Monday, December 14, 2009

A Long, Rambling Post on a Sport Most People Have Never Watched

I didn’t think I’d be starting this off by quoting Garth Brooks, but he summed it up best when he twanged that he was “much too young to feel this damn old“. What’s got me feeling older than my 30 some odd years? This weekend I attended the closing of the second fronton in my sporting/gambling life.

What the fr-uck is a fronton you ask? It’s a place they played a once great sport. That sport - Jai Alai. Why have 90% of the people reading this never heard of Jai Alai? In no particular order the following things are to blame:

The Lottery
Internet Gambling
Conservative Politicians
Netflix, Movie Theaters, Night Clubs
Not allowing Poker Rooms
Disney (please note - if anything in Florida fails, it’s because of Disney)

There is no smoking gun in the murder of jai alai, it’s more of a conglomeration of competing factors along with an inability to market an exciting sport correctly.

If you're still struggling to place the sport think if the opening credits of Miami Vice, one of those Dos Equis commercials with the world's most interesting man, a scene from the latest season of Mad Men and an episode of Jackass where Steve-O and Johnny Knoxville are having oranges thrown at them by guys with wicker baskets on their hands.

Got it now?

Saturday night Orlando Jai Alai (actually located in Castleberry) closed it’s door for the final time. When my buddy Big Mike dropped the news a few weeks ago that they were shutting down for good it was a no-brainer that we had to be there.

The good news was that they were going out in style - The Citrus Invitational. That meant they were bringing in some of the best players from around the state for tournament jai alai. Play is exciting when average pros are playing, it’s phenomenal when elite players are competing. Tournaments also mean the crowds will show up. Instead of playing in font of a hundred people they would be playing in front of a few thousand.

In college we had spent a few cheap weekend nights at Tampa Jai Alai (now a Home Depot). Quarter beer nights and $1 quinella boxes were cheaper then a night at a club or bar. After college, in my wild and crazy single days we had made the trek to Orlando for marathon jai alai sessions every few months. A Saturday matinee performance followed by a Saturday night performance followed by a Sunday matinee usually meant we were in the fronton for about 12 hours per weekend.

Even then we knew the sport was doomed. Often we were the youngest people in the crowd by a decade or so. The crowd itself would be sparse. More people would be watching simulcast horse races on the TV’s spread throughout the building then actually watching live action. I can’t begrudge the simulcast, it probably kept the place open for a few extra years.

While we saw some excellent players the overall quality of play, especially the early games, was sub par at best. We still had a blast though, watching sports is great, watching sports with the possibility of winning money after the match is even better.

During those days it was worth the drive over to watch the play of two or three players, the most exciting being a slender backcourter who went by the name Elicegui. Unlike most players who tend to be content spending most of the time catching and throwing the pelota, Elicegui played with a fury.

There was no lower gear for him, everything was thrown at top speed. He had a long, smooth throwing motion that generated tremendous speed on his forehand. If he had been born in Florida instead of Spain he probably would have been a pitcher who threw in the mid-90’s.

If he was on his game it was like he was playing on a different level, if he was off his game it could get ugly. Power has a place in the game, but there is also a subtle side to it as well. The best players move their opponents around the court with a mixture of shots. They use all of the angles available to make the pelota (ball) land where the other player isn’t.

Elecigui had no time for subtlety. Nor did he hide his emotion. Screaming at himself after poor shots or glaring out at the crowd as they heckled him were common reactions. When compared to the normally withdrawn players he tended to stand out. The crowd loved him when he won and jeered him when he lost.

He still plays, and was apparently a late scratch to the Citrus Invitational, but arm injuries and age have limited the explosiveness a bit.

The cancha, or court, at Orlando Jai Alai had certain quirks that set it apart from other frontons such as Dania or Miami. For starters the front wall was fast. If you’re familiar with the concepts of “live boards” in hockey arenas then Orlando would compare to the boards at the Igloo in Pittsburgh. The pelota came off the front wall like a cannon, which led to a quicker, more exciting game.

Unlike most cancha’s Orlando doesn’t have a net across the top of the court that signifies out of bounds. They do have a red stripe marking the boundaries, but the pelota actually has to touch the line to be out. This doesn’t sound like much, but it allows the players more room and that leads to more match saving catches and throws. Extended play brings the crowd into the match.

Each performance is divided up into 12-13 individual games. Most games are doubles (two players per team) with a couple of singles matches sprinkled through out the day. The players are divided up into eight positions. The 1 plays the 2, the winner plays the 3, the winner plays the 4, etc., etc. The first time through the rotation the player earns one point for the win, the second time around wins are worth two points. The first player to win 7 points wins the game.

Like a horse race you can bet on the winner, place, show, trifecta, exacta, quinella and probably some other combinations that I never noticed. Most popular among our crowd was the $1 quinella boxes. You pick three teams and hope that two of the three finish in first and second. Total cost - $3.00. Perfect for broke college kids.

