Fairfield County Weekly, November, 2001
Jai Alai closes after 25 years of memories and "watching
By Ken Widmann
"These are historic--they're our last three souvenir pens," says Jean Edgeworth, the program seller perched at the entrance to Milford Jai Alai. The historic pens are Day-Glo plastic, with the round Milford Jai Alai logo--very 1970's-ish--on the side. Edgeworth's gray eyebrows are pitched high and her smile suggests a friendly "How 'bout it, honey?" I pick up a pen, $.50 and a program, $1.25, from the counter and hand Jean $2. She mistakenly gives me three quarters in return. I can't resist a comment.
"I see why this place is going under."
Edgeworth laughs and takes back the extra 50 cents. She's worked the program counter for 13 years, greeting customers with a gentle smile. On Dec. 12 her job will end. It's been a long run.
"Used to be, you had to make a reservation if you wanted to get in here," she says. "Week in advance. I turned people away all the time."
It's another global-warming Monday afternoon in late November, sunny and almost hot. From I-95 the fronton (as the building or court used for playing jai alai is called) is unmistakable. Its distinctive stepped roof--the fronton won a design award from Architectural Record in 1977--and giant backlit logo broadcast Milford Jai Alai to the eyes of millions of travelers each day. Not many heed the call. Ribbons of weeds meander through the asphalt parking lot.
Inside, you're struck by the hugeness of it all, like a tourist at the mouth of Mammoth Cave. You take mincing steps as the ceiling rises and your gaze extends. Overhead fans hang from afar. Down below, the rectangular concrete jai alai court stretches 180 feet long and 48 feet high. It's a brightly-lit ravine at the bottom of a vast ski slope of empty seats. The seats, 4,800 of them, reach from floor to ceiling, their once-primary-colored upholstery faded to a slightly sticky pastel. The aisles and corridors are extra wide. This place was built to handle volume. Big volume.
Today maybe 60 people are on hand for the noon performance. It's been this way for a while. A month ago, President and CEO Lenny Meyers announced that after 25 years Milford Jai Alai will shut its doors forever. All 200 employees--down from a peak of 600--will lose their jobs. It's the last of Connecticut's three frontons to close.
"Back then this place would be packed with 6,700 fans jammed in to watch the action, standing room only. We had to post a fireman by the front door to manage the overflow. Nobody could enter until somebody else left, that kind of thing. We had a state trooper on I-95, 12 cops on the payroll. There were so many cars employees had to park down the street and take a shuttle bus. Limos would pull in at the traffic circle--this place needed a traffic circle--and drop off the VIPs for the evening. Furs, diamonds, Italian suits, all the employees in pressed white shirts and bow ties. Cigar smoke as thick as a London fog. Nine performances a week. Big money. When it opened in 1977, we didn't have the casinos nearby, there weren't even any in Atlantic City yet. No daily lotto, no cable TV even. Milford Jai Alai was the place to be."
- Lester Trotto, mutuels manager
Jai Alai means "merry festival" in Basque. Traditionally played on holidays and happy civic occasions, the game evolved from a form of handball in the Basque provinces of Spain during the 17th century. Introduced to America at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, the first U.S. jai alai fronton was built in Hialeah, Fla., 20 years later.
Soon hitched to pari-mutuel gambling (a betting system in which winnings are gleaned from a pool of all money wagered, rather than the house), jai alai grew as a spectator sport for decades.
Connecticut welcomed jai alai in the 1970s and soon became the game's second home. As recently as 1995, Hartford, Bridgeport and Milford each boasted jai alai frontons. Milford's facility was the finest in the world--the game's showcase. When it's gone, the only American jai alai venue outside of Florida will be a tiny, much-disparaged fronton in Newport, R.I.
"Jai Alai is so different from other pari-mutuels. We're a betting sport, but there's a community here. You come here often enough you get to know not only how the players are as players but how they are as people. Some just have a natural charisma. Bolivar was one of those guys, the best our generation ever saw. He had style, pizzazz. Just the way he carried himself. He wouldn't show much emotion, but every once in a while he'd give you a little peek. Then there was Juaristi, the first big, big star here, our signature player. In our big attendance, big handle [total amount wagered, of which the house skims a percentage] days he was the guy. Juaristi had a nickname, "Hollywood." People screamed it out."
