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Originally published by The Northern Star News Magazine
Issue date: January, 2013
Used with permission

DANIA JAI ALAI
Jimmy V.

The Fleischman Chronicles
A Forty Year Jai-Alai Journey
Part 1 of a Two-Part Series

 

Heading toward his boat for the weekly weekend excursion on the Tampa Bay waterways, "Salty" Sol Fleischman's six year-old son would inquire, "What is J-Alley?" as they drove down South Dale Mabry Highway passing Tampa Jai-Alai. 57 years later sitting in the soon to retire Assistant General Manager's office, Marty Fleischman reminisces with a child's smile upon the last forty-plus years like he was still in the backseat of his father's car headed to the waterways. Little did Sol, former longtime Sports Director at Channel 13 in Tampa, and the young Fleischman know that the now Home Depot and former Tampa fronton would be home to Marty's first employment upon graduating from the University of Florida with a degree in Advertising and career start within the sport which would last over forty years.

Sitting at his desk at Dania Jai-Alai as he joined the management
team there in 1998 after 27 years at World Jai-Alai.

Fleischman would enter the fronton for the first time as a senior at Plant High in 1967 at the coaxing of a friend who was an avid fan of the game and wagering. After using his fake identification to gain admittance into the fronton as all patrons were required to be 21 at the time, Fleischman discovered an immediate love for the "cracking" of the pelota against the frontis and passion for the game. Reliving his first visit, the former Plant High grad, describes an experience of an underage high school or college student purchasing alcohol or getting into a nightclub using his or her fake ID for the first time can relate to, a heart-pounding moment in which life seems to have stopped. Fleischman was allowed access by imposing fear of God, Tampa Sheriff, Olin Harrell, who years later would work alongside Fleischman at the Tampa fronton.

As a freshman on holiday vacation to visit a fellow Tau Epsilon Phi fraternity brother Ron Aranow in south Florida, Marty threw his first rubber ball on the North Miami Amateur court. After renting cestas for 50 cents each and sliding their hands into the sweaty worn gloves of the baskets, the Gator "frat" brothers hammered the ball continuously into the ground prior to eventually hitting the front wall of the small court. The next day the two "brothers" were back for more and Fleischman's passion bloomed further for Jai-Alai. The introduction to actually throwing the pelota with a cesta, of which he knew the name of the curved wicker basket at a young age as one hung in his family's Florida room growing up, led Fleischman to admittedly majoring in Jai-Alai during his remaining time in Gainesville; weekend trips would be made to Daytona Beach and eventually Tampa to practice on the courts where the legends of the game played.


1973, Ocala's first season trophy presentations: l to r. Marty, pr director; Enrique Beitia, player manager;
Joey, frontcourt champion; Gorrono, backcourt champion; Buddy Gilbert, first GM at Ocala;
Buddy Berenson, President and part owner; Ben Trustman, Chairman of the Board.

A month prior to graduation at UF, Fleischman was summoned by Ernie Larsen, then Tampa Jai-Alai G.M., to immediately accept the position of Public Relations Director. Attempting to explain that he could not just get up and quit his college education with a mere month left, Fleischman, after much pleading, was allowed to work weekend nights until graduation. Larsen, of course, figured employing the young Fleischman would provide greater access to the Tampa area evening news for his product with "Salty" Sol still in the reigns as Sports Director at Channel 13 - a good bet for sure. At Tampa, Fleischman, who is a self-described long-haired hippie, wearing bell bottom pants, platform shoes and flowery colored shirts, was the antithesis of his first boss, Larsen. Marty had found heaven…a position promoting a game he loved at a salary of $175 per week along with twenty percent commission of program advertisement sales for only five months a year. As Fleischman simply remarked, "I was rich."

Of course the stories, as anyone who has ever worked in a management position in the pari-mutuel world will tell you, would begin to be a mass for Fleischman. The incidents which arise in the world which is pari-mutuels simply are indescribable to one who is employed in the real world as they would not believe the story-teller. Three weeks into his new position, Fleischman overseeing and working alongside his announcers in "the booth" then looks down to witness a classic. Ralph A. (last name withheld), Tampa's top announcer, a Marty favorite and tenured five-years, is put in handcuffs between games while "on the clock" in the middle of the main auditorium with a Saturday night crowd of 6,000 in attendance for fisticuffs with a shylock (obviously the wrong one) he had borrowed money from to support his between game wagering investments. Welcome to the pari-mutuel life. Marty, in amazement, just looked at Statistician Mike Menendez by his side, and stated, "I guess you need to announce the rest of the performance." And with classics like that and others to follow, who would ever want the real 9 to 5 world…some will be shared here; others are more fit for a local watering hole or kept within the "Secret Society."

