Del Ballard Jr. bowls when he's happy and he bowls when he's sad, he bowls to remember and bowls to forget, he bowls in the morning and afternoon and he bowls evenings and holidays. He bowls for fun, and he bowls for profit. He gets up each morning, looks in the mirror and says, "I'm glad to be alive and I hope I bowl good."
Ask him about bowling and he knows everything. Ask him about anything else and he knows nothing. Has he read any good books lately? "No, I bowl." Often 30 to 40 games a day. "Look," he says defensively, "it's the only thing I'm good at."
Never mind that Ballard is a 25-year-old whose balding pate makes him look 45, and whose pudgy, 200-pound body, perched precariously on skinny legs, makes him look a little bit like a walrus at the foul line. "My short legs give me a good knee bend for leverage," he says. His appearance belies his enormous talent, which he exhibited in Fairlawn. Ohio, last week when he won bowling's most prestigious event, the Firestone Tournament of Champions. It was his third tournament victory of 1989—he has already won $139,435 this year—and his fifth victory since he turned professional in 1982.
"Money," he chortled Saturday night as he patted his pants pocket, where the $50,000 winner's check resided. "It's a big turn-on." Ballard, who sports a gold watch, gold ring and gold chain, recently spent $1,000 on two pairs of ostrich-skin cowboy boots and is now in the market for a vintage car.
Not so many months ago Ballard was headed for disaster. Except for a victory in the ABC Masters, 1988 was a horrid year for him; he won a disappointing—for Ballard—$65,515 and finished 23rd on the PBA money list. His problem was alcohol. A good ol' boy from Richardson, Texas, Ballard had never encountered a good time he couldn't work into his schedule or an evening when he wasn't thirsty. "It's easy to fall into a trap," he says. "I bowled bad so I'd go have a few drinks to forget it. After a while, when I didn't bowl bad. I'd still go have a few drinks. That's not the way to do it."
He discovered that truth last January, after he went carousing on the eve of the AC-Delco Classic in Torrance, Calif. The next morning Ballard was in such bad shape that he was unable to compete in the tournament. That, he said, shocked him into taking a hard look at his life: "I told myself that this is my livelihood and you can do so much to your body and still have it perform well. If you're having fun, you're not taking care of business."
The next week a renewed Ballard won the Showboat Invitational and $33,000 in Las Vegas, and the following week he won the Quaker State Open and $27,000 in Grand Prairie. Texas. "All I did was rededicate my brain." he explains.
If the neon lights don't reclaim him. Ballard could become one of the sport's greats. Already the word is spreading that he is physically equal to alltime money-winner ($1,368,541) Marshall Holman, and is superior mentally. When Ballard is told this, he shrugs. "I just go out and bowl."
Which is precisely what he did at the Firestone. Of the 48 games that determined Saturday's five finalists. Ballard bowled 200 or better in 35, best in the 52-man field, and finished with the second highest average (211). In first place after the 48 games, with a 213.8 average, was Walter Ray Williams Jr., the PBA's Player of the Year in 1986. Williams, who is also a four-time world horseshoe champion and was fresh back from helping President Bush break in his new pits, said his plan was to "throw as many strikes as possible and have my opponent fall on his face."
In the stepladder finals that started with the fourth and fifth qualifiers competing. Mark Williams beat Dave Husted; then Mike Aulby beat Mark Williams: then Ballard beat Aulby. That set up a one-game shootout for the title between Walter Ray Williams Jr. and Ballard, which prompted Williams to mutter, "What this comes down to is a little luck. Actually, a lot of luck." He was right.
Ballard promptly hung up five straight strikes—the most crucial being the fifth: his wide-arcing hook teetered momentarily on the edge of the gutter before curving dramatically to the left toward the head pin. Ultimately. Ballard had eight strikes for a 254. Williams five for 218.
After the Firestone, the champ headed home to Richardson, where he'll spend some time bowling with friends. "I always knew this is what I would do and this is what I'd be like," says Ballard, who started bowling when he was two and was in a competitive league at five. In high school, he informed his teachers that what they were force-feeding him "wasn't doin' nothin' about teaching me to knock down them pins." He laughs, then sighs. "I love to bowl."
Ballard put Williams away with five straight strikes and rolled his winnings to $139,435.