Click. At 5:30 p.m. the key is turned on them. For eight hours, by Florida law, they are incarcerated: 40-odd jai alai players, innocent scapegoats of the only sport in the U.S. designed for men to bet legally on men. At the renowned Miami fronton they might just as well be running a Peter Pan ride at Walt Disney World. No mustaches or beards; hair mustn't overlap the ear; sideburns monitored more carefully than the critical mass of an atomic pile. It's the image. After all, a clean-shaven man looks more honest. Remember Nixon's five o'clock shadow?
If wife or father places even a
$2 bet, the husband or son conceivably could be barred from jai
alai. Players are not allowed to show emotion in public. Well,
a whacked thigh is permissible. One whack anyway. Perhaps the
helmet can be wrenched off in pique. More dramatic expressions
of disgust draw a fine. When they sit in the players' cage, protected
by thick glass like so many Eichmanns on trial, the players' manager,
their very punctilious alma pater, darts glances back at them
through a big rearview mirror -- the kind you see in supermarkets
where shoplifting is prosecuted to the full extent. They can't
stare out at the crowd or make amiable hand gestures or even wink
at the groupies who adore noisily just 10 feet away. Of course,
you say, this is because jai alai has been shot through with fixed
games. Of course, you're wrong. In more than 40 years there hasn't
been a single scandal. As Milt Roth, Miami's very bearded public-relations
head, will tell you, "We're superconscious. We try to keep
these guys as clean as possible. We overemphasize and overstress
some of these things."
Pedro Mir is players' manager at Miami. It's an impossible job, and Pedro Mir has been doing it for 42 years, sometimes 16 hours a day. A burly, expansive, cheerful man. Jolly, with a caroming chuckle. Jolly, but tough. Very tough. A disciplinarian. "Every play that is played and everything that happens on the court, I know," he says. When he's not glancing over his shoulder in the players' box, he's watching on a closed circuit TV beside his desk. As for the Eisenhower-age grooming standards, he says, "I want to do it like that and they don't give me much trouble about it. They understand it and I think they look better." Then, confidentially, as your doctor would speak, "It's better for them because wearing the helmet and perspiring with too much hair, it's bad, it's antihygienic." Try telling Joe Namath that he's antihygienic.
Mir can get away with it. You see, three-quarters
of his players are Basque. (The fourth quarter are Mexican, South
American and French. There are just three Americans, one born
in Cuba.) For the Basque, strictness and discipline are national
traits. One Basque player explains, "We have very tough fathers
and we respect everybody." Sometimes one parent will emigrate
as chaperon. How can you keep 'em down on a farm after they've
seen the Eden Roc? Mir makes no apologies. Scouting is a part
of his job, and, he says, "We keep the history of everyone,
and before any player goes to one of our schools we screen them.
They must come from a very reliable family."
The players respect Pedro Mir, who was American singles and doubles champ twice. Yet the respect is part fear, part anger. Mir belongs to management. A jai alai player is paid according to performance: so much for so many wins, places, shows over a season. You can't win if you don't play, and Mir decides how often you play; just the first two games maybe, or five times, including the prestigious 10th and 12th games. It's the difference between a claimer at Hialeah and the featured eighth race. Better players play more. They get better and they get bettors. It's a vicious round robin. Mir is also the handicapper. By maneuvering post positions and doubles partners (there are very few singles games) he can balance the competition. "Right now I have players who want me to put them in more games, but I don't have room for them. I have to look at the business. I have to put games together that people will bet on." At the Miami fronton you don't say play me or trade me.
1968, three weeks before the season opened, Miami's roster went
on strike. The action was well organized. Five of six frontons
in Florida went out. Pedro Mir sighs, "They wanted 33% of
the business and, not only that, they wanted only four players
to be changed every year. They were very close friends of mine.
