For PBA legend Mark Roth, a visit to AMF Babylon Lanes for this week’s GEICO Mark Roth Plastic Ball Championship provided him with an opportunity to visit with some old friends and recount memories of a storied career.
One of those friends was fellow bowling great Johnny Petraglia. Both bowlers grew up in Brooklyn and would eventually become fixtures on PBA Tour telecasts in the 70s.
Petraglia was granted a PBA Commissioner’s Exemption to compete in this week’s Plastic Ball Championship, named in honor of his long-time friend and rival, and Petraglia’s son Johnny Jr. is also competing in the event after earning a spot in the 64-player field through the Tour Qualifying Round.
This year’s Roth-Petraglia reunion has been different than any other, however. That’s because Roth, who will turn 59 on April 10, is continuing his rehabilitation after suffering a severe stroke last May that left his left side paralyzed. Since May he has worked hard to regain physical function, improving to the point where he was able to make the trip to West Babylon with his wife Denise to take in some of the action at the tournament named in his honor.
Just a year ago, Roth was recognized as the fifth greatest Lumber Liquidators PBA Tour player in history as part of the organization’s 50th anniversary celebration. Petraglia, who turned 63 earlier this month, ranks 16th on that list. The right-handed Roth, a four-time player of the year, is tied with Pete Weber for third in career PBA Tour titles with 34. The left-handed Petraglia owns 14 titles, but is one of only five players in PBA history to win the Triple Crown (U.S. Open, PBA Tournament of Champions and PBA World Championship).
Petraglia began his Tour career in 1965, five years ahead of Roth, and for most of their hall of fame careers, both bowlers competed with plastic bowling balls. Both have witnessed the evolution of bowling technology since then, but memories of competing against each other in the “old days” of ancient technology are cherished by both.
“I like the idea of a tournament where you have to use plastic balls,” Roth said. “I wish I could bowl in this one.”
While both bowlers competed against each other often on Tour, Roth’s favorite memory of bowling against Petraglia was not in a Tour event.
“In the early 70s I bowled some action matches against John at Rainbow Lanes in Brooklyn,” Roth said. “It was just like a Tour event--there were more than 300 people there. They had people watching down the lanes all the way to the masking units.
“He was a good, tough, strong bowler,” Roth said of Petraglia, “but I always looked forward to the challenge of bowling against him.”
Petraglia said his most memorable moment of bowling against Roth was in 1978 when he beat Roth in a semifinal match, 298-249, in the Long Island Open (Petraglia went on to beat Jeff Mattingly in the championship match). But Roth returned the favor the following week, defeating Petraglia in the championship match of the Greater Hartford (Conn.) Open.
“Those two weeks were not only my favorite memories of bowling against Mark, but some of my favorite overall on Tour,” said Petraglia. “In Long Island, we had all of our family and friends there. Andy Varipapa was there, and all of the fans were really into the show as you can imagine.
“The next week in Connecticut Mark got his revenge by beating me 190-something to 180-something to win the title. At that time he was using a plastic ball and I was still using rubber.”
But what Petraglia remembers most about Roth was how competitive he actually was.
“When Mark and I were both on the Brunswick staff we would do a lot of exhibitions and at some of those we would bowl doubles matches against local bowlers,” Petraglia said. “If we were in a match where the local bowlers were striking or had a chance to beat us, naturally the local fans would be pulling for them and sometimes I would get caught up in the excitement, too.
“But whenever that happened I remember Mark would always pull me aside and say, ‘C’mon, we can’t let these guys beat us.’”
It’s almost unheard of that two players as talented and competitive as Petraglia and Roth would concede anything to each other, but this week, without prompting, Petraglia said he is donating half of his earnings from the Plastic Ball Championship to Roth to help his friend with his staggering medical and rehabilitation bills. It’s nothing new; he has been working hard to help raise money for Roth since learning of his stroke.
Petraglia will also represent his long-time friend in presenting the winner’s check after this Sunday’s ESPN finals telecast which gets underway at 2 p.m. Eastern.
“Bowling in a tournament with my son and named after Mark Roth – it doesn’t get much better than that,” Petraglia said.