Now if that description is confusing, imagine having it explained to you by a 70 year-old Cuban in broken English. That’s how I learned the game. I’m pretty sure the first few times I bet I threw away winning tickets because I had no idea what I actually bet. Luckily, the quarter beers helped erase any bad memories.

Each game had a certain rhythm to it. Early in the match, when only one point is up for grabs, the crowd is disinterested, maybe a little impatient. The players tend to split points, and when they drop an easy catch or fire one out of bounds it only elicits mild grumbling from the spectators.

Then as the players rotate through and the four post or the six post has three or four points the crowd’s attention focuses directly on the players. Now each point is crucial. The player they’ve wheeled their trifecta around might not get up again if he loses this point.

Now when the pelota clangs off the cesta (curved, wicker catching device) on an easy passing shot the suddenly hostile crowd shares their displeasure vocally, usually at the top of their lungs, and in multiple languages. Most players stoically complete their walk of shame back to the caged bullpen, the caged netting between the court and the spectators now seems more for their protection then for the paying public.

On the same token tension builds during great rallies. Most points last about five or six exchanges. Anything more than that usually contains one or two great catches and throws. The iconic image of a a jai alai player scaling the wall to make a catch happens rarely, but when it is pulled off the crowd is delirious with joy.

Whether is was the fact that the competition was better, or that the players were putting on a show for the capacity crowd the late games on Saturday were electric. None more so than game 13 of the nights performance was the Citrus Invitational Doubles Championship.

Heavy money was spent on the favorites - Solozabal and Oyarbide from Dania Jai Alai and Goikoetxea and Irastorza from Miami Jai Alai. Unlike most matches this one would be played to ten points and at no time would the points double. That way a team wouldn’t win by a fluke play or a bad bounce. They would have to cycle through the entire roster at least two times ensuring that the best two teams would match up more than once.

Adding to the intrigue was the fact that Solozabal and Goikoetxea are brothers and formally played at Orlando. The last time we saw Solozabal play in Orlando he had an epic day where it seemed he never lost a point. Yet no one seemed to be betting on him either than Mike and myself so it was one of the few days we walked out with money in our pockets.

Irastorza, a hulking backcourter from France, played with an elegant power that led a the person behind me to exclaim, “To me watching him play is like watching Tiger Woods swing a golf club. It is perfection, he doesn’t hesitate like these other players.” The fact that the person speaking was a former champion made it even more worthwhile.

The match itself would last about 45 minutes and it was one of the most fascinating three quarters of an hour that I’ve spent watching sports. The crowd was at it’s peak, roaring out in full fury when a referee missed a clear over serve. The anger turned to cheers as the aggrieved team (Egi and Hernandez from Spain) rallied back.

Egi, diminutive even by jai alai standards, was a whirling dervish of returns. All day long he had struggled. To me it seemed he was unnerved late in the matinee session when local whipping boy Gino struggled with a return and whipped a shot that missed the back of Egi’s head by about 3 inches.

I have never seen a major injury during my years of watching, the worst injuries being a blown out knee and a player taking a shot in the taint. If the ball had hit Egi I probably would have seen my first jai alai related death.

Gino is a large man who throws with great force, but as the guy behind me said, “He never knows where it’s going on the wall.” Gino also has a bit of a temper and just enough talent to have people bet on him only to let them down with a throw into the pad that marks the out of bounds area.

Part of the joy of going to Orlando was watching the crowd turn on Gino and Gino’s response to the crowd. For the most part the players take the abuse as fines and suspensions can be levied for inappropriate outbursts.

Gino didn’t care about that so much. On one occasion we saw his first match back from a suspension for reacting to the crowd. After being yelled at by a fan for most of the night (one voice can be quite loud when the fronton was empty) Gino finally snapped and yelled back at the heckler and fired off a single finger salute. We’re pretty sure he earned another suspension.

As I was saying, during the climatic match Egi was on fire, making several seemingly impossible saves off the fast Orlando wall. The best save of the night was off a carom (a kill shot that is thrown at high speed with the pelota ricocheting off of the front and side walls at a sharp angle) that I thought was destined to kill the middle referee. He caught and returned it passed the surprised front courter on the opposing team to win the point. The crowd was ecstatic.

Needless to sat Egi and Hernandez won the championship to the delight of everyone, even those that didn’t bet on him. For one night jai alai was back and I was able to see what it was like during it’s hey day of the ‘60s (minus the well dressed crowd). Perhaps, instead of focusing on the loss of another fronton I should remember the screaming delight of the crowd celebrating that shot.

So while I‘m sad that I can‘t make the drive over to Castleberry anymore I am glad that I have the memories from Saturday and from the years before. I started this post by borrowing from Garth Brooks so I’ll end it by corrupting the words of former Tampa Jai Alai announcer Mark Biero. For the last time - Bye, Bye Orlando Jai Alai.

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