- Bob Heussler, PR director
Except for the impact of the rock-hard pelota smacking concrete and the occasional heckler ("You suck, Mace"), jai alai here is soundless. Players scamper around the court, catching the ball in large curved baskets made of Spanish chestnut. The baskets, called cestas, are strapped to each player's right hand. When flung with a sideways throwing motion, the pelota flies out of the cesta at great speed--more than 150 miles per hour--and slaps the front wall with a thwack. The report is similar to that of a well-struck billiards shot.
The object of the game is simple, as described in the official Milford Jai Alai program: "hurl the ball against the wall with such a combination of speed and placement that the opponent cannot catch and return it on the fly or off the first bounce." But Jai Alai is humbling. A skilled pro loses a point in the same fashion as a novice: an inability to cleanly snare the pelota. Intense, athletic rallies often end awkwardly, the pelota dribbling off the side of the loser's cesta. Command of jai alai's basic skills can prove elusive; mastery of its angles and nuances can take a lifetime.
"We were bowling one night and a couple of guys at the alley were throwing a Wiffle Ball around with a cesta. It looked pretty wild, so I asked if I could play. The first real pelota I ever threw went straight to the floor, bounced up and split my chin open. Seven stitches. That motivated me. I wasn't going to let this game beat me."
- Leon Shepard, player known as "Tevin"
Big Rich Vanderscoff has dark features, a sharp navy suit and an athletic physique. He is Milford Jai Alai's general manager. According to Vanderscoff, attendance has increased slightly in the weeks since the closing was announced, as the curious "come to see the car wreck." I tell Vanderscoff that I've driven past the Milford fronton hundreds of times, yet at 30, this is my first visit. I'm a rubbernecker.
"You're a perfect example of why this place is closing," he says.
The noon jai alai "crowd" is not the same as the 99-cent beer gang that shows up on Thursday nights. The "nooners" are mostly retirees. Three white-haired men sitting in row 15 scribble on their programs, regulars all. "Got any lucky numbers?" one asks me as I take a seat behind them. They spend the afternoon chatting, half-watching the action on the court. One of them is reading a supermarket circular out loud, sparking surprising debate. ("$2.99 is a good price for a pound of roast pork...")
Courtside, the players are engaged in their quiet dance, punctuated by the thwack of the pelota. In mid-point the combatants resemble dancers, their cestas whipping around like maypoles. It's customary for jai alai players to salute the crowd before and after each performance. The culture of jai alai is rife with the image of players lined up along the court's edge, raising their cestas in crisp salute. When the 16 or so Milford players line up and salute the few weathered faces in attendance, it's rushed and shy, almost sheepish. Old-timers say the buzz in this place used to be electric, right now the buzzing comes only from the overhead lights.
Lester Trotto began working at Milford Jai Alai when it opened in 1977, "the first day the ball hit the wall." A friend gave Trotto a job application a few months before the fronton was scheduled to open. Trotto filled it out on a whim. For the next 25 years, Trotto "watched the money." He began work as a cashier redeeming winning tickets, and later became the mutuels manager in charge of 50 employees. Trotto's skin has the pallor you'd expect from a lifetime in a gaming hall. Even though he is worried about a suddenly jobless future, Trotto's moustache wraps into a big goofy grin while he speaks.
"Used to be we didn't have the automated betting machines. I'd be in the booth, cashing winners from 8 p. m. to 1 in the morning. I'd be wet with sweat but I'd clear $600-$700 a week in tips alone. One time a high-roller gave me a $200 trifecta ticket as a tip, just like that. But you had to be sharp. Some customers would try and pull one on you, hand you a loser like it was a winner. You messed up a payout, it came out of your paycheck. In those days, customers had a full 15 minutes between games to place their bets, but it was a scramble to keep up with the demand. We didn't know what to do. For a while we had the tele-bets, girls that roamed around taking bets from the crowd. We wanted to ease the crush at the windows. Problem was, the girls would only pay attention to the high-rollers. The average guy couldn't place his bet in time. And some of the girls, we found out, weren't just selling tickets, they were selling themselves. Tele-bets didn't last long."
- Lester Trotto
Tucked under and around the grandstand is an entire mall, two restaurants, a bar, a lounge, an ice cream parlor and a souvenir shop. Banks of betting machines squat everywhere. Far to the fronton's rear is something called the "Sportsview Center," a dark octagon of TV screens, betting machines and a snack bar. Three men sit on fraying chairs, smoking cigarettes and watching the screens.