They were very nice people. They were wrong." So, as the
old joke goes, management put all its Basques in one exit. Three
weeks later it had rounded up 40 lukewarm bodies from Spain, Mexico,
Italy, the Philippines, France. Though these scabs were inept
by comparison, the season opened on time. Good athletes make the
game more exciting, more credible to the gambler, but most jai
alai bettors play numbers, and a 2-6 quiniela by any other name
is a 2-6 quiniela.
Now the parent firm, World Jai Alai Inc., owns four frontons. Two are winter operations, Miami and Tampa. Fort Pierce and Ocala are open now, but both are modest arenas, Fort Pierce's capacity being only 2,500 compared to Miami's 14,000. Local interest is minimal and the summer frontons must draw from Miami and Palm Beach. Sometime during 1976 World Jai Alai plans to open a fifth fronton in, of all places, Hartford, Conn. An average player takes down $15,000 net in the four-month winter season (as foreigners on visas, the corporation must guarantee their income taxes, so every salary is "grossed up"). Players then have the option of working, presumably at reduced wages, in the summer frontons. The jai alai player suspects he is grossly (or netly) underpaid. The Miami fronton alone will handle $47 million this year: 12% to the corporation, 5% to the state. Do a little multiplication. Those figures aren't petty cash. No question, should another strike occur, World Jai Alai Inc. would find, invent, disinter another 40 or 80 or 120 players, even if Pedro Mir and a beardless Milt Roth had to go one-on-one for 12 games per night; Jai alai has become a very big business.
Very big, also very beautiful. And, like' most beautiful things, dangerous. Just north of Miami, in the rival Dania fronton, there is a display of bulletproof glass shattered by jai alai balls moving at 150 mph. The ball (pelota) is made of Brazilian rubber and is hand-stitched baseball style. But it is three-quarters as big as a baseball, 10 times the price (about $70 each) and harder than a golf ball. The combination of speed, size and hardness is savage. This year, in the Orlando fronton, one player lost an eye. Last year a pelota, which had already traveled 176 feet, hit the players' cage wiring with such velocity that it expanded the diamond mesh. Pedro Mir got 27 stitches in his forehead and the players' cage got a glass barrier. Even with mandatory helmets, the pelota can kill. The basket (cesta) looks rather like a 1921 Stutz Bearcat front fender. Cestas are ribbed. On just an ordinary throw, the ribbing produces English harder to read than Chaucer. From the players' cage you can watch pelotas jump and flutter. Imagine Wilbur Wood throwing half again as fast as Nolan Ryan. It's a wonder the players can see the ball, let alone return it.
Yet they do more than that. Backcourt men climb the long sidewall, catch the ball and in one motion return it more than 150 feet before the pelota succumbs to gravity. Often on rebote shots (a return from the back wall), frontcourt men will sprawl headlong, snag and hurl the ball to the front wall, like violent sleepers turning over in bed. It's spectacular and getting more so. Joey Cornblit, an 18-year-old American of Israeli parentage, has changed the game single-basketedly. Spanish jai alai is played in 30-point partitas; energy conservation enforced a defensive strategy. Each point, however, is crucial in the American round-robin version. Milt Roth loves it: "Joey attacks these guys, he doesn't give them the chance to catch the ball two times. He's going to put you out as soon as he possibly can or you're going to put him out." At 18 Joey ranks with the world's top ten frontcourt men, "He made these guys realize that the catch-and-throw style of jai alai is going to end."
That's up front, on court. Off court, in the players' room, you'd get more thrills waiting in line for your unemployment check. Newsmen can enter only after a Florida Racing Commission representative has been informed, the doors being unlocked, then quickly locked again. The room is quiet; it reminds one of a bus station after midnight. Now and again there will be howled Basque expletives, some loser who has repressed his exasperation until he is offstage. Three or four play a form of Spanish gin rummy. The cards seem unserious, being marked with vegetables and fruits, not numbers. The game doesn't interest the players much. Others desultorily watch a large color TV.
