For the first time ever, a large group of N. Miami amateur players are coming up to play at the St. Pete cancha this weekend for a big fundraiser event.
The tournament is being put together by Jon “Belota” Morin, currently a player on the St. Pete “roster”. The fundraiser is being held to raise more cash to further enhance the playing experience at America’s first public court.
The overhead protection netting over the court will need raising up and work on the front wall and above padding will need additional work.
The cancha is the first and only public jai-alai court in America and opened in 2008. Last year, additional funds were raised to expand the court and after a long 6-month period, the court reopened in December of 2021. Under the direction of our contractors, Scott King and Eric Lanctot, the court is now one of the best amateur facilities in the world.
The players from the event are all making contributions. The event is being held at Puryear Park this weekend. There will be drinks, food, and free programs available.
It was my first official day. After making the familiar 25-minute drive to Miami Jai-Alai for 18 years, I was now approaching the vintage Dania Jai-Alai sign perched atop the rundown Pirates Hotel at Dania Beach Blvd. The neon arrow pointed to the right, towards the beach.
As I found a vacant spot in one of the numbered spaces in the Executive Parking Lot, I couldn’t help but notice the two cars parked in spaces #1 and #2. This had to be Steve Snyder’s (owner) and John Knox’s (general manager) two spots. I wondered how far down the line I was going to be.
Then, I got out of my car. I saw the multitude of Royal Palms waving in the ocean breeze. I could actually smell the salt from the Atlantic not more than a mile away. It almost felt like I was about to check into a resort and not actually reporting to work.
Miami Jai-Alai was so different. The entrance was right on a public street, NW 37th Avenue, in a very rundown area near the airport. I had been used to Tampa Jai-Alai, where there was an enormous parking lot separating our entrance from the busy Dale Mabry. It just always felt strange walking down the sidewalk to our Miami entrance.
Dania’s “modern” (actually built in the early 1950s and remodeled later) building was recessed back from Dania Beach Blvd (which was the road to the beach). The valet parking area separated the building from the street. There was a front and back entrance. Most fans entered the massive rear parking lot, peppered with palms. I was now standing on the side of the building, near the door to the executive offices. It was time to begin the new phase of my life, my life with Dania Jai-Alai.
“I’m Marty Fleischman, the new Assistant Manager,” I said to the friendly receptionist. “Oh, yes, our new Marketing Director,” she answered. “Go right up the elevator, Mr. Knox is waiting for you.” I wanted to say, “No, I’m the damn new Assistant Manager,” but she wasn’t wrong. I just didn’t want to be identified anymore as “the marketing guy.” I guess I felt a little like Dwight Shrute from “The Office” always wanting to be Assistant Regional Manager instead of Assistant to The Regional Manager.
Later, John took me down the hall and showed me my new office. Across the hall from me were two desks, one occupied by a short-haired lady, dressed kind of quirky. John said, “Marty, this the Marketing Secretary, Doanie.” First time I ever met a “Doanie” before. She eyed me cautiously not knowing my plans for her position. Truthfully, at that time, I did not know either.
“Brian uses this desk when he’s in,” John continued pointing to the area next to Doanie. Brian Sallerson was the fronton publicity guy, who would report to me. He had worked at the Sun Sentinel prior to joining Dania Jai-Alai. I had spoken to Brian a few times while I was at Miami. A very nice guy, he would handle many of the PR duties during the performances, like supervising the announcers and statistician. He would, also, help coordinate fronton promotions.
My formal introduction to the other department heads came at the weekly department head meeting John held in the conference room next door to my office. As the 9 people filed in, I noticed each went to a specific chair. I took the empty one.
I was now surrounded by “the enemy.” After all, this was Dania Jai-Alai, Miami’s arch rival. When I was in Miami, our goal was to have better players than Dania, to beat them in tournaments, to have higher attendance. Dania seemingly was “The Evil Empire” and I had now come over “to the dark side.” All eyes were on the new guy! Yet, they all had friendly smiles on their faces.
