During his ten year career on the PBA National Tour, Mark Baker (“Bakes” as he was known to his friends) won four PBA titles. Since retiring from the Tour in 1991, he has become one of the most sought-after coaches in bowling. The following interview took place on Wednesday evening of qualifying week of the World Series of Bowling at the South Point Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
The last of your four PBA National Titles came in 1990 at the age of 29. When did you stop bowling full-time on the Tour?
Baker: February 4, 1991. That was the day I had major back surgery. I came back two years later and bowled four events in the fall. Two things happened: I wasn’t very good anymore, and reactive resins came out, so my strength as a bowler went away. Things that I could make the ball do, suddenly everybody could make the ball do. But more importantly, with two years away from the Tour, I realized that there is more to life than throwing a bowling ball.
Do you miss bowling at all?
Baker: I miss the final round. I don’t miss qualifying. I don’t miss doing my laundry on the Tour. I don’t miss the 800 mile drives, but with eight games to go or four games to go, being in the top ten with butterflies in your stomach, wondering if you’re going to come through or not… I’ll always miss that.
You and I first met at a Level One Coaching Certification. Have you gone on to any of the other Certification levels?
Baker: I’ve done the Bronze and the Silver.
Do you believe that the certification process has merit for individuals who don’t have the same level of experience that you do?
Baker: There’s a lot of information. It all depends on what you’re trying to get out of it. It’s always good to attain as much knowledge as you can to help your bowlers if you are going to give lessons. It won’t teach you how to be a coach. The only way to become an effective coach is to coach – a lot!
Do you think that someone who’s not a great bowler can still be a great coach?
Baker: It depends where you want to get to. John Jowdy never bowled for a living, but he coached a lot of great bowlers. He did an unbelievably great job, but it doesn’t hurt to have been a good bowler. I’ve been there. I’ve thrown it well and I’ve thrown it badly (laughter).
You coach some of the greatest bowlers in the world including Chris Barnes, Bill O’Neill, Tommy Jones, and Mika among many, many others. How does coaching differ when you’re working with some of the top bowlers in the world?
Baker: It’s way, way easier and it’s way, way harder. It’s easier because they’re the most talented guys in the world. You tell them do this, do this, do this, do this, and four shots later they can do it all. I use Chris as a guinea pig; I make stuff up to see if he’s going to catch it (laughter). But it’s also harder because what you’re trying to fix is so small… if they’re way out of whack, they’re not on tour. They’re easier to work with because of their skill level and they’re harder to work with because the fix is so small. There is a finite amount of time during which they can make a living. You’re not teaching them how to bowl; you’ve just got to get them into a position where they’re confident.
Do you think that a good bowler can become a great bowler or are great bowlers born that way?
Baker: It certainly doesn’t hurt to have some natural talent. I grew up with Walter Ray Williams. He made himself a great bowler. Believe me, when Walter bowled league with us, he was not a great bowler. I bowled the Southern California Open league all my life and Walter was at the bottom of the sheet. We kind of let him in because he bowled every tournament. He donated. Then one day, Walter didn’t donate anymore. He got it all back and then some. He made himself a great bowler. I saw it firsthand.
Norm Duke was another one who made himself a great bowler. The first few years I bowled on Tour, Norm had one title and really wasn’t any kind of threat most weeks. The next thing you know, Norm’s one of the top ten that ever lived. Norm made himself a great bowler.
How important is coaching? How far can bowlers go without coaching?
Baker: Some people like coaching because they like having someone to talk to. Some people like to do it on their own. I think every sport has it. I think the only golfer to ever do it on his own was (Lee) Trevino. A coach is just another set of eyes. They’re just trying to get the feedback from you. The part they really need is the truth. Sometimes you have to be brutally honest with them. Sometimes you have to tell them, “No, you didn’t get a bad ball reaction. You threw it badly.”
At the tour level, there are eyes on just about everyone. I know Norm’s got his own thing, but it doesn’t hurt to have someone confirm, “I’m seeing this…” It’s that little bit of confidence. Jowdy was really good at that. That was his strength. He’d take the most insecure group of guys in the world, pro bowlers, and he’d convince us that we were throwing it good (laughter). John was excellent at it. That’s how Freddy Borden was. There was no better confidence building coach than Fred. Don Johnson probably knew the most about it. He was probably the most knowledgeable of all of them.
