It's mid-morning at Mira Mesa Bowl. A man sits at the counter of the dimly lit bar with a drink. The pool tables await the first break of day. The lanes are nearly deserted.
Kathy Stayrook approaches the table where her husband, Jess, is talking about his professional bowling career. Eyes widening, she grabs the ashtray filled with cigarette butts and looks at Jess in disbelief.
He assures her he has only smoked two. The rest were already there. Smoking is his vice. He knows it's bad but can't quit.
Jess Stayrook, 30, a native San Diegan who has earned three times more in four months this year on the Pro Bowlers Assn. tour than he did the past two years, is very honest. He's the first to admit he has made some bad decisions in his life, smoking being one of them. But he's learning, and progressing.
At 16, Stayrook made what he considers his biggest mistake, quitting high school and taking a job in construction. To this day, he regrets it. He hopes he can prevent others from making the same mistake.
He talks about school: "School really teaches you discipline. You've got to have your education. You're going to know the right moves and the wrong moves. You have counselors. If you're not in school, you have to make these decisions on your own."
So he has, learning with each wrong turn.
Another mistake was turning pro in 1983. He thought he was ready. The previous year he was player of the year in San Diego, averaging 228. The tour slapped him in the face.
"I wasn't even close to being ready," he said. "Out on tour, if you can't shoot spares, you can't make money. They say the strike ball is everything. I disagree. If you're not picking up the spares, the strikes don't mean anything."
He didn't pick up many spares. His average was 170, and he quickly realized he was out of his element. So he returned home and practiced a lot.
Now, $61,000 richer since January after 14 tournaments and a third-place finish in the U.S. Open (worth $30,000), some people are calling him an overnight success. Funny how all the years of practice and frustration are forgotten when someone finally hits it big. For instance, people used to tell Stayrook to give up bowling and get into something where he could earn some steady money. His father wanted him to become a policeman.
Overnight success? Yeah, sure. This is a guy who, while working as a glass cutter in Florida six years ago, entered a small tournament to make money because he was broke. He had $8 in his pocket. He bought a well-worn house ball for $5, got someone to make the holes bigger so it would fit his fingers and won the tournament. That was good for $400.
Stayrook's friend, Steve Wiedmann, who has bowled with him since they were 15, recalls one day when Stayrook bowled five games against a recreational bowler for money. Stayrook was up 130 pins after three games and wound up losing.
"On the way home," Wiedmann says, "he was very serious about throwing his bowling balls off the freeway. The guy he played was just a hack."
Suffice it to say, this isn't the story of someone blessed with unlimited natural ability. Stayrook and bowling weren't magic from the start. He was always good, and dedicated. But it was a long time before he blew anybody away.
As a kid, he played baseball. It was fun, he was good and everything was fine until he showed up late for All-Star practice one day after a dentist appointment. He had a note, but the coach kicked him off the team. Seems the coach's son was next in line for Stayrook's spot. So the third-best pitcher in the league and a .450 hitter hung up his glove.
"I was devastated," he said. "I could see that happening in the big leagues. Somebody is making all your decisions. You have no control."
Bowling was different. He had complete control. Practice was never a problem; he'd bowl at least 10 games a day. And his game started to take shape. Slowly. Of course, he never put much stock in his accomplishments as a teen-ager. Of the time he took second in singles at the state junior tournament, he says: "It was OK. If you don't win, no one ever remembers."
Between 15 and 25, Stayrook didn't miss many parties. It was fun, he says, but basically a waste of time. When he was 25, he quit drinking for nearly a year and was amazed how his concentration and coordination improved. He thought, "I've got to knock that off for good" and was back on the tour the following year. This time, he knew what to expect.
Professional bowlers, Stayrook says, can be extremely friendly away from competition. You can slap backs, tell jokes and have a good time. But when the tournament starts, look out.
"When you hit the lanes, they'll hate you and everything you stand for," he said. "They'll do anything to win. That was something that took me a while to get used to."
Say this about Stayrook, he kept going. He never seriously considered quitting. Friends he has bowled with over the years gave up the dream of making it on the tour, but Stayrook stayed with it. Wiedmann sometimes bristles when he hears people at the bowling center bragging that they know Jess Stayrook. Those are the ones, Wiedmann says, who were saying three years ago that Stayrook would never make it.
Stayrook has the right personality for this sport.
"He doesn't worry about anything," Kathy says.
Except one thing. "The only thing he ever worried about," Kathy says, "was having enough money to keep going and get to the next stop."
Kathy, on the other hand, used to worry a lot. One time, shortly after Jess rejoined the tour, Kathy was so nervous during a tournament that she bolted from the lunch table and went to the bathroom to throw up.
Kathy has gotten calmer. And for the Stayrooks, success is nice. It allows Jess to do some of the things he wished someone had done for him when he was a kid. A small child came up to him recently and asked if he had any bowling balls for sale. "Break out a dollar," Jess said. The kid gave him a dollar. Stayrook went and got him a ball. The kid couldn't believe it.
There are things Stayrook has trouble believing himself. His average, for one. Last year it was 207. This year, it's 217.
"Unbelievable," he says.
Or how about this? In the qualifying round of the U.S. Open--in which Stayrook lost to eventual champion Mike Aulby, 234-222, in the next-to-last match of the stepladder final--he defeated Marshall Holman, the all-time money winner on the men's tour. For years, he has watched and admired Holman on television. But, as Stayrook will tell you, sitting on the couch thinking about beating him is one thing. Doing it is quite another.
"To wax his cake felt great," said Stayrook, laughing.
The praise felt even better,
"I never thought Marshall Holman would come up to me and shake my hand and say 'Nice bowling.' "
Or course, he never thought he'd be an instant celebrity either, kids asking for autographs and all that.
"That's probably my favorite thing," he said. "It's a good feeling to have people appreciate someone who has worked hard and had a lot of success. It's a confidence-builder."
Well deserved, says Wiedmann.
"If anyone deserves success in bowling it's my friend, Jess," he said. "I don't know anyone that's more dedicated."