Joey, the best American to ever play, receives two
of the Summer Jai-Alai trophies in the late 80s.

As a side-note … an Autotote Manager who previously was a MJA mutuel teller told me while at the fronton on the corner of 36th Street and 37th Avenue in my early days, "Get out kid while you can, it's like quicksand. You will never be able or want to leave." Around the same time, Fleischman would proof read a story for me written about Miami Backcourter, Jackie Hernandez for Miami Jai-Lites' Editor-in-Chief Dave Lemmon numerous times, finally saying, "Jimmy, War and Peace was written in a quicker amount of time." Since then, through the last eighteen-plus years and heart-breaking Fantasy Baseball seasons year after year for each of our teams the laughs shared have been countless at Miami and Dania alike. One only needs to spend a little time with Fleischman to realize a sense of humor is a prerequisite for an extended life of sanity in the pari-mutuel world and the never ending days, hours and characters. Back to the '70's.

Marty does the first play-by-play of a major tournament on subscription
television's On TV with assistant Kevin Koffman and Tom Contreras.
This was the first of 3 broadcasts that became classics.

Following the five-month long "live" season, Fleischman, the martini imbibing Larsen, Bob Grossberg, President of the United States Amateur Jai-Alai Association, Fred Pettit, Vice President of the Association and the all-time great Piston as coach, traveled to the Basque Country with amateurs Joey, Kirby, Nickerson and Hernandez to compete in the World Amateur Championship in 1971. Dania representative, Public Relations Director and published author Kathryn Harrington would watch alongside the Tampa contingent. The Americans would win their first ever match in World Championship play and their first medal, a bronze competing against France, Spain, Mexico and the Philippines. Fleischman describes the trip like it was yesterday watching Frontcourters Joey and Kirby who would sign with Miami and Dania respectively following the tournament, along with Backcourter Hernandez, whose vocal parents had made the trip and the unique Daytona-bred Nickerson. Fleischman attempted to keep a straight face while describing Backcourter Nickerson who surfed, drank beer, played Jai-Alai barefoot and just dominated play with his strength and power. The local tradition-laden Basques and opponents were amazed and in the same breath not pleased that the barefooted pelotari could play cards all night and drink beer in the stands with his feet up on the chair in front of him PRIOR to competing and winning. Beautiful.

Day 1 of the Fleischman chronicles ended with his 3-month backpack trip with fellow UF Gator, Neil Einhorn, to the Basque Country prior to the opening of Ocala Jai-Alai in 1973 and following the '72 Tampa season. Einhorn , a great amateur player and huge Jai-Alai supporter to this day, still attends Miami Jai-Alai's Wednesday matinees weekly. Sleeping in a small rented car, on the streets or wherever one could crash, the two Jai-Alai aficionados with scantily filled backpacks traveled the entirety of Europe including Markina, Durango, Gernika and even finding a homesick Joey, who at 17, had traveled to the home of the "Merry Festival" to play summer partidos; America's Greatest of All-Time and Marty still share a bond and communicate often remembering that first trip with Piston, the 'Little League-enthused" Hernandez's paternal units and the barefoot, beer drinking Nickerson. Along the way, Fleischman and Einhorn ended up on the small island of Palma de Majorca to find Miami's Iturregui and Tampa's Bascaran and Cruz for nights on the town and a safe place to rest, unlike the streets of London. After reaching their final destination of Copenhagen, Denmark following being asked to politely leave a Monte Carlo casino along the way, the duo headed back to Tampa.

Day 2. Throughout the remainder of the '70's Fleischman would work the Tampa/Ocala circuit. In addition to the two Florida frontons, Marty also took on the responsibility of setting up the Announcers' Booth and coordinating the media tour to promote the opening of Hartford Jai-Alai; the Hartford fronton was the first in the northeast opening on May 20, 1976 - fitting as that day is Fleischman's birthday. The late seventies witnessed Jai-Alai's heyday. Tampa with a seating capacity of 3,000 was drawing 6,000-7,000 patrons while Ocala with only a seating capacity of 1,200 would pack in attendees to the rafters in excess of 2,100. At the time, Miami Jai-Alai was drawing near 15,000. As Marty indicated, "I loved dealing with the public and media." Fleischman's working relationship with the Tampa and Ocala pelotaris was as strong as the media contacts he befriended and congealed and wove into the fabric of fans of the "Merry Festival," who could not get enough of covering the World's Fastest Game.

Marty in his early days at Tampa and Ocala checking out his cesta
and he was preparing to play in an amateur jai-alai tournament in 1973.