You mentioned reactive balls (Mark chuckles). What style changes have you seen among top bowlers that you attribute mostly to modern bowling balls and lane conditions?
Baker: The lanes change dramatically. Fagan was in a match today. He started playing around the seven-eight board and after six games he was lofting the left gutter as far as he could. We did the same thing on my tour. We start out playing out and by the end of the night we’d be playing the sixth arrow with a blue dot. But it took alllll daaaay (more laughter). A squad, B squad, A squad, B squad, and by the last three games of the second B squad, you were throwing it pretty hard from the fifth or sixth arrow. These guys get there at warp speed. If you want to continue to play out you have be able to do that thing that Barnes, Duke, and Walter Ray do, otherwise, you’d better learn to hook it. That’s just how it is.
I was kind of surprised when I came to watch the first squad last Saturday and saw both Walter Ray and Kelly Kulick playing the fourth arrow by the fourth game.
Baker: The guys are going to shape it and the girls are going to shape it the way they want to, but the rev rates have gone up because of the balls. Jason Belmonte. He’s got the most power with some accuracy. My God, when he hits the pins, he’s got the best strike ball in the world. When he gets it to the headpin with the right angles, he gets the pins to do things that no one else in the world can make them do.
Speaking of bowling balls, is knowledge of bowling balls really a prerequisite for modern bowlers?
Baker: I think so. They need to know their equipment. You have to know your stuff. It’s hard to bowl league with one ball because the lanes change so much.
How many balls do you think a 220 average bowler on a house shot will need to bowl league?
Baker: Three to four. If you’re going to start bowling tournaments, the number gets bigger.
What about layouts? Do you recommend using one or two layouts on multiple balls or different layouts for different balls?
Baker: I’ve never drilled a ball in my life. Layouts are really not my strength. I mean, you need know your layouts, but that’s really not my thing. There are a lot of experts in that field; a lot of gurus. I’m pretty good at what I do, so I stay out of it. Most of my referrals come from pro shops. If you come to me for a lesson and I say to you, “Well, you know, Rob, the pitch is a little off or your span is too long” you’re not going back to the pro shop with details, you’re probably going to go back and say, “Hey, Bakes says you drilled it wrong!” Now I just turned off my referral source, not good business. I actually know more about it than I let on but I’m very loath to get in the middle of that. There are too many experts for me to jump into it, too.
There’s a lot of talk today about the sport of bowling being broken. You hear the argument about these guys averaging 220 or 230 on a house shot, so they think they’re as good as the pros. Do you really think that they think that they are as good as the pros? (More chuckles from Baker)
Baker: Until they bowl the pros! Fountain every year is an open event and there are always guys that bowl it that I’ve never heard of and I know just about every good bowler in Southern California, I would think. Lots of dudes show up to bowl, and when the U.S. Open was there, there were a lot of them who were four or five hundred under.
I read all the stuff on the internet. There’s a whole generation of bowlers now who don’t know anything about Mark Roth. They don’t know anything about urethane balls. All they know is this: “The balls always hook back. I didn’t design the oil patterns or shots. I don’t put my thumb in the ball. I don’t make many spares and I average 220.” So how do you tell the guy he’s not 220? You can’t fault the guy. It’s all he knows. The ones who fault him are the old guys who don’t want to change. You know what? I bet the guys who owned the railroads wish that no one had invented cars. Things change. That’s how it goes. The game has changed. You’re not putting the toothpaste back in the tube on reactive resin because then you would get rid of the manufacturers. The manufacturers pay for everything. Manufacturers put a ton of money into the sport.
Okay, so we’re sitting here talking during the World Series marathon watching the cream rise to the top again and again. Do you think that the World Series concept where so many tournaments are contested in one facility in such a short period of time, give an unfair advantage or disadvantage to certain bowlers?
