I met Rob at Mission Control in Santa Ana, CA on December 15, 2017 (I still have the dated note on my phone). I went in around opening time, hoping to get some time on the new Star Wars pin – but it was not my lucky day. This guy was playing it, and playing it well, racking up the replays. So I did a couple laps of the place, playing this and that, trying to keep my annoyance in check (the nerve of someone playing something I was wanting to play!). Finally, I walked up to him as he was getting ready to start a new game and asked if I could join him. I was hoping he would be cool and not one of those kinda dudes who lose their shit because you invaded their personal space – and he was! Cool, that is.
One of the first things he asked me was if I do the whole competitive pinball thing. I told him very much so! He followed up with “do you play in the Mission Control league?”. Which lead to me deeply inhaling and unloading the whole sordid tale of how I was pinballer non grata at a growing number of venues in Southern California. He nodded, pursed his lips and said, “ahhh, that’s too bad. You just missed a helluva event at the OC Pinball League…”. I interrupted him, told him I wasn’t feeling well, then I ran downstairs and contemplated running into traffic.
Over the next couple of years, I’d see Rob around the usual pinball haunts. In all honesty, I was on the fence about the guy at first. Most of it due to petty jealousy on my part; I couldn’t help but think that this guy took my spot in the OC Pinball League, and was allowed to play at the places I wasn’t. Childish thinking on my part, for sure. There was also the fact that Rob came off as a being a bit…. full of hot air, so to speak? On some bullshit, to put it another way? Because of how I felt – without even knowing the guy at all – I kept him at arms length.
He saw through my bullshit pretty quickly. One Saturday afternoon at (the very sorely missed) Super Arcade in Asuza, as we were waiting between rounds, he came up to me and gave me a playful punch on the shoulder. “Hey buddy! How are you doing man?”, he asked (for nearly the entire time I knew Rob, I wasn’t exactly sure if he knew my name. He’d call me “buddy” or “dude” or someone else’s name entirely). I gave him the boilerplate “winning some, losing some” response. Then he replied with a very considerate “no man, how are you doing? How has life been? You getting back into the tournament scene?”. Very few people in the pinball scene were willing to talk to me, much less ask me how I was doing, and I was really touched by Rob reaching out me.
I told him that, no, things weren’t getting better. In fact, I was getting discouraged from even playing pinball at that time, as I was growing weary of the dirty looks I’d get, or the rumors I would hear about me, and on and on and so forth. Never one to mince words, Rob asked “well why are you here, then, guy?”. Not knowing where the conversation was headed and wondering if I should be mad or not, I scrunched up my face and asked “what do you mean?”. He responded with the universal “ahhhhh don’t bullshit me” look – kind of like a b-boy arm flex, but not as funky – and said “if you’re not into pinball anymore, then why are you here?”. And then he gave me a knowing smirk. I’d see that smirk a lot on his mug. I was seriously biting my lip not to cry when I blurted out “because I’m fucking trying, man!”. Rob then put his arm around my shoulder and gave me a hug of encouragement. “That’s all you can do!!”, he shouted. “Go to every event that will have you. Let people know that you’re not the person you’ve been made out to be!”
Of course he had to add “I mean, you’re a whiny little bitch, but you seem like a decent enough guy to me!”.
After that, I made sure to say hello to him every chance I had. And talk all sorts of shit to and with him.
The last tournament I played with Rob was at Pinball Wizards in Paramount. There were about a dozen people there, and everyone was really friendly with one another. Pinball events can sometimes have this kind of ill tension in the air, with everyone fiercely in battle with both man and machine. But it was just a nice day with cool people. Rob and I both shit the bed as far as ranking was concerned.
As the day wound down, I walked with Rob to his car. As we walked, he told me about this idea he had, for a place called “OURCade”. He said it was going to be a truly free environment for every one to play pinball. Didn’t matter if you were a liberal or a conservative, wild person or a wallflower, young or old… or even if they hated him with a passion: all were welcome. What happened in OURCade stayed in OURCade – once you walked out, you settled your differences and held no grudges. “You should come by my office and check it out, bud!”, he offered. I was excited, but cautiously so. It sounded amazing, but also too good to be true. I knew that Rob was willing to go to the ends of the earth to pick up a pinball machine or two – seriously, it was nothing for Rob to casually drive up to, say, Napa to pick up a Paragon – but was he for real about this?