As John introduced me, each shook my hand and gave me a warm welcome. I only knew one of them, Player Manager Jose Arregui. He had been in Tampa and Ocala with me in my early years. We were good friends, and I was thrilled to have one known ally among the group. The others seemed genuinely happy I was joining the team.
I spoke briefly about my past experience in the sport of Jai-Alai, my past duties in Miami, and how long I had known John. The meeting ended after John asked each department head if they had anything to say, none spoke. It was obvious to me this was John’s “show.” He would bring everyone up to date on any news or problems. Few ever spoke. I would be the exception.
Dania Jai-Alai’s physical building was similar to other frontons, except for the location of the offices (on the side of the building). That first day, I would follow John out the door across from my office, down this long, winding hallway through the bowels of the fronton, finally pushing open two doors to enter the 2nd floor lobby. Unfortunately, I was not always paying attention to his route and often walked into utility closets or storage rooms. It would take me months before I could navigate my way from my office to the snack bar.
A few days into my new job, Steve Snyder calls me and asks, “Marty, do you play racquetball?” Remembering my early 1980s soiree into the racquetball fad, I quickly said, “Of course, why?” He told me that he had built an indoor racquetball court just upstairs from my office and to bring my paddle. If nothing else worked out here in Dania, at least I was going to get a few racquetball games in.
It’s been a little slow in the Jai-alai world and this story doesn’t really have anything to do with our sport, but it is gambling related, and I wanted to get this out there.
By now, as you know, the Mega Million lottery has passed the $ ONE BILLION mark going to the winner of the jackpot. This is the third time in the twenty-year history that the jackpot has surpassed that magical number. Not one ticket matched all six numbers drawn on Tuesday night, so the new drawing will take place Friday night, July 29th. The 11pm drawing will be the thirtieth in the jackpot run which began on April 19th.
The record payout of $1.537 billion was claimed in South Carolina on October 23, 2018 and remains as the world’s largest lottery prize ever won on a single ticket. Interest in the lottery has drawn unprecedented traffic with the website going down for over two hours Tuesday night.
The odds of winning this on a single ticket are 1/302.5 million, but the real winner is Uncle Sam. Most winners elect to claim all the money in one immediate sum versus an getting an annuity of 30 payments over 29 years. That payment would be $602.5 million, but the federal tax will take out another $144.6 million. Doesn’t sound fair, does it? No one lets us deduct money every year we lose money gambling on the lottery, slots, jai-alai or sports betting.
But this lottery news reminded me of a movie I watched a couple weeks ago. I don’t watch movies too often, but when I do, it’s to watch a movie based on a true story. I’ve watched just three movies in a theatre in the past 20-25 years and those were Moneyball, Richard Jewell and Black Mass. All obviously true stories.
The movie I watched is called Jerry & Marge Go Large. I thought the name of it was kind of stupid, until I watched it and realized what an amazing couple they were – and no wonder why they named the movie after them. It was released on the new streaming channel Paramount+ on June 17, 2022. It is based on a true story of a guy that figured out how to legally win a state lottery thru a mathematical loophole. Jerry Selbee had just retired from 42 years as a production line manager for Kellogg’s in a small Midwest town. He was bored with nothing to do until he studied the payoffs in the lottery game called “Winfall”. While reading the fine print, he noticed that the game had a unique feature that was called a “rolldown”. Unlike other high-paying games such as the Mega Millions mentioned earlier, the jackpot keeps building until someone hits all six numbers and wins the big prize. But in this game of Winfall, if the jackpot reaches the top prize of $5 million, and no one matched all six numbers, all the money is rolled down to the winners who matched fewer numbers. Mr. Selbee realized that he was guaranteed to win money if he bought enough tickets.