Baker: Yeah, after the way my guys just performed? (more chuckles from Baker) What am I going to say? Last year, it was the other way around (Editor’s note: In 2010, Barnes was 1st, O’Neill 2nd, Koivuniemi 6th, and Jones 22nd. In 2011, the finishes were 21st, 18th, 28th, and 24th respectively), so let me answer you this way. When I was bowling, if they had had an event like this at Riviera Lanes in Akron, or Milwaukee, or at Earl’s place in Dublin, CA, I could have been Player of the Year. If they had it at Taylor Lanes or Windsor Locks, CT, I’d have been a lawyer! (laughter all around) I never bowled well in either of those places in nine years. There are certain houses that certain guys bowl well in. Earl never missed in Toledo or Connecticut, actually a lot of places! If they had a World Series event at the Showboat, Mark Roth surely would have dominated.
Getting back to all those guys who show up at Fountain, do you think that the PBA’s decision to go back to a non-exempt tour will be a help or a hindrance to the professional, sport side of bowling?
Baker: A help. They should have never gone the other way. I know what they wanted to do. They wanted to create Federer against Nadal. That was the only reason to watch tennis. Those guys were so much better than everyone else. Watching Roger Federer was fun. So I get what they were trying to do, but with bowling you can’t get to the final match all the time. I don’t care who you are. You know Federer is going to get there when it’s Saturday afternoon at Wimbledon. You can advertise it because you know it’s going to happen. Same thing in golf. The guys who were good for golf were (Fred) Couples and (Greg) Norman. When Norman was on, that was good. Norman moved the needle.
Where do you see bowling going in the future?
Baker: As far as the PBA is concerned, I don’t know. See that bruise on my forehead? That was from banging my head against the wall for ten years on the tour (more laughter). That bruise is healed. I don’t bang it against the wall anymore. As far as the sport itself is concerned, I can only do my best to make people better bowlers so they won’t quit. That’s my job as coach.
With all the styles of bowling around today; traditional, transitional, contemporary, thumbless, two-handed, etc., what would you recommend to a young bowler who is just starting out?
Baker: Have good rhythm. Have good balance. Sports are basically the same three things: balance, rhythm, and who creates the most momentum with the least amount of effort. Whether it’s hitting a baseball like Albert Pujols or rolling a bowling ball like Jason Belmonte or Chris Barnes, sports are sports. You have to have power, but you also have to maintain good balance and rhythm. Balance is number one. Balance is key in every sport. You never saw Michael Jordon fall down very much. The guys that are good athletes always look the best.
One more question, and I’m not trying to put you on the spot, but who’s the best bowler in the world today?
Baker: If you were going to say this week, I guess I’d have to say Sean Rash. Overall, that’s hard to say, but I’d never bet against my own guys, so I’m going to say Billy (O’Neill) or Chris (Barnes). I’m going to go with my guys. I don’t ever bet against my guys.
I‘ve written a lot about a transitional bowling style: a style that bridges the gap between the traditional player and the contemporary player. To me, no one embodies that style better than Chris Barnes.
Baker: Chris’s style has a lot of the traditional techniques and some modern ones, but he knows a lot about the lanes and, getting back to your earlier question, a lot about bowling balls. He’s made the first team All-American twelve times. He’s tied Earl. That went under the radar, but that’s a pretty big accomplishment.
Bowlers with the modern releases actually break their wrist just prior to release. For me, that’s the really impressive thing about Chris’s release: he’s got this giant cupped wrist thing going on, but still manages to break his wrist at the exact perfect millisecond before his release.
Baker: That’s a great way to put it. All the top players have perfected this release: the reactive resin release. That’s probably the biggest difference from my group, we hit it on the upswing, not a good way to make a living today!!
Any final comments?
Baker: I don’t worry about the Tour much. I worry about the game. The Tour is a small part of what I do for a living, but next week I’ll be back at Fountain doing what I do every day.
There are only two types of people who walk in the door: bowlers and people who bowl. The number of bowlers keeps going down, but the number of people who bowl keeps going up. We’ve got to do a better job of retaining the bowlers we have and we’ve got to start converting some people. To make someone who bowls happy, get them to hit the head pin. Get them to break 100. We’ve got to do something other than to get them to bowl once a week. Once they’re bowling three games a week and they come to my clinic twice a month for ten bucks, it’s much harder to quit. Everybody knows what 200 is, but 100 is the first bellwether number. Once someone who bowls can consistently break 100, we’ve got a much better chance of making that person into a bowler.