Friday, Aug. 2, 1996 | 11:59 a.m.
While Masaaki Saijo's competition claims he has not worn out his welcome, it is certain they would all be better off if he had never been invited to play in the PBA Senior Invitational.
As a member of the Japan ese Professional Bowling Association, Saijo and three of his countrymen were given a special invitation to take part in the $150,000 event, which began last Sunday and concludes Saturday at the Showboat.
The Senior Invitational is the only tournament in which Japanese players take part, and Saijo is taking advantage. He virtually has led since it began, and if he can hold off his American opposition, history will be made.
No Japanese player has even won a tournament in the United States.
"I feel grateful to be in the lead, but here (in the late stages) is where the game really starts," the colorful Masaaki said through an interpreter. "I feel very good to have the chance to retain the lead for so long, but in bowling, you never know what's going to happen.
"I can hit a slump for two or three games, but hopefully I'll be able to overcome any adversity and retain the level of play I've experienced so far. I've been fortunate to bowl so well against your professional bowlers, I hope I don't falter on my way to the finish line."
A winner of 32 Japanese tournaments, the 50-year-old Saijo is the most respected bowler in Japan -- at any level.
He also has won over many American fans with his antics and flashy attire. On Thursday, the man with the Elvis Presley haircut arrived at the lanes in white shoes, bright yellow pants, a black shirt with a red and gold zigzag running from his right shoulder to the buckle of his white belt, topped off by a red, white and blue Windbreaker.
"I have about a hundred different bowling shirts, 40 belts, 30 pairs of pants and about 20 different watches," said Saijo, easily the smallest bowler in the tournament. "I had 40 watches until somebody broke into my house."
While bowlers in the U.S. are an anonymous sort, Saijo is a celebrity in Japan, where bowling is a lucrative television sport. When out in public -- sans the bowling get-up -- it is not uncommon for Saijo to be mobbed by autograph seekers.
And while he hasn't reached such status stateside, his popularity is growing at the lanes, at least. Even US bowlers are happy to watch Saijo perform, despite the fact he may head home with the $20,000 championship prize.
"You got a lot of people pulling for Saijo here," PBA Hall of Famer Gary Dickinson said. "The fact that he might win doesn't even bother the players here. After all, he's not getting lucky out there. He's bowling well."
Las Vegan John Handegard, the reigning Senior PBA Player of the Year, takes Dickinson's sentiments one step further. Not only does he not mind if Saijo wins, but he also wants to see it.
"He is a great player," Handegard said. "I would be ecstatic if he won."
Such statements from Dickinson and Handegard are surprising when one takes into consideration the fact that both have been beaten by Saijo in Tokyo. This past April, Saijo beat Dickinson on the final day of the JPBA Senior Invitational. Two years ago, he did it to Handegard.
"He hit the pocket on every shot and got all the pins," Handegard recalled. "I needed all three of my last shots to beat him. On the third shot, I left the 10 pin, so he won. But he completely out-bowled me.
"I'd like another shot at him."