We don’t want to spell the beans on how this turned out, but the consortium he put together quickly netted them $26 million and an appearance on 60 Minutes in 2019. The distribution of the funds makes this a heartwarming story and is a must watch movie if you like this kind of stuff about mathematical geniuses and gambling. Maybe Jerry could figure out a way to win the billion dollars Friday night?
You can download Paramount+ for free for seven days as a trial without turning over any credit cards or information. The movie is only 96 minutes long and is more like a comedy-draw film that will keep your laughing and cheering especially when Jerry has a run-in with some smartass college kids. * * * *
Twelve years ago, Matt DiDomizio saved any form of jai-alai in Connecticut by building an amateur court in Berlin. A couple of years before that, Paul Kubala did the same thing on the west coast of Florida by lobbying the City of St. Petersburg to construct America’s first public court. Last year, Dania jai-alai announced they were closing shop after Florida legislators approved the decoupling of the sport while allowing parimutuel facilities to keep their other forms of gambling going such as slot machines and poker. That would have been the last remaining full size, goat-skin fronton in America, leaving “short court” Magic City as the last place to watch professional jai-alai.
The ancient Basque sport is still of life support, but there is still hope. Dania Casino earlier this year announced they were reopening for two months in December and January with a full roster and parimutuel wagering. The institution may see its 70th anniversary after all. Matt retired as being a mailman in his post pro jai-alai last year, and now devotes fulltime efforts on his cancha. The St. Pete court got a huge makeover last year and is now an excellent amateur facility with visitors coming hundreds of miles just to play.
Meanwhile, down in Miami, Magic City’s COO Scott Savin announced that they were committing to a 6th season to their unique version of rubber ball, small court jai-alai. But as he told Mark Saxon of USBets recently, the owners of the highly successful racino are going to have to start seeing a profit to keep jai-alai alive beyond 2023.
Savin told Saxon in the interview that “The owners give me a lot of latitude and they’ve been great about it. As long as we are increasing revenues, they’re good to go with it. If we stagnate or drop, they would tell me, and I would agree with them, that this was a wonderful experiment that didn’t go where we wanted it to go. But right now, everyone’s enthusiastic that we’re still very much in the growing phase and everything looks like it’s unfolding positively.”
Savin was the one that came up with the idea of opening jai-alai as an alternative to running dog racing at what was previously called Flager Greyhound Park. Dog racing had been running there since 1932 but it was costly to operate, and it took up a lot of land. There was a seldom known clause on the books that allowed parimutuel facilities to switch from dog or horse racing to jai-alai. Pompano Park was about to do the same thing a couple years ago by switching from harness racing to jai-alai. Plans were already in place for a newly constructed fronton. Calder did the same thing by opening their “fronton” and ditching horse racing that was actually being held at Gulfstream. They converted a second-floor concert hall into a condensed jai-alai court with glass walls due to weight issues a traditional court made of granite and concrete blocks would have presented. Savin had previously been involved with Dania Casino and apparently fell in love with the sport like the rest of us have. Ironically, Dog racing was banned in the state of Florida after animal rights activists got it on the ballot that was easily passed by the public in a referendum. But the jai-alai court was already operating at the time. Magic City still had to option to phase out jai-alai at that time because they were still operating “legally” as a dog track, but they elected to keep it going. Then jai-alai was later decoupled but the jai-alai action continued – even with longer seasons and much more experienced players.
As one of the most successful racinos in the Broward-Dade area in terms of slot machine revenue, Magic City certainly has the resources, and from what we have heard, the profits are enormous.