Milford Jai Alai was never allowed to simulcast live horse racing--a major factor in the decision to close the fronton. In the dim light, some of the screens flicker with race results--numbers only. You can bet the horses and win here, you just can't watch the action. The scene feels like death's anteroom.
"You should have seen it on Memorial Day, 1983. Foggy, dewy weather. You couldn't see past the traffic circle. The people, they just kept appearing out of the clouds at the door. Record crowd, over 7,000. You could barely move in here. We put on a huge buffet brunch. What a spread: eggs to order, London broil, crab even, you name it. We had more games in those days--15 per matinee. More chances to bet, huge pools. The handle was almost 800 grand for one performance! Nowadays we're lucky we see $550,000 total in a week."
- Rich Vanderscoff
Lenny Meyers looks a bit like Dick Cheney might after a massage. Blue blazer, oxford shirt open at the collar, he has owned Milford Jai Alai since 1982. Meyers collects LeRoy Neiman paintings, but "only the ones that depict gambling scenes," he says. Meyers' office is cool black leather, with several TVs tuned to financial news. A few steps up from Meyer's lair is a small, swanky lounge with a picture window directly over the jai alai court. Perfect spot for cocktails. I ask Meyers what will become of his beloved fronton.
"Whatever the buyer wants," he says.
The fronton hosted concerts for a time in the '80s, once featuring Donna Summer. According to PR director Heussler, however, the building is "'tweener": too small for an intimate show, too big for a scene. The acoustics are terrible. Although few who work there like to think about it, the fronton will probably be struck by a wrecking ball.
"I doubt very much this building will still be standing once that developer comes through," predicts Heussler.
Perhaps part of the 26-acre lot will be a Bed, Bath and Beyond.
Bob Heussler has spent most of his professional life in and around Milford Jai Alai. Lean and tall with a pliant mane of graying hair, Heussler speaks with the relaxed cadence and clarity of a radio man. In his non-jai-alai time, he provides sports updates on WFAN and serves as the play-by-play announcer for Fairfield University basketball games. Heussler began his career fresh from the University of Bridgeport announcing jai alai performances in 1977. In 1982, he became Milford Jai Alai's publicity director. He is an eloquent spokesman for the game.
"Before Fidel Castro came along and threw it out, there was a fronton in Havana with a lot of great players. You talk to people who saw it played in Havana, you can hear when they describe it that it was something special, exotic. Earnest Hemingway was a fan."
- Bob Heussler
Jai alai thrived without ever achieving a defining cultural moment, such as the Giants/Colts NFL Championship game in 1958 that seared pro football onto the American consciousness. Nonetheless, the game enjoyed some exposure.
"At Miami Jai Alai they used to have a nightclub that was the first place that Desi Arnez and his band played. There's a picture at Maimi Jai Alai of Eleanor Roosevelt with a basket in her hand throwing the pelota. Babe Ruth played in an exhibition set up in the Hippodrome in New York City. There are a lot of references like that. In our lifetime, the five seconds or so [of jai alai seen on the opening credits] of Miami Vice contributed to most people's perception of the game. Unfortunately, the show once filmed an episode in which jai alai was central to the plot. It was maybe the worst 60 minutes of television I've ever seen. Awful. Every negative stereotype you could imagine was exploited."
- Bob Heussler
In Milford, jai alai's gambling connection raised eyebrows right out of the gate. During the first year of play it was discovered that several Hartford and Milford Jai Alai players were being paid not to win. Four players were fired, and two were convicted, but the stigma--that of a game played by humans and bet upon by humans, and therefore readily fixed--stuck.
"Fixing is a stigma that's been attached to jai alai since the first bet was accepted, but if you work within the industry you're convinced of its honesty and integrity. When this place closes and I'm 10, 15 years removed from it and somebody asks me about jai alai, one thing I'll always swear to is the honesty of the game. I have an advantage, I know the players personally, I know about the Basque culture. I've seen countless numbers of games, tens of thousands, but I've met people who have seen one or two and are convinced that they know how it all works, which I've always found interesting. I gave up trying to convince them otherwise a long time ago."