For players who are through after
Game Two or Three, there's a four-hour wait. When there are matinees
some players are locked in at noon, and though the racing commission,
with exorbitant graciousness, lets them out to eat between sessions,
it's a long work shift. Tensions accumulate; players grow to dislike
other players. They become snappish, like the crew of a submarine
under depth-charge attack. Practical jokes are engineered. Nothing
will affect a player's game more radically than Gillette Foamy
shave cream squirted in his cesta. Milt Roth says, "The classic,
of course, is if you've got a good cesta and they know it and
you're winning; they'll sit down on the cesta and break it."
Randy Lazenby, another American, who at 23 looks like a young James Cagney, isn't in Cornblit's class. He's above average, perhaps, and this has been his first really good season. In fact, Lazenby was one of those lukewarm bodies management scrounged up after the 1968 strike. "I would've liked a little more experience as an amateur, but I had to take the chance when they offered it to me," he says. With 75 wins at Miami, Lazenby was playing Games One through Four and, as a bonus, Pedro Mir had been giving him starts in the important 10th game. Milt Roth says that a summer at Fort Pierce improved him, but when pressed Lazenby says only, "I found the magic. It's up here." And it must be: confidence, concentration. Jai alai players have the same hangups that pinch hitters have. Endless readiness. For eight hours of waiting, there are at most five or six minutes of actual play. Lose one point in an eight-team round robin and you go to the end of the line, where you sit hoping that no one will run up a winning seven points before your next chance comes.
Even after a raise this year, Lazenby says, "I don't feel I'm well compensated, but every player who is here will tell you the same thing. Cestas cost $50. You play with one for a week and it's ready to be thrown away. It's just too weak. The Basques manage to save money; they find ways, I don't know how. I'm always short. "
And, always short, Lazenby has to welcome the matinee season. "So many games that you forget what day it is," he says. "I've always felt it gives me more chance to win more games." There are no hair-oil commercials for jai alai players. Sporting-goods stores in Miami don't stock "Joey" or "Randy" cestas. Though World Jai Alai Inc. operates its own schools here and in Europe, few American teen-agers are attracted: little TV coverage, only agate summaries in the papers, no college scholarships. There are few coaching or management jobs for the retired jai alai player. "I don't think I'll find my future in the U.S.," Lazenby says.
Has he ever been hit? Randy frowns,
as if at an indelicate remark. "You never think about it."
He pauses. "You never think about it."
Jai alai patrons are as diverse as fingerprints. Dania is to Miami roughly as Monticello, N.Y. on a Saturday night is to Aqueduct on a Saturday afternoon. The Dania bettor seems less experienced, more a tourist, more white. You see lots of gray hair at the open sport-shirt neck, cigars, pinkie rings, black socks and white shoes. Women are evening-dressed, with the inevitable light sweater, there being only two weathers in Florida: air-conditioned and not air-conditioned. Dania, though smaller, does very good business, but the players, many of whom are first-rate, remain pretty much anonymous. You hear, "Come on, No. 3!" not "Come on, Urquidi!" or "Come on, Uribar!"
At the Miami fronton there are many more Latin and black clients with shirts open not only at the neck but three, four buttons down. The Miami fan, like the Knick fan, is much more sophisticated. He knows the players; he can give an intelligent Bronx cheer. Before Batista lost out to Castro, Havana had the world's best jai alai. Miami's Cuban community provides a hard core of fans, also a softer core of groupies who flash their qualifications night after night outside the players' cage.
In March in Miami the average attendance
is 10,000 on Friday and Saturday nights and bettors need a Larry
Little ahead of them to reach the windows. Florida law requires
a 12:30 closing (midnight on Saturdays). If one game runs long,
over 20 minutes, it can cost World Jai Alai Inc. as much as $40,000
worth of betting time. The arena, which dates from 1925, can't
be expanded. No question about it, dollar for dollar jai alai
offers the very best way to lose money. Two dollars will buy you
15 minutes of ferocious action, compared to about a minute and
a half of horses or two minutes of dogs.