But changes have been on the way in the way they continue to operate the jai-alai action. It is no secret that parimutuel wagering on jai-alai is no longer a money maker like it was for decades before. Dania has been losing millions over the years with their jai-alai operation. Magic City is no different. Their players are paid a yearly salary and are offered generous bonuses for wins, places, shows and for end of year totals. A top player can easily make six figures a year. They even hold tournaments yearly for amateurs and ex-pros who have not played in years with total prizes of over $20,000. When Magic City first opened, many jai-alai loyalist were furious. They did not care at all for the short court, the glass walls, and the use of a rubber ball. The rubber ball had to happen as the real pelota – harder than a golf ball and covered with two layers of goat skin – was penetrating the front wall glass around the “seams” and causing the panels to crack. It certainly didn’t sound like jai-alai either when the ball hits the front wall. And as Mark Saxon cleverly wrote in his article to USBets- “Savin’s group has altered the rules enough to make the Basque inventors from the late 19th century roll over in their graves”.
Right now, Magic City Jai-alai appears to be in a transition period that might not make jai-alai loyalists in Florida and Connecticut too happy. The parimutuel wagering format has been cut back from 5 evenings and a couple of matinees a week down to just 3 afternoons – in the odd days and times of 1:30pm on Sunday, Monday and Tuesdays. At 5pm on those same days, a head-to-head format takes place with fix odds betting allowed in just seven states thru a site called BetRivers Sportsbook & Casino. You can bet on a team to win just like you could bet on the Cowboys or any other sports team. It’s a best of 3 with the format just like in tennis. It’s exciting and fast-paced. But it is not available in Florida and Connecticut and might never be with Connecticut outlawing jai-alai gambling and the fact that Magic City were the ones that sued successful and shut down sports betting in Florida. There had been an exclusive agreement with the Seminole Tribe that anyone in the state of Florida could place sports bets on the phone. It was simpler than ordering a pizza. A judge stopped it after it had legal for about a month. While it’s being appealed, nothing will be resolved until next year – at the earliest. The argument is that the better would have to be on tribal property in order to place the bets, not using their phones offsite that go to a server on the tribal property. There is also an issue with another group contesting it that sports betting is a “common game” found in casinos and must pass a recently approved voter amendment that requires a statewide vote with 60% approval for any future gambling top take place.
No one knows how well the sports betting format has been going but Savin did tell US Bets that wagering is up 30% this season and that the sport has moved into BetRivers’ top 10 in handle – ahead of sports like rugby, darts and Major League Lacrosse. It is just slightly behind the Canadian Football League.
Why is the sports betting being held only on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesdays at the weird hour of 5pm? Because there is very little competition in that time period. There is a certain number of gamblers out there in the USA that want to gamble at that time, and generally there are no horse races or sporting events being held at that time. Savin had mentioned in the past that Chinese Ping-Pong had a decent betting audience because of the lack of competition at those hours.
Scott Savin has even more plans for jai-alai. They are looking into a “league” expansion. Inquiries from interested investors from Las Vegas and foreign entities have looked to expand the leagues footprint. Savin dreams of an Eastern Conformance competing at the Magic City fronton and a Western Conference competing in Las Vegas with the winner playing in something like the “Super Bowl” of jai-alai.
Savin also envisions growth in the sport in selling teams for $100,000 that compete in the “Battle Court” Season that will start in September. A draft is expected to be held next month where the new owners call all the shots. The winner of Battle Court gets $50,000 in prize money, plus whatever revenue sharing is handed out. Sports betting? Broadcasting revenues? There is a potential if it takes off.
During the firsts season ownership was offered, two of the four teams were “bartered” to a couple of media companies for free publicity. The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz was one of them. In a nice gesture, the prize money will go to a charity of their choice.
Will this all be successful?
“That’s what everyone is clinging to, with a wide-eyed optimism for what the sport potentially could be,” Savin said. “But right now, everyone’s enthusiastic that we’re still very much in the growing phase and everything looks like it’s unfolding positively” he told Saxon.
Less then a month away now is the Magic City’s 3rd annual National Jai-alai Championship to be held in Miami, Florida. An overwhelming number of players have signed up at a free crack to win some of the $2,800 up for grabs in prize money.
The event will take place over 3 days – Friday, Saturday and Sunday and will feature a Masters Division and a Professional Tournament.
