By Mike McGrath
“TRUST IS A MUST or your game is a bust.” That phrase, made famous by the late PBA color commentator Billy Welu, perhaps best describes the smooth-stroking game of Mike Aulby.
Even under the intense pressure of a close match, it seemed as if Aulby was immune to the instinctive need to “fit” the ball or throw it a bit harder or apply a little more lift to it. Whether it was the 2nd frame or 10th, Aulby threw the ball with the same release at the same target, with the same speed, and usually with the same results: ten pins leaving the deck.
I love those athletes who make it look easy, who have the unique combination of skill and technique that provide absolutely no strain on the eyes of the observer. They make it not a contest but a recital, a compilation of ten frames by an artist. It’s like watching Bing Crosby sing “White Christmas,” or LeRoy Neiman paint the Olympic mural.
I’m getting so I don’t like those guys whose hats fly off, whose faces look as if their feet are walking on hot coals, or who appear as if they’re going to die if they leave another corner pin. I don’t like those high-wire acts who pretend to slip, or singers whose voices crack on the way to the high note of the National Anthem. And I hate it when they say, “And now a stunt never before seen before a live audience.”
And don’t get me started on end zone celebrations that look like weak imitations of Michael Jackson. I like to be able to say, “Watch this,” when Sergio Romo breaks off a deceptive slider or Payton Manning sees an open receiver.
It’s a principle called “empathy,” and it has to do with identification. It’s what makes us “fans.” That’s not Buster Posey or Matt Cain out there; that’s you. The easier a performer makes it for you, the more you enjoy it. When he or she makes it hard, you go home exhausted, wrung out, emotionally drained.
The great ones send you home relaxed and confident, sometimes with a new outlook on life. The strainers put your teeth on edge, your nerves in a ball, and you want to go home and kick the dog and ask the world how anybody could drink this slop they call coffee.
Mike Aulby was one of the great virtuosos not only of bowling, but all sports. You imagine that Secretariat was like this modern-day patriarch of the tenpin world. Aulby’s practice shots were like Patton inspecting the battlefield or Caruso checking out the acoustics in the concert hall. It was if the other finalists were not there. In a sense, they weren’t.
We should have known there was something special about this guy when he won his first PBA title at the tender age of 19. Only a few bowlers had ever won so young, but Aulby did them one better: His initial win was a major, the PBA National Championship.
That’s dramatic enough for most scribes, but Aulby did not fit the image of the crop of power players emerging on the scene at that time. He did not destroy the pins like a Mark Roth or Marshall Holman or, for that matter, fellow lefty Steve Cook. A better way to describe Aulby’s game was that he finessed the pins down.
After that highly successful debut and two more wins the next year, Aulby went into a slump. Writers went about describing the devastation of the pins by the aforementioned power players.
But all that changed in 1984 when Aulby won in Indianapolis and then followed with a win in the World Open a few weeks later. In 1984, he won a total of six titles and set a then-PBA record for earnings in a season — more than $200,000.
During his illustrious career, Aulby won 29 titles, including nine majors, and was the first bowler to win the four major titles that comprise pro bowling’s Grand Slam. He even did a Penn and Teller act by winning the PBA Doubles with his long-time friend, Steve Cook.
But Aulby was about more than titles and money. He was class and grace on the smooth surface we call a bowling lane. No screaming at the pins, no antics on the approach, just ball after ball, smoothly released to the intended target and hooking back to the pocket.
When you saw Michael Jordan shoot hoops, you were glad that James Naismith invented the game of basketball. When you witnessed Mike Aulby on the lanes, you were glad that the Egyptians invented bowling and that Eddie Elias founded the PBA.
Aulby had complete trust in his approach, his swing and his release at the highest level of competition that his sport offered, and during the most critical situations. Beyond that, he was his usual affable, congenial self both before and after every event, win or lose.
It was not only no strain on the viewer, but no strain on Mike, either. It was like Tony Bennett singing, “I left my heart in San Francisco,” or Gene Kelly “singing in the rain.”
Watching Mike Aulby bowl was one of the most soothing sights of all time. A great way to end a day. Even better than watching the sun slowly sink into the Pacific.