hasn't been easy. L. Stanley (Buddy) Berenson, chairman of Miami
Jai Alai, is a handsome and personable man who always looks startled,
wide-eyed, as if you'd just awakened him from a nap, but he is
alert nonetheless. His suit is quiet, conservative. Berenson wears
one of those strange dark-faced, expensive watches. It doesn't
tell time. You have to ask it. Politely. The Berenson family has
dedicated itself to jai alai for years. "Like many things
in the Depression it went sour. My dad came in then and fought
the battle. He got pari-mutuel wagering legalized in 1935. And
from then on it was slow but uphill every year." Why Hartford
now? Milt Roth answers, "Connecticut is the state that allowed
the bill. We'd love New York City, but, see, we have a big problem.
Nobody wants us in their state when they have nighttime operations
because they know how popular we become. We'd knock the hell out
of Roosevelt or Yonkers."
World Jai Alai has the experience and clout to make Hartford go. There's a fronton in Las Vegas. Another may open in Newport, R.I. Jai alai has begun a guerrilla assault on the nation. Yet, as attendance grows, as newspaper and radio coverage capitulates to popularity, as the pari-mutuel handle nears, say, half a billion -- then bars on the players' cage will begin to rattle. The prisoners of jai alai will get restive. Perhaps Pedro Mir won't be around then. It would break his heart.
LETTER FROM THE PUBLISHER
D. Keith Mano, whose look into the world of jai alai begins on page 40, might readily be identified by SI readers as the whimsical inventor of "feetball" (SI, Nov. 18, 1974), a game that requires nothing more than three living room walls and an old Spaldeen. But Mano, 33, is more than a feetball player. He is the chief movie critic for Oui magazine. And when he isn't reviewing movies or consoling parishioners in his capacity as chairman of the Board of Advisors of St. Anne's Episcopal Mission near his home in Blooming Grove, N.Y. or rehearsing for a summer production of The Taming of the Shrew -- in which he plays Petruchio opposite his wife Jo's Kate -- he probably is reviewing a book for The New York Times or writing his column about manners for the National Review or polishing off his latest novel. "To make a living writing fiction you must produce a book every year," says Mano, currently working on a seventh novel, which he hopes to complete by next spring. "If you want to take two years, you've got to buy time somehow."
During an eight-year span beginning in 1965, when he was employed nine to five as vice-president of X-Pando Corp., a cement factory in Long Island City, Mano produced his first half-dozen novels. The critics were mellow. "Mr. Mano is very young in years," wrote The New York Times critic John Leonard, "and very old in miracles, scars, mysteries, talent." "At night I wrote fiction," says Mano. "During the day I wrote things like 'Ray, the cement you ordered is ready for pickup."
Two years ago Mano's book The Bridge caught Senior Editor Pat Ryan's eye. She invited him to write us a story. The result was It's Workmen's Compensation (SI, Nov. 5, 1973), an account of aging Americans caught up emotionally in playing softball -- a story "about love, not athletic prowess." For Mano, who has since left the cement business, the piece not only "bought some time," but also "made me important in the eyes of my son Roderick, who doesn't read fiction." Roderick is 10. Son Christopher, 4, remained unimpressed, Mano says, because he doesn't read anything.
Covering jai alai went surprisingly smoothly for Mano, even though he had never seen the game played before. "I liked the idea of having no idea what I'd find," he says. In Miami he met a ticket seller who invited him to a bar where the players hang out. "I thought, well, that might be interesting, but it didn't turn out to be, possibly because I don't speak Spanish and that's all they spoke there." Intrigued mostly by the restrictive policing of the whippet like Basques who play the game, Mano developed that angle. "Unlike any other athletes in this country," he says, "jai alai players are still very closely supervised. Management -- in its own words -- is oversensitive to displays of exhibition or rebellion."
One problem was the matter of Mano's own finances in relation to jai alai, a betting game. "I bet quinellas that seemed obvious and kept doubling my bets," he says. "Unfortunately, I lost most of the expense advance I had received for the story." No way, Keith, to buy time.