Fourteen years prior to the 1988 Players Strike, the Teamsters were attempting to unionize the Jai-Alai players in 1974. The Miami pelotaris had voted to unionize and Tampa was next on voting for or against joining the Teamsters. With the assistance of roommate and Tampa pelotari, Ricky Solaun (who eventually went on to become Assistant Players' Manager at Tampa and Miami), Fleischman was able to ascertain the players' concerns at the time were the discretionary bonuses handed out at the end of each season and the boleto (players' prize money). John Callahan, President and Rick Wallace, Vice President (who later became owner of Shorty's Barbecue) new to the industry were aware of Fleischman's bond with the Tampa players and flew up to meet with Marty prior to the Tampa vote; the new President and Vice-President assured Fleischman that the players' issues would be met and taken care of. Fleischman relayed the message from Callahan and Wallace in a meeting with close to a dozen Tampa players at his apartment. Tampa players voted against unionizing. Although Callahan and Wallace were true to their word and player concerns were taken care of, Fleischman looks back grateful to have been assistance as a liaison at the time between ownership and players, but also plays Monday Morning Quarterback with himself…wondering, "what if?" he had not intervened and the pelotaris joined the Teamsters…would that have prevented the two and half year strike in the late '80's?


Having been born and raised in Tampa, Fleischman in December 1979 just prior to the '80 "Live" Season, would receive a call from Miami Jai-Alai General Manager, H. Paul Rico, "Fleischman, you're coming to Miami…pack a trunk," said Rico in his unmistakable voice with cigar planted in the corner of his mouth. Originally thinking he was only going for less than a week, Rico informed Fleischman he was coming to America's oldest fronton as the new Corporate Director of Public Relations; HPR truly meant a car trunk. With only three months to his wedding date to his beautiful, effervescent bride to be, Sue, to be held at Bush Gardens, March 30th, Marty packed two full suitcases and took an Eastern Airlines flight to Miami International. The unshaven Fleischman wearing t-shirt, jeans and sandals would never see his bags again - lost forever. A press conference with the Miami media, as Jai-Alai was the only other professional sport in town other than the Dolphins, had already been scheduled. The long haired hippie with no clothes to change into, the new Corporate Director of PR now with the responsibility of overseeing Miami, Ft. Pierce, Tampa, Ocala and Hartford greeted Hammerin' Hank Goldberg (now of ESPN) and the rest of the media "as is." A classic.

The '80's in Miami would expose the now married Fleischman to unthinkable real-life situations not taught in Gainesville classrooms. Hard work and dedication had enabled the UF Grad to reach his new position of Corporate Director of PR, although his dream of Tampa General Manager always remained with him since first interviewing with his first boss, Larsen. Larsen had told him upon hiring Fleischman that Marty would sit in his (Larsen) seat one day.

In about 1990, Marty got a call that Jackie Gleason wanted to come to Miami Jai-Alai one night by himself.
Marty and Jackie sat in VIP Box overlooking court watching the games and talking.
Jackie died the next year.

Only a little over a year into his new position while in a meeting on March 14, 1981, which might have actually been a game of gin - the card game that is, in the office of President, Richard P. Donovan and HPR, a call came in that World Jai-Alai Owner, Roger Wheeler had been shot in Tulsa, Oklahoma. As Fleischman came into his office the following day, he would find no less than forty Post-it notes requesting returned calls regarding the murder of the Chairman of Telex and owner of four Jai-Alai frontons, have recently sold Hartford Jai-Alai. Sitting at his Dania desk, Marty looked at his calendar as if they were still there rattling off the national news outlets - CBS, NBC, ABC including one from Dan Rather as well as the print media --New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, just to name a few, wanted to speak to Fleischman on how a man of God, whose golf course locker was next to Oral Roberts, could be killed in broad daylight upon leaving the course of his weekly round.

Making a call to Donovan on what he should do, the President told Fleischman simply, "Handle it," but was there to provide advice, support behind the scenes; Marty would call each back and perform all interviews. That evening his television Sports Directing father would call him, "Son, I've been on television for decades, but I've never been on the national 'Evening News'." Fleischman would go on the defensive for weeks, months that the murder at the well-renown Southern Hills Golf Course had nothing to do with Jai-Alai. UF still does not have a class to prepare for that one.

Marty and one of Tampa Jai-Alai's top frontcourters Jose Ricardo Solaun,
who became Marty's closest friend of all the players.
Solaun later became asst. player manager in Miami.

Marty will retire at the close of the first week of 2013; the corporate world needs more Fleischmans with loyal, and dedicated company-individuals who know when to be serious, but prefer the top button of their dress shirt unbuttoned and share laughs often. The Fleischman Chronicles continue next month with the unthinkable -- another murder, a national media tour with America's greatest pelotari, the longest players' strike in professional sports history, finally receiving his dream job offer and "a breath of fresh air"- a move from United States' southernmost fronton to Dania Jai-Alai.

Originally published by The Northern Star News Magazine
Issue date: January, 2013
Used with permission


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