The Master’s division is open to amateur and former professional players who have not played professional since December 21, 2016, and professionals who are age 50 and older. The event will be held on Friday and Sunday for the Master’s with a first place finish winners collecting $1,000 in singles and in doubles with second place finishers collecting $500 in both singles and doubles.
There is a limit of 28 singles entries allowed and 14 doubles entries allowed with games played to 6 points and the finals to 7 points.
The finalists in singles and doubles will automatically be entered in the Pro Tournament Division.
The professional tournament will beheld on August 20 and 21st and is open to current professional player and former professional players who have played professionally since January 1, 2017, and professionals who are under the age of 50.
Here the prize money is a walloping $10,000 in prize money for first place and $5,000 for second place.
This is limited to 24 singles entries and 24 doubles teams with games played to 7 points and the finals played to 9 points. There will be a Playoff bracket in Doubles only.
The event is open to the public with no restrictions or masks required for the first time in its 3-year history.
We will have the list of participants in another week or so as rosters are still being fine-tuned.
“You have to take it!” Richie Berenson, son of Jai-Alai’s founder Buddy Berenson, excitedly told me as we sat at our usual table at Victoria Station. Richie had just ordered his “usual”… the turkey sandwich, no lettuce, no tomato, no mayo, “just plain turkey on bread.” His father, Buddy, listened intently as I told them both of my meeting with Dania Jai-Alai’s owner Steve Snyder the previous day.
“Marty, I’ve known Steve Snyder for many years,” Buddy said. “If he is making you an offer to go to Dania, I agree with Rich, take it.” I had told them that I was still undecided about the prospect of leaving what was once World Jai-Alai, now Florida Gaming Corporation. I had been in Miami 18 years. I was supposedly part of the “inner circle” with the Colletts and Dan Licciardi. Yet, I had still not received the promised stock options and had taken a pay cut. Some inner circle. Might have done better in the “outer circle.”
“You have no future there,” Richie said. “The company is shrinking. Dania is a great option.” Richie and Buddy, then, related a story to me about Steve Snyder.
“When we bought Hartford Jai-Alai from Roger Wheeler back in 1981, the deal included all the assets, including the 109 pelotas (Jai-Alai balls) and straw on hand to repair the cestas,” Richie said. “A week before our grand opening, we discovered that the balls and straw had been mysteriously shipped to Miami violating what was in the agreement, leaving us with nothing. We could not open without pelotas.”
Buddy took over the narrative. “In a panic, I called Steve Snyder (who owned Milford Jai-Alai and Dania) and told him of our dilemma. The next morning, a box of 109 brand new pelotas and enough straw for months of cesta repair were sitting in my office at Hartford. Steve Snyder saved the day for us.”
Though Dania Jai-Alai had competed in virtually the same market as Miami Jai-Alai, Buddy told me he always respected Snyder and it was a friendly rivalry. Buddy and Richie left no doubt in my mind that I should strongly consider his offer.
But there wasn’t an official offer, yet. Snyder said John Knox, his General Manager, would be calling me in a few days, if he could get Hort Soper from Orlando Jai-Alai on board to share some of my services… and expense.
That night, I told my wife, Sue, about Buddy and Richie’s full-throated endorsement of a move to Dania. She, of course, told me the family would support any decision I made. I still was concerned about the long commute from our home in Kendall (way south in Miami) all the way up to Dania (near Ft. Lauderdale). It was about an hour drive, depending on traffic.
It was now the weekend; I was grilling burgers for the kids when the phone rang. It was the unmistakable golden voice of John Knox (Johnny Knox to his throngs South Florida fans where he was a legendary radio DJ for years prior to joining Dania full time.)
“I’ve been talking to Steve about the possibility of you joining us here in Dania,” he told me. “Hort agreed with his proposal and is willing to have you do the Orlando advertising along with ours.” Then, John officially made me an offer.