- Bob Heussler
"I've been coming here to watch jai alai for 27 years. My husband, too. He doesn't bet money, but he always picks the winners. Oh yeah, the game's crooked. That player lost today because he won yesterday--it's not his turn. Don't pay attention to their records, just bet the numbers you like, like your license plate. That's what I do. When this place is gone we'll go to the dog track, OTB. I'll still bet jai alai, just not live."
- Dottie, row 17
Milford Jai Alai drew 1 million customers in its first six months. Last year, it drew less than 250,000 for a 12-month season. "The attendance after that first season kind of went into a decline because the novelty factor wore off," explains Heussler. "Look at the Bridgeport Bluefish down the street. You know the novelty factor wears off, people see the park, they say 'Oh that's great,' but they don't come back. However, some do and you settle in. We settled in for the longest time in the '80s as a pretty thriving business."
Nineteen-eighty-two through 1988 were the halcyon years here. The attendance was lower than the early days but the handles were much greater, reaching a peak in 1987 of $100 million.
In 1988, a nasty players' strike also tarnished the sport. Although the strike occurred during Milford's then six-month off-season, violent scenes erupted at the Hartford and Bridgeport frontons. Milford was hurt residually, say Heussler, because fans who experienced rough picket lines in Bridgeport and Hartford stayed away from Milford. The economic recession of the early-'90s made matters worse. A legal effort that barred children under 18 further hurt, preventing the fronton from grooming new fans. As Trotto says, "A father can take his kid to the horse track, but not to jai alai. How can we build a following without bringing in young people?" A catered Mother's Day brunch planned by Vanderscoff was a dud, he says, because "who wants to celebrate Mother's Day without their children?"
The biggest blow was the opening of Foxwoods casino in 1992 and Mohegan Sun a few years later. Once casino gaming hit the region, says Heussler, jai alai attendance dried up. "There's a real good reason why there's no live horse racing, no live jai alai and no greyhound racing in Las Vegas--because they can't compete against casino gambling. That said, we did compete. We hung in there for a while."
Prolonged battles with the state to allow slot machines, a bona fide life preserver, ended in failure in 1995. Newport Jai Alai, according to several Milford Jai Alai officials, remains in business solely because the state of Rhode Island allowed management to install video slot machines. "If you go, you don't see anyone watching the jai alai," alleges Vanderscoff and Trotto. "This I can say unequivocally," says Heussler. "Without slot machines Newport's closed."
A $40 million expansion plan would have been acted on, had legislation allowing slot machines passed. Half of the grandstand and the upstairs restaurant would have been gutted to make room. As a true "jai alai guy," Heussler says he would have been saddened by the presence of the machines, but would have taken the trade-off for survival. "We didn't know it then," he says, "but we had an idea that once slots went by the boards, the sand in our hour glass was running out fast."
Simulcasting was a Trojan horse welcomed into the fronton. Before 1995, a gambler had to physically be in the building to place a bet. Simulcasting let those in Norwalk, or Waterbury bet jai alai from an OTB outlet. It increased the fronton's handle (sometimes from peculiar places. According to Trotto, "some guy bets $30 a day on us in the Virgin Islands") but diminished attendance. Furthermore, horse racing venues and Bridgeport's Shoreline Star greyhound track refused to carry Milford Jai Alai's feed. In August of 2001, the town of Milford granted the fronton $300,000 in refunded tax money. It wasn't enough.
Of Milford's 48 jai alai players, only 12 are expecting to be picked up by frontons in Florida [See "Farewell to the Fronton"]. Many of the rest will return to Spain. Some employees, like concessions stand manager Barbara Donarumo, are moving on to work at the casinos. Trotto has "no idea" what he will do next. "I'm 53 years old and haven't looked for a job in so long," he says. "I've got no skills."
Heussler will most likely turn to his announcing work. Jai alai will be missed, he says. "The state is losing something unique. For better or worse, jai alai made us [Connecticut] a little different. The state was able to give somebody traveling through a slice of culture they couldn't get anywhere else. When you lose something like that, you at least pause before letting it get away."
The official pause occurred on Dec. 1, when Milford hosted "Nostalgia Night." The fronton brought back many of its star players to say farewell and retired Juaristi's number in a special ceremony. Heussler produced ceramic coffee mugs featuring the name of every player who ever played at Milford, 282 in all, that were given away free. Preparing for a big crowd, Heussler ordered 1,000 mugs. Before the doors opened 500 people were clambering to get in, and the line stretched halfway around the building all the way to the old traffic circle. The mugs were gone before the start of the first game. In all, 2,201 fans showed up, the best turnout in years. "It shows fans are still there," said Heussler. "They've scattered every which way over the years, but there are still people who have good memories of this place."
