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Original Issue

Big day for the small fry

The top shooters went for all the marbles at this national tourney.

So this 8-year-old kid named Michael Lantz peels himself a Snickers bar and starts talking to a bull's-eye aggie. "Marbles are smart," he tells you. "And they listen better than my sister Mitzy." Michael, who goes by Mickey but also answers to Sport, calls his marbles Jack, Firebird, Gumbo, German and Jellybutt. He squirts his shooter, Eyeball, out of a pouch his mom embroidered with gold thread. "The thing about marbles," says Sport, "is that you're shootin' an eyeball at a bunch of blueberries."

"Blueberries" are what Sport calls the frosty blue mibs used in ringer, the game that decides the National Marbles Tournament held annually in Wildwood, N.J. And ringer is what Sport, Mitzy and 26 other boys and girls from six states played at the '85 tournament last week on eight concrete slabs laid out on the beach.

The Pennsylvania contingent was the largest. In it were Jon Jamison, 14, and his 10-year-old sister, Shellie, the '84 girls' runner-up; Vietnamese émigrés LoAnn and Giang Duong; and Darlene Schwartz, 10, whose older sister, Brenda, retired five years ago after copping the girls' crown. "I'm bored," Brenda yawned. Life's all downhill when you win the title at nine.

The youngest player this year was the youngest ever: towheaded Nicky Piatek of Pittsburgh, who learned the game "shooting at skinny trees" in a friend's backyard. He's five and about as high as a teeter-totter and says he does good in marbles. Good enough to take a game off his 10-year-old cousin Robert Niedermeyer in the preliminaries. As Robert knuckled down, Nicky began his psych-out routine, flapping along the ring line like a gull waddling through the sand.

But nothing aggravates Nicky. Even punks. "I hate punks," says Nicky. "They dress funny and look ugly." During one match, a punk with razory orange-pink hair and a Meat Puppets tape on his boombox tried to mess him up. "Keep your elbows high," the punk shouted.

"I said nothin'," says Nicky. "My mom told me, 'Never listen to punks.' "

At least not in Wildwood, a working-class resort town filled with teenagers who come for the rides, and old folks who shop for saltwater taffy during postprandial strolls. Wildwood's major industries are taffy, fudge and message T shirts.

Jon Jamison, who's a veteran of the last five tournaments, likes the T shirts, but not the fudge. "It sticks in my braces," he explained. He and his sister were the tournament favorites. Jon figures Shellie can beat him maybe once every 10 games. "She's pretty good," he says, "but girls are not as good as guys."

Jon is working a wad of Bubblicious around his cheek. "Strawberry," he says. He practiced three hours a day for the tournament. Jon approaches marbles like a mare nudging a foal, gently and delicately. He grips the shooter with his thumbnail, and not the knuckle, which gives it extra topspin.

He lost the opener of the best-of-21 finals against Toby Carlile from Cumberland, Md. by blowing a couple of easy shots. Then he won the next 10 and clinched the title two games later. Shellie went all weepy. "Girls!" Jon muttered. She was still crying throughout her best-of-11 finals match with Amy Thompson of Cumberland. Shellie played the entire series with her kneepads drooping down around her ankles and got snuffed out in Game 11. "I bet uptown Cumberland's really whoopin' and hollerin'," gasped Amy's father, Kenneth. "This is the biggest thing to happen since the Red Head gas station there got robbed."

Sport, who didn't make it past the preliminaries, spent the last day making sand castles. "The marbles here aren't trained like the ones I have back home," he alibied.

"Anyway, I don't want to win the championship right away. If I do, I can't play no more. Maybe I'll wait till I grow old and get around 13 or somethin'."



Boys' champion Jon Jamison takes careful aim at the frosty mibs that another entrant, Michael (Sport) Lantz, calls blueberries.



Amy Thompson was the story back home in Cumberland, Md.



Giang Duong protects his shooter from the gusting wind while Lantz (below) goes for the berries.



The youngest contestant, Nicky Piatek (left and above), gets a hug from Mom.