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His Job Is a Day at Beach

JIM MURRAY

May 07, 1992|JIM MURRAY

Randy Stoklos must know what Lou Gehrig felt like--or Eddie Mathews, or the guy who played third base in the Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance infield. A lineman in front of the Four Horsemen. Lincoln's vice president.

Randy Stoklos could tell you all about it. He is one of the great volleyball players of all time. He has won more money than anyone who has played the game. Last year, he became the first million-dollar earner in the sport's history. He is second in tournaments won. He can spike, set, dig or serve with the best who ever did.

But when he walks into a room and is introduced as a volleyball player, what he is likely to hear is: "Volleyball? Do you know Sinjin Smith?' "

Know him! Did Gehrig know Babe Ruth? Did Mathews know Henry Aaron? Did the blockers know the Four Horsemen?

Sinjin Smith has won 131 open tournaments. In 113 of them, Randy Stoklos was his partner.

Sinjin Smith was the great golden boy of beach volleyball in California. Blond, bronzed, magazine-cover good looks, he looked like the whole world's idea of what L.A.'s beach boys and surfers should look like. He was a superb player, but he was an even better spokesman for the game when it was trying to get a foothold on the American sports scene.

It was not that Stoklos looked as if he just climbed off a truck in Utica. Tall at 6 feet 4, slim of hip, and waist, broad of shoulder, solid at 215 pounds, tanned and coordinated, he looked as if he had just left Muscle Beach or the shore break at Santa Monica. The women drooled.

But even volleyball fans knew him only as a name, not an individual. He came into focus like Tonto. He was the straight man, second banana. Even the Olympians, Karch Kiraly and Steve Timmons, were more identifiable. He played for pay, not glory. He was a superstar without portfolio.

He even had more trouble getting into the sport than others. Your average Southern California volleyball player is a beach rat who spent more time on a shoreline than a sea gull. He is 90% saltwater. Two more years and he grows fins.

Randy had to fight City Hall to go to the beach. City Hall was dad. His father, a stern, old-country type from Poland thought only bums and no-goodniks hung around the ocean getting a tan.

Papa Rudy Stoklos had good reason to fear the lazy life. He was a survivor of one of Hitler's concentration camps. He escaped, though, and because he spoke German as well as his native Polish, he was able to keep out of the reach of the SS and stay alive till he could migrate to America.

Stoklos' father knew it was a harsh world out there and he couldn't see how playing with a ball on a beach was going to fit his son for anything but life as a dilettante. There were no beaches at Buchenwald.

The father wanted his son to sweep the floors at the family loudspeaker business, not go prancing barefoot after a round leather ball with the rest of those loafer types. Randy revered his father--but the pull of sport in laid-back California was irresistible.

"I almost had to sneak out to play," he recalls ruefully.

A beach tan is hard to conceal in the Southern California summer, but even when Randy became a part of the Palisades High city championship team, his father found it hard to come to terms with what he considered a frivolity.

Randy didn't exactly have to play under an assumed name, but some friends say his diffident attitude toward publicity may stem from those years when Randy almost had to sneak out to play and have guilt feelings about it. When you're not supposed to be doing something, the last thing in the world you want is your picture in the paper doing it.

It wasn't as if his father thought he was at the school library, but Randy's volleyball prowess was not exactly brought up at the dinner table.

He became a great player almost on the lam, as it were. His Santa Monica City College team won the state championship and he was the MVP. He pleased his father by attending UCLA on a scholarship.

Then the great Sinjin Smith came looking for him as a partner.

"But I never dreamed I could make a million in volleyball," he says. "Back in the early days, \o7 sponsorship\f7 meant getting a pair of shorts or a shirt from a company, or being paid meal money to wear a company logo."

Today, Miller Lite underwrites a $2.8-million beach tour that travels to 15 states, including such landlocked venues as Louisville, Ky., and Austin, Tex., where the sand--900 tons of it--is trucked in.

Rudy Stoklos died four year ago, but last year, Rudy Stoklos' son won $291,245 playing in the sun, more than anyone has won in that game, which has become a network and cable TV attraction.

More important, he finally came out from the shadow of Sinjin Smith. Now, when Sinjin enters a room, the general conversation often starts with: "Do you know Randy Stoklos?"

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