Farewell to the Fronton
Earnings are based on performance, and Leon Shepard earned $72,000--about $20,000 more than the average player earns--playing jai alai last year. A native of Bridgeport who attended Harding High School, Shepard plays under the name "Tevin," after the R&B singer (like professional wrestlers, jai alai players incorporate a one-word pseudonym in place of their frequently challenging foreign surnames). A natural lefty in a right-handed sport, Shepard has won two World Series of Jai Alai championships. Out of the 48 players on Milford's roster, he is one of the very best. Shepard is fortunate--his career will most likely continue when Milford Jai Alai closes, probably at the Miami fronton, which will let go some of its weaker players in return for Milford's finest.
Shepard, like many of his colleagues, was stunned by the closing announcement. "I feel badly," he says. "Some players are going to be stuck without a job, some are going to have to go back to Spain, some guys who made their lives here and have wives and kids, I don't know what they're going to do."
Although they are professional athletes performing nine times a week, some of the Milford players sport rather schlumpy physiques, like that of a cashier. Tevin is lean but not buff, even though he practices a regular weightlifting regimen.
"You used to look out and see the fans in the rows, and all their heads would be turning with the ball and it looked crazy because you'd see all the people going back and forth and cheering and the court used to be so smoky. It was fun. The fans make the game exciting," Shepard says.
"The fans know everything about you, it's amazing. Five years ago I became golfing friends with [ex-New York Knick] Chris Childs. Next time I played poorly, some guy yells out, "Why don't you go caddy for Chris Childs?'"
His finest memory is of his very first performance in 1992. "The game was pretty wild, my family had never seen me play before and I made a few points and then won the next game."
Shepard's mother attended most weekend performances, but since becoming a minister no longer patronizes Milton Jai Alai because she objects to gambling.
Alberto Bereciartua, 32, comes from a jai alai family. For years his father ran a fronton in Benidorm, Spain. Bereciartua arrived in America in 1991 to play jai alai. Now 32, when Milford closes, Bereciartua will retire and return to his homeland. He will not seek to play elsewhere.
"I'm tired," he says when asked why he will retire. "Jai alai is too tough. After playing so many years, when you wake up in the morning and either your arm hurts of your back hurts. So, I'm using this opportunity to start a new life in my hometown.
"I love this country," Bereciartua adds. "I love the people here."
However, he is eager to return to his family and his roots in Spain. "Over there we live a different way. There's not much rush. Everybody here thinks about making and spending money. Over there, people take things easier, they enjoy life more."
Like Shepard, Xabat (pronounced shah-baht) Alcorta will most likely continue playing in Florida. Alcorta, 30, has played at Milford since 1988 after emigrating from Bolivar, Spain. He has played more than 18,000 games, which he says is the third-most for a player in the history of jai alai. Slowed this year by tendonitis, Alcorta will take some time to rest his aching shoulder and complete his Associate's Degree in electrical engineering. Coincidentally, Alcorta's professor at Gateway Community College is Don Lostritto, the author of the 1985 book, Jai Alai: Wagering To Win. He is placing his house in Milford up for sale.
Alcorta is worried about the future of the game he has played since age 12. "Some people are saying the Miami fronton is struggling, and Dania [another fronton in Florida] is not that good. I don't know what to believe."
According to Alcorta, the game is even dwindling in Spain. "Years ago a professional jai alai player working in the U.S. could make a decent amount of money, especially when exchanged for Spanish pesetas. But now we have the Euro, which is pretty much like the dollar, so it's not as big an income as it was. And in Spain the season is only five months long."
Developmental schools in Spain that were underwritten by Connecticut's frontons closed down when the industry began to suffer in the 1990s. Only one school remains. Basque fans are moving on as well. "In Spain 10 years ago the frontons were full. Now you don't see that many people. It's kind of dying slowly."
Adds Bob Heussler, Milford's director of public relations, "The game's not going anywhere; they'll be playing it for centuries to come. But it's not going to be played in the numbers it once was. Maybe in somebody else's lifetime the game will come back."