Tony Reyes reaches out for bowlingBy Tom FitzGerald
Back in the 1980s, the kid was a Fernando Valenzuela fan and, when the Dodgers were playing at Candlestick Park, he got the chance to ask his hero to autograph his baseball card.
The pitcher held the card, examined his own image, then said, "Nah," and handed the card back to the stunned kid.
That moment might explain why the kid, who has turned into professional bowler Tony Reyes, will sign anything for anybody anywhere.
"We're the most accessible of pro athletes," said Reyes, 32, a San Bruno resident who this fall will enter his eighth year on the Professional Bowlers Association Tour.
Reyes is also the only Hispanic player on the tour, and that distinction, along with his interminably sunny disposition, has won him fans around the country.
"I've been the only Hispanic that's been out there consistently over the last seven to eight years," he said, although a few others have come in for a year at a time.
At some PBA venues in the East, he said, "I tend to pick up Puerto Rican crowds. It's nice to be a role model for those people and try to get them involved in the sport."
In a Pacifica restaurant, he was drawing diagrams for a reporter of oil patterns used on Tour lanes when a waitress asked for his autograph for her brother, who she said was a big fan. He went out to his car to get a photo to give a proper autograph.
The brother "probably saw me doing trick shots on TV," Reyes said, laughing. He has made the Sunday TV semifinals on the PBA "nine or 10 times," he said, but has yet to win a title.
Later that day, he was trying a trick shot on a 7-10 split at Pacifica's Sea Bowl as he conducted one of his regular informal clinics for young bowlers. He was rolling two balls with one hand. One ball got the 10, but the other slid into the gutter. He claims he could make the trick "five times out of 20."
Soon he was instructing Kenny Martin, 16, "Look 10 feet farther beyond the lane arrows. That gets you to follow through more and project the ball down the lane."
He helped Eddie Souza, 18, with his release point and urged Michael Tang, 10, "Don't flip your hand too early (on the release)."
He gathered the group together for one-step bowling, a technique that he said would help them focus on keeping their head up or their elbow close to their body. "You're going to feel your legs working," he said. "You want to work on one thing. If you try to do more, it messes up your timing."
Tang, a San Franciscan who weighs 68 pounds, is already famous. In March, he rolled a 300 game at Sea Bowl, becoming the youngest American to do it at a sanctioned event. (Less than a month later, Kazuma Iijima of Urawa City, Japan, shot a perfect game at age 9 years, 4 months.)
Tang hopes to play at Stanford someday. That is, he hopes to play golf there.
Bowling will never have golf's sponsorship riches or, of course, its landscapes, but Reyes says he loves the game mainly for its down-to-earth people. "It's not a country club sport, but it's a friendly atmosphere," he said.
So why doesn't it rank higher in the pecking order of sports? "A lot of it has to do with perceptions," he said. "A lot of Americans think of it as an easy sport to do. Even at the highest level, they think they could do it." Yet, he said, "Our sport has gotten better -- the viewership, the ratings -- and the membership of the PBA is higher than ever."
Bowlers who have designs on a pro career should know that bowling centers on the tour generally do everything they can to rein in scores with their oil patterns, just as golf officials make greens slick, fairways narrow and roughs deep for a major championship.
"If they didn't do that, the best bowlers wouldn't rise to the top," Reyes said. "The scores would be outrageous -- 240-250 averages for amateurs and pros."
At the same time, the use of reactive resin on the surfaces of balls over the last 15 years has boosted scores. "It grabs the dry boards and makes a more violent turn to the pocket," he said. "Three-hundred games have gone way up."
Reyes has had 17 perfect games in PBA competition in a career that started in 1997 after an All-America career at San Jose State. But last season was a wrenching one because of the death of his father, Antonio, 68, in a fall outside his home in February. The grieving son missed the U.S. Open and three other tour events and saw his ranking plummet to 52nd.
He kept his status among the 58 exempt bowlers thanks to a victory in a made-for-TV event called the Final Frame in December in Mechanicsburg, Pa. He admitted misgivings over the format, which gave a spot on the 2006-07 tour to a competition of non-champions.
"To give away an exemption didn't seem right," he said. "Guys were putting blood and sweat into it for six months to earn an exemption. Plus, I didn't think I'd need it. I was ranked 24th and 14th the last two years, so I was moving up. I was the last person to sign up."
His main sponsor, Hammer, the ball manufacturer, thought he could do well, and he was going to be at the tournament anyway, working a side job as a statistician for ESPN.
Beating a field of 70 wasn't the strangest thing to happen to him in the Keystone State. During his second season on the tour, he was battling his idol, Stockton native Walter Ray Williams Jr., in match play in Erie, Pa., and had rolled 11 strikes in a row. With one more strike, Erie -- "a great bowling town," he says -- would have broken the PBA Tour record for 300s in a tournament with 22.
On his 12th shot, "I left a solid 8-pin," he said. The crowd was good natured, he said, but "it was the only place I've ever been booed."
Copyright ©2006 San Francisco Chronicle. Published 06/25/2006.