Jai Alai Flounders With Few Participants and a Shrinking Fan Base

New York Times
By GEOFFREY GRAY, June 12, 2004

DANIA BEACH, Fla. — The players arrive at the fronton parking lot eight times a week, in beat-up cars with peeling paint, or on bicycle or on foot, and they compete in more than 2,000 games a year. In interviews, they express the same dire concerns: playing professional jai alai has lost its sheen, and the fast-paced game, once an attraction to aspiring athletes and thousands of fans across the country, is flirting with extinction.

"Right now, you have the best jai alai that's being played in a long time, and there's nobody around to watch it," James Sharpsteen, 36, a player known as Jimbo, said recently before retiring after a 15-year career.

Until the early 1990's, there were 14 frontons — buildings that house jai alai courts — operating in four states: Rhode Island, Connecticut, Nevada and Florida. More than 600 players participated in matches that generated millions of dollars in legal wagering. Now, only two frontons hold competitions year-round — here at Dania Beach Jai Alai, and about 20 miles south at Miami Jai Alai.

The most talented players have been consolidated at both locations over the last few years, but it has not meant that fronton owners are selling more tickets to fans.

During peak hours, these facilities feel like out-of-the-way bus stations, sprinkled with a few dozen committed gamblers, a handful of aging jai alai loyalists and teenage couples looking to sneak kisses in dark corners.

"We're worth more dead than alive," John Knox, general manager at Dania Beach, said in reference to the facility's property value.

The game was not always this grim. In 1926, the Biscayne Fronton opened its doors to jai alai, and thousands of fans began to wager on the complex, racquetball-like game imported from the Basque region of northern Spain. It is a game in which the players use cestas — long, hooked wicker baskets — to catch and hurl pelotas, which are rock-hard rubber balls layered in goat skin, against the front wall of a three-sided court.

Carnival-like pamphlets at the time trumpeted jai alai as the Game of Dodging Death, accessible only to the breed of athlete that might possess the combined endurance of a championship prize fighter, the training of a thoroughbred and the cannon arm of a major league baseball pitcher.

During one early performance, Babe Ruth put on a cesta and tried to throw. He reportedly could not hit the front wall.

The challenge was irresistible, former players said. As youngsters, they began to sneak into crowded frontons at night and begged their parents to take them to different jai alai schools during the day to learn the complicated art of catch and throw. It was here that Joey Cornblit, probably the sport's most popular American player, learned his aggressive style, drawing fans in the 1970's and 80's who sometimes chanted, "Joey! Joey! Joey!" before points.

The glory days soon faded. A players strike started in 1988 and lasted three years, one of the longest labor disputes in sports history. Competition from other professional sports increased in the region, with the Miami Heat beginning play in the National Basketball Association in 1988 and the Florida Marlins joining Major League Baseball in 1993. And opportunities to gamble elsewhere increased. Those factors, Knox and some fans said, have left professional jai alai in a badly weakened state.
The fronton owners have tried to bring fans back, with little success. General admission has been dropped to $1.50. Beer and hot dogs have been sold for a quarter apiece. Waitresses from local Hooters restaurants have been used.

State laws now allow the frontons to hold poker games. Knox and others in the jai alai industry said revenue generated from poker had enabled the frontons to stay open over the past few years. But they also say gamblers are flocking to nearby casinos run by American Indian tribes that can offer gamblers additional poker promotions. Last month, the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, a 130,000 square-foot resort, opened in Hollywood, Fla., about five miles from the Dania Beach fronton.

Will it kill Dania Jai Alai?

Depending on the impact of the casino, Knox and others said they planned to lobby state legislators to authorize more gambling revenue sources, like video lottery terminals.

More gambling options at frontons will only stall the inevitable, critics say

They say the game — believed to have started in the 1850's when a poor village boy in the Basque country borrowed his mother's wicker basket to play handball against a church wall — will soon disappear from the Florida landscape.

There are not any official jai alai schools open anymore in the United States, and there are virtually no new students. Located in an industrial park on Miami's northern outskirts, the country's only amateur facility, American Amateur Jai Alai, once had three courts filled with those eager to learn. Now, only one small court is used, by retired pros. The youngest player there in the past two years was Ruperto Sierra, now 23.

"It's my dream," Sierra said about playing as a professional in the future, a notion that led Luis Daniel, a former professional and the owner of American Amateur, to laugh.

Daniel said: "There is no future. There cannot be a future without a next generation."

At Dania Beach, perhaps American jai alai's last generation mills around the players' quarters, wearing bright-colored jerseys and white pants with a traditional blood-red sash. They sip sticky, sweet espresso between matches and play poker with 10-cent raises, writing their debts on a ripped paper towel tacked to a wall.

As with any competitive workplace, there is also friction here, many players said. The Americans talk of unfair hiring practices and tend to be jealous of the Basque players, who have direct connections to fronton-sponsored schools in Europe. There also appears to be tension among the Americans, Basques, Cuban and Mexican players over the minimum amount they are willing to be paid.

Many jai alai players have started to prepare for other careers, jobs that offer contracts that last longer than six months. Annual salaries for jai alai players range from $35,000 to $50,000, provided a player does not sustain an injury, which happens frequently.

Pelotas have been clocked at 188 miles an hour, shattering fortified glass, killing several players and causing scores of injuries.

After this season, Dania's record holder for most victories in a season, Asier Cenarruzabeitia, known here as Zen, will retire to work at a family-owned hardware store in Vizcaya, Spain. He is 31 and is expecting a child, and his income is not enough to raise a family properly, he said. Patrick Cuvet of Cognac, France, a veteran player, has been taking nursing classes at a local college.

"The money is gone and the players have turned into sharks," said Cuvet, who is 30. "A lot of these guys will take a shot at your head if they can win 25 extra dollars. Twenty-five dollars! It's crazy."

Aitzol Larruscain of Bolivar, Spain, said recognition, not pay, was most troubling. When he goes shopping in supermarkets, he said, he tells people he plays professional jai alai, and they often shrug. "What is that?" said Larruscain, 30.

Malaise among the players troubles Charlie Ruhnke, a 67-year-old loyalist with a ruddy nose and big glasses. Ruhnke is a former history teacher from New Jersey who fell in love with jai alai when he first saw it in 1962, and he retired here to watch and bet the game full time. He rarely misses a performance.

Ruhnke said he did not know why he liked the sport. It may be the ballet-like swings of the baskets, or the hypnotic thud of goat skin on the granite front wall. Or it may be the way some players can climb the wall, one, two, sometimes three steps up, to snag a pelota traveling at more than 100 miles an hour, then toss it back even faster.

"It is a good game," Ruhnke said. "When it goes, I'm gonna miss it."