“John, I told Steve I would only come if I was, also, your Assistant General Manager, your right-hand guy, I would not come to be only the Marketing Director,” I told him. “I don’t need a parallel move at this time in my career.” He assured me that I would fill both roles. He thought we’d make a great team. I told him I needed to think it over and would call him back.
After I hung up, I looked at Sue. “If I accept this, when Shawna graduates from high school (she still had more than 2 years left), can we sell the house and move up to Dania?” I asked, knowing that the long commute would end. But I had not considered my son Jason would, then, be entering high school. The decision was made, and I dialed Dania Jai-Alai’s number.
When I told John I would accept their offer and join the team, I actually was floored with his response. “That’s WONDERFUL!” he said with more emotion in his reply than I had ever heard from him. He genuinely was thrilled. I knew at that moment I had made the right decision. Now, I had to break the news to Benny, my current boss.
The next afternoon, I went into Benny Collett, Jr.’s office down the hall from my office. After some nervous (for me) chit-chat, I said I had something to discuss with him.
“Benny, remember the times you told me that there were so many better opportunities out there, that maybe I should approach the Dolphins or the Marlins about a job?” He nodded. “Well, I’ve followed your advice and I’ve accepted another job,” I said.
“Marty, that’s great!” he said with a little too much excitement. “What are going to do?” he asked. “I’m going to be the Assistant General Manager at Dania,” I said calmly. His face changed completely.
“You’re going to work for Snyder and Knox?” he said with a completely different tone. “You really want to go to Dania and work for them?” For some reason, Benny just didn’t like them. And, though he had told me that our company was shrinking and advised I start looking around, he couldn’t fathom me going to Dania Jai-Alai.
“Hey, Benny, they seem to really want me. They are not what you think. Of course, I will stay and train my replacement. Remember, you were the one that started all of this,” I reminded him. “But, Dania, Dania. Are you sure you want to go there?” he seemed shaken.
We both agreed to talk later about who might be able to take over my duties and I left his office. I knew he was pissed, but that didn’t bother me. The only two I cared about there were Dan Licciardi and Kim McGuire (my assistant). Since they were both like family, I knew they would understand.
As I drove home that night, I thought about the last 27 years. Though the company had changed from the Berenson’s, to World Jai-Alai, to Florida Gaming, it was still my home. It had been the epicenter of the sport of Jai-Alai. Dania was our rival.
Now, I was going to Dania. I was excited. It would be a new beginning. With this new team, I felt that Dania Jai-Alai would now have no rivals.
As I headed north on I-95, I was a little nervous. Steve Snyder was a busy man. After all, he was the owner of Dania Jai-Alai. He had, also, built the Milford fronton in Connecticut. Now, he asked for a meeting with me.
In some of our almost weekly conversations, John Knox had made some references with not being too happy with their new marketing director. Was Steve going to offer me the marketing job at Dania?
My wife, Sue, and I speculated about the upcoming meeting. I had never conceived of ever working at Dania Jai-Alai. Tampa was always my dream, but we would have moved back there. Orlando had even been a possibility. But, Dania never was on my radar.
As I pulled up to Georgio’s restaurant on the intracoastal waterway on Hollywood Beach, I felt a completely different vibe. After all, my office at Miami Jai-Alai was in the middle of the city, near the airport, right next door to The Pink Pussycat. It was not the greatest part of town. But, here, I felt like I was on vacation. The beautiful high rise condos on the ocean to my right, a gorgeous waterway on my left.
As I was shown to my table, Steve rose to greet me. Dressed in a blue blazer, open buttoned-down collared shirt, he looked professional, but casual. He smiled, shook my hand, and thanked me for coming.
Steve Snyder was a self-made man. Having grown up on Long Island, he worked his way through Yale. He joined Greyhound Corporation (yes, the bus company) when they decided to diversify and expand. Steve Snyder became the wunderkind of the Greyhound Merger and Acquisitions division.
