys to beat. I thought I had finally come into my own. Then it happened.”

One day last summer, Baker picked up just another bowling ball in just another practice, as he had been doing most of his life. Suddenly, he felt a pain in his back.


“I couldn’t bend over. It was like somebody had grabbed my back and was just holding it,” he said.

He managed to drive home, but when he arrived, he couldn’t even get out of his car. At first, he tried to continue bowling, although the pain was getting worse. When the pain became so intense that he had to withdraw from the 1986 Tucson Open, he thought he had thrown his last ball as a professional.

“I was in the money and I threw one shot and everything just went,” he said. “I couldn’t even pick up the ball. My back said it’s over. All of a sudden I was over the hill at age 26.”

Baker thought maybe he had been bowling too much. Perhaps the tour had been more grueling than he had realized. So he took a long vacation.

“For three months I didn’t pick up a bowling ball,” he said. “I went to about 50 Angels games. I didn’t make much money, but I did have a great summer.”

In the meantime he was seeing various doctors, none of whom provided him with much relief.

When he finally started bowling again in October, the ball felt as unfamiliar as a moon rock. That feeling didn’t change when he rejoined the tour in November. Throughout that fall and winter, he didn’t contend in tournaments.


“The ball felt wrong, my timing was messed up,” Baker said. “After three months off, everything I tried didn’t work. I was too fast or too slow.

“Sometimes I’d see guys with two or three (tournament) titles and know I could beat them. My confidence was going, and in an individual sport, if you don’t believe in yourself, nobody will. If you don’t have that extreme confidence in yourself, you’re in trouble.”

Baker just managed to break even with his touring expenses during that mean fall and winter. He even thought about looking for a new line of work. And that bothered him.

“You go from making $75,000 to $100,000 a year to being able to make only eight bucks an hour . . . reality definitely hits you hard,” he said.

Brian Voss, who won this year’s Southern California Open, felt for Baker.

“I went through the same thing,” Voss said. “I had a groin injury and missed about 10 tournaments. When I got into a little slump, I just started losing my confidence. Two months ago, you were one of the best players and all of a sudden you can’t beat anybody.”

Last April, Baker was examined by Dr. William Dillin, a specialist in spinal injuries who works largely with professional athletes including the Rams and Angels. He diagnosed Baker’s problem as stretched ligaments in the back. Baker’s throwing motion stretched tissues connecting two bones at a joint every time he rolled a bowling ball. For his power and accuracy, he was twisting his spine.


“When he first came to see me, he was having a lot of trouble,” Dillin said. “I suggested he not bowl for another month to six weeks. That way we could head the problem off at the pass. Obviously, we can’t change the mechanics of a really good bowler, like you can’t change a really good golfer’s swing. So we had him warm up before starting and icing his back down afterward, and that’s really helping him.”

Every morning, Baker’s back is sore, so he stretches for 15 to 30 minutes, whatever it takes to loosen up. He also rides a stationary bicycle for half an hour and lifts weights. Although he didn’t make the finals of the first 18 PBA tournaments this year, the treatment finally seems to be working.

For the first time since last summer, Baker thinks he can bowl against anybody, that he has recovered. Three weeks ago, he had strikes in eight of nine final frames to win the Kessler Open and $18,000 at Dublin, Calif. Two weeks ago, he finished eighth at the Columbia 300 Open at Seattle, winning $2,000.

Through six rounds, he had a 227 average and was in second place in last week’s Southern California Open at Riverside.

Although the TV finals had begun, Baker wasn’t scheduled to compete in the first two rounds. There was time to watch the TV people coax the bleacher bowlers into applauding, to trade jokes with the officials in the screaming red sports jackets. Or sign any more jackets that might wander by.

He was glad to be there. The tournament would be watched by his friends, because it was not far from where he grew up. And that was important to him because, besides himself, according to the PBA, San Diego’s George Branham is really the only well-known Southern California pro on the tour. Long Beach’s Bob Knipple has turned 45 and reduced his touring to about six tournaments a year. Besides, Baker wanted to look good against the Eastern bowlers.


“This was probably the biggest test I had in bowling,” Baker said. “I lost my confidence, and that’s the single most important thing I have going for me. It might have changed me. I realized how much I missed being on top. The confidence is back, that’s the main thing.

“If you’ve ever been in a slump, it’s a weird feeling. I bowled good for two or three years, and all of a sudden I’m wondering, ‘Will I ever strike again? Will I ever win a game?’ The last two to three weeks things are back to normal.”

His turn approaching, Baker walked over to the lane and began bowling against Venezuelan Amleto Monaceli, the fifth-place finisher, who rolled a 268 and a 258 to advance to face Baker. Baker’s game, consistently good through six rounds, fell off and he wound up losing, 235-195. But the upset didn’t upset Baker.

“If you had told me three weeks ago that in the next three weeks I was going to win $30,000 and another championship, I would have laughed in your face,” he said. “It’s great to be back in contention. When you get a streak like this, you’ve got to ride it.”

He decided not to ride it to Tucson, where the PBA Tour went this week. Instead, he took the week off.

“I’ve had some bad things happen to me in that city,” he said. “It’s not the people or the bowling alley. The town and I just don’t get along. I’ve had problems there with my back, with a girlfriend . . .


“But I’m back. I can feel it again. Now I think I’m going to strike every time. The money’s great, but the feeling is better.”