Dead and screaming in Las Vegas

Baldwin billiards team among best

Screaming Dead Guy Matt Scott takes aim during a league nine-ball game at Puckett's Bar and Grill. The Dead Guys played Wednesday in Baldwin City.

? Young beauty behind the bar, thick smoke in the air, George Thorogood barking on the juke box about how when he drinks alone, he prefers to be by himself.

Thorogood might steer clear of Puckett’s Bar and Grill. Nobody drinks alone here. And just about everybody shoots pool. For the moment, nobody’s shooting it any better than a nine-ball team that calls itself “The Screaming Dead Guys,” seven men who qualified for and then emerged from an 11-team bracket, winning a tournament in Topeka, to represent the state of Kansas in the American Pool Association national championships in Las Vegas.

An estimated 180 nine-ball teams will compete in Vegas, and the four that make it to the semifinals will be televised on ESPN.

The achievement has elevated the Screaming Dead Guys to quasi-celebrity status at Puckett’s, their favorite hangout.

“It’s a get-along kind of a crowd,” said Wayne Briscoe, senior account manager for Sprint by day, a Screaming Dead Guy by night. “It’s not the dangerous atmosphere one would think a small-town bar might be.”

Farmers and cowboys, bikers and businessmen, college students and carpenters, and men and women pool players galore.

The APA, the governing body of amateur pool, sanctions 9,000 weekly leagues.

Five members of the team play another team every Wednesday night. Each player pitches in $6, and the $30 is sent to Topeka, where the records for the Heartland Pool League are kept. Payoffs are sent to teams that perform well in league play, and the best teams qualify for the state tournament.

No matter how “The Screaming Dead Guys” and the other 179 teams fare, the biggest winner will be Las Vegas. Isn’t it always? Pool tournaments, poker tournaments, boxing shows, basketball games. Contestants pay their own transportation and lodging and see if they can come home with anything in their pockets.

The Screaming Dead Guys insist their minds are trained on side pockets and corner pockets, not on emptying and filling pants pockets. The double-elimination tournament will run from Aug. 17-20.

Trying to forecast a winner is nearly impossible since, much like in golf, handicaps are used based on each player’s ability, which is recorded throughout the season and sent to APA officials.

Rodney “Cal” Callahan, team co-captain, has been shooting pool since he was a little boy in Adrian, Mich., not too far from Toledo, Ohio.

“I watched my father play Willie Mosconi in an exhibition in 1961,” said Callahan, 54, of one of the all-time pool greats. “I’m not saying he beat him, but he did play him. Willie came to town to play and asked who was the best player around. Somebody told him about my father.”

Callahan, a retired marine engineer, and Briscoe, also 54, are the veterans on a team that features four men in their 20s, one in his 30s. Briscoe is a self-described “misplaced cowboy” from the Western Kansas town of Russell. He wears a cowboy hat and a pony tail, and forever grips and sips a Budweiser.

“Saturday Evening Post,” Briscoe said, describing the Russell of his youth. “Get up in the morning, ride your bicycle clear across town to go swimming, get back on your bicycle and play baseball with your friends the rest of the day.”

And shoot pool against “old guys” at night.

“It was 10 cents a rack,” he said. “I played for quarters against old men at a place called Waudby’s. Francis and Chet would rack the balls so there were never any arguments. From 1932 until it closed, every single game was racked by those two guys.”

Briscoe said he used to own 10 horses but lost nine of them in his divorce.

“The old red horse is still mine,” he said.

Its name? “Red,” Briscoe said, laughing at his creative genius.

These men have a good time competing on Wednesday nights, but they take their pool seriously, so much so that Tim Snell, 29 and the captain of the team, once owned a $2,500 stick.

“Got stolen right out of my car,” Snell said. “Now I play with a $350 stick. The carrying case is worth more than the stick.”

The trip to Vegas is an expense the Screaming Dead Guys weren’t counting on, and they’re asking for a little help in defraying the costs. Trent Puckett, proprieter of Puckett’s, is tossing a fund-raising party for them from 3 to 9 p.m. today at his bar. Pool and dart tournaments, karaoke and raffled prizes, including a free teeth-bleaching donated by a dentist who is the father of one of the players, are on tap.

Justin Shafer, APA league representative for the area, wanted to make sure everyone knows just how big a deal the state title was for the Screaming Dead Guys, who beat another team from Baldwin City to get there.

“Two Baldwin teams in the finals,” Shafer said, pointing for emphasis. “It should be noted that usually the top 10 teams are Topeka and Lawrence teams.”

What happens if the Screaming Dead guys are eliminated early? They’ll stay in town and enjoy Las Vegas.

“I was told to check out a magician show,” said Casey Cox, 22. “They’re supposed to be pretty good in Las Vegas. I’m not thinking about that yet, though. I’m just thinking about playing pool.”

The playing conditions represent an adjustment for the Baldwin City boys. This year’s tournament is smoke-free, a considerably different feel from Puckett’s.