Not even a week went by before Rob texted me. “You busy? Come check the place out!”. I hopped inside my car and drove just a few miles away, to Rob’s office. It was in an office space, sticking out from the rest with its bright blue, wood-paneled exterior. I walked through the courtyard, past the accounting and dental offices, up to Rob’s nondescript unit. He answered the door with a big smile, fist bump, and a “hey bud!”.
Then he showed me around his office, and I immediately recognized that this guy was THE. REAL. DEAL. He was in a state of flux and thus, the office was what might be considered a mess to some people… but I saw a place where a guy was getting boundlessly creative. I found out what he did for a living. I saw his amazing collection of surfboards. Showed me pictures of him with serious surfing braddahs from Hawaii. Saw the awards he received. And the pins, holy shit, the glorious pins!
I don’t mean to sound like “look at all these glorious toys!” and come across like I only saw Rob as the sum of his possessions. What I’m trying to convey is that I saw the side of this man that I don’t think many people saw or even knew about: his achievements, his passions, his sincerity. He was certainly on some bullshit at times, but he was not full of it.
Rob wasn’t perfect. He got on peoples nerves, he pushed buttons, he would find a persons line and not just cross it, but pole vault over it. I wasn’t always a fan of it – in fact, if I’d have been in some of the situations I’ve heard him involved in, I would have told him to cool the fuck out – but I honestly don’t think he said the things he said out of spite. Rob was a divisive figure, but unlike so many of the self-imposed pillars of the pinball community who claim to strive for inclusion but end up being divisive to those they disagree with, he actually DID hope to bring everyone together, regardless of what they thought of him and vice versa.
I keep replaying the last day we spent together in my head. Rob had offered me a set of rubbers for my Premier Monte Carlo (funkiest soundtrack in pinball) that I had just got up and (barely) running after a good three years in storage. The very first time the ball came in contact with the left flipper, the band broke. Rob told me it was an easy fix and he had everything I need to replace the flipper and band and anything else that needed replacing. He threw in a handful of bulbs as well. He asked if I had any plans and I told him that I promised to bring lunch home for me and the missus, but I didn’t have to rush out the door.
I helped him level the Flash that he had just installed Rottendog CPU boards in, and we got it working for the first time in what Rob said was quite a while. It worked like a charm! He was really, really excited about how good it was working, and beat me repeatedly to prove it.
Then we had a disagreement about something ridiculous. I gathered the bulbs and bands and started to leave when he asked if I was mad. I told him no, dude, I’m not mad, you’re just stupid – and he was happy to hear I wasn’t really mad. We stood by his car, outside the office, and had one of our favorite conversations to have with each other: what to do about being hated by the pinball posse. I’ll spare you the details, but it ended with “write [the people who hate you] a letter. Be sincere, don’t make it about you, beg forgiveness, ask if they’d be willing to let you play on a probationary basis. And make sure you let me read it before you send it.”
“What are you going to do, make sure I don’t say fuck too many times? I know how to write”, I responded testily. “That, and to make sure you sound sincere. You and I do not come across well very often, and I want to help make sure you do.”. It was surprisingly heartfelt for a guy who usually went for the inappropriate laugh.
He seemed to still feel bad about the tiff we had earlier. He asked me again if I was mad and said “no, Rob. It’s cool. No big deal. We’ll get together this week, ok?”. He smiled and said “okay Tim. Don’t let one minute ruin an entire hour”. As I drove away, he was grinning and flipping me off.
I don’t make friends easily. On my best day, I’m pretty darn misanthropic. Somehow, I was blessed enough to make a connection with Rob. You are and will always be in my heart, you bad ass flipper, you fucking bald dickhead, you kind soul.