Apparently, on his many trips to South Florida, he became aware of the success of the sport of Jai-Alai. When the Greyhound executives passed on a possible gambling acquisition, Snyder formed a small investment group and acquired Dania. This would prove to be the most astute business decision of his life and a huge mistake for Greyhound.
As the waiter approached, Steve asked for us to order. His beverage was a beer. Immediately, I followed suit with a sandwich and a beer. My impression of Steve being elite and aristocratic was already melting away. Hell, we’re drinking beers together!
He asked me if I was serious about leaving World Jai-Alai and moving back to Tampa. I told him it had been a great run, but things seemed to be going in a different direction since Florida Gaming took over. “I might have some good opportunities back in my hometown, Tampa,” I told him. “Since the strike and the Colletts selling off frontons, I don’t see much of a future.”
As I was speaking, Steve had a way of focusing on everything I said. He made you feel as if each word was important and gave you his undivided attention. I liked that.
He, then, told me that John (Knox) was unhappy with their marketing director, who was supposed to be excellent in marketing, but knew nothing about the sport. This was a major hindrance and they were getting frustrated. “John and I feel you would be a great addition to our team,” he told me.
Hearing his words intrigued me. But, after almost 30 years, I had no interest in taking another marketing job. I felt I was ready for an actual management role or ready to change careers. Also, I did not think Dania was realistic geographically. We lived way south in Kendall, which was anywhere from 45 minutes to 1 1/2 hours away depending on the horrendous traffic.
I told him that I was flattered and I truly was. “Steve, I’m only interested in being Assistant General Manager under John (his GM and right hand man). And, I know you already have Steve Smith as Assistant GM,” I said.
I had met Steve Smith in the early 1980s when World Jai-Alai upgraded the tote system that handles the bets. Steve was a young exec for Autotote, responsible for training our employees. He seemed extremely sharp and Dania soon hired him away from Tote to make him Assistant Manager.
I could see Snyder had already given this some thought. “Steve mainly oversees the Mutuels (betting) area. What about you being Assistant Manager/Marketing?” he proposed. “You will have dual responsibilities.” I still was concerned about Steve Smith’s reaction of me coming, if I chose to do so. Snyder assured me he would take care of that, too.
Then came the inevitable discussion of compensation. I wasn’t about to take a pay cut. But, Steve had thought that out, too. After asking what I currently made, he thought of a way to get me to that number with the help of Hort Soper, owner of Orlando Jai-Alai.
Hort Soper was a good friend. His mother Elizabeth Calder had married Steven Calder of Calder Race Track fame. Calder, also, owned Orlando Jai-Alai which Hort ran. Being a golfer, Hort would come down to Miami to join us for rounds of golf.
In recent years, Hort and Snyder became close working together during the player strike. I wasn’t sure what Steve had up his sleeve that could make this deal feasible. But, remember, I was sitting with a master of acquisitions, and he was trying to acquire me.
“How about if I approach Hort with us doing his advertising for Orlando Jai-Alai?” Steve said. “Whatever you produce for Dania, we just change the tags for Orlando. It won’t be much more work for you and it will save him a lot of money. I will get him to kick in a small percentage of your salary to make it all work.”
Hurdle number two seemed to be overcome. But, now the geography. I told Steve I couldn’t move up to Dania or Ft. Lauderdale because of my kids. He understood and said that I could arrive whenever rush hour was over and leave when I needed to leave.
“Think about it and I will have John give you a call,” he said. “Meanwhile, I will discuss our proposal with Hort. Marty, we’d love to have you at Dania.”
As I got up and shook his hand, I realized why Steve Snyder had been so successful. I, also, realized my pre-conceived notions about him were…pre-conceived. He was a warm, intelligent, honest individual. I could see myself wanting to be part of his team. I had a big decision to make. And, how would Benny