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Good-sport seniors still rolling on

ESPN, the TV-sports purveyor, granted Tampa Bay 90 minutes of live national exposure Wednesday night. It had nothing to do with the football Bucs, hockey Lightning or the area's pursuit of the baseball Giants.

It was elders bowling.

Don't touch that dial! Let me tell you about the good old boys of the PBA Senior Tour, where the athletes are not rich, arrogant, unreachable, unionized or practitioners of a kill-to-win-if-I-have-to philosophy.

Robert Gibbs, 53, finished a head-to-head qualifying match against Jim Brown, 58, with five consecutive strikes to achieve a 245-245 draw. Down the stretch, every "X" _ by either Gibbs or Brown _ was applauded by a hand slap from the opponent.

Sport, as it should be.

"Senior Tour tension doesn't approach what young pros face on the regular PBA Tour," said 62-year-old Dick Weber, whose lifetime accomplishments and embraceable personality make him the Arnold Palmer of bowling. "Although I'm old-school, with pretty much a dead-serious appearance, there is a huge amount of fun out here."

Out here, you've got to show your I.D., because 50 is the minimum age for seniors of the Professional Bowlers Association. "Every year it gets tougher," Weber said, "with a fresh supply of 50-year-old rookies coming at us. It's like golf's senior tour, where there's always a Raymond Floyd or Jack Nicklaus coming of age.

"I'm a realist who accepts that I have only two or three more competitive seasons," said Weber, winner of 26 PBA Tour and six Senior Tour championships, and the father of current PBA Tour standout Pete Weber. Another son, Rich, is executive director of the Senior Tour.

A year ago, at the tour's final 1991 stop, the youthful-looking Weber was pale and shaky upon arrival for his final eight-game block. "But being me _ a nut _ I went ahead," said the Missourian, who would average a creditable 205 that wobbly day in the central Florida community of Lady Lake. Weber later went to a hospital. He had suffered a mild stroke, before competing.

These old boys are tough nuts.

Wednesday night was au revoir for the 1992 tour, the last hurrah of a 12-event season. Weber finished 14th, earning $1,900. He averaged 213 this year, grossing a total of $10,530.

In the nationally televised finals of the $85,000 Pinellas Suncoast Pin Wheel Senior Open, Gibbs beat Gene Stus 235-187 in front of a cheering houseful at Seminole Lanes. The champ's payday was $8,000.

Baseball, football, basketball, hockey, golf and tennis players have multimillion-dollar incomes, but the PBA Senior Tour's money king (with $62,725) was Stus, a 51-year-old retired General Motors mid-manager.

Stus had a heart attack at 29. Medical repairs have included two bypass operations, but the 6-foot-3, 240-pound bowler cranked out a 219 average this season and won two tournaments. There's a kicker to his 1992 income. Stus had the Senior Tour's first-ever perfect game on TV, earning $112,000 in bonuses.

Expenses average just under $1,000 per tournament for a touring senior. Most have jobs back home. Gibbs runs a paint and body shop in Abilene, Texas. Upon hitting 50, some took early retirement to chase their pro bowling dream.

"Making TV" is always the goal of Senior Tour fields that this year averaged 242 starters per tournament. They bowl 40 games over four days, and the five highest point totals advance to the ESPN show on Wednesday night. At Seminole Lanes, the remainder of the cast was Brown, John Hricsina and John Handegard.

Brown became the first African-American to "make TV" on the PBA Senior Tour. He finished fourth. A school teacher and track coach from Columbia, Md., he is one of a half-dozen blacks who regularly compete, which is better representation than any golf or tennis circuit can cheer.

Bowling has long been a good TV sport. ABC-TV has 30 years of solid Saturday afternoon ratings with the PBA Tour. Now, on Wednesday nights, these more mature bowlers are piped into an average of 1.2-million ESPN homes.

They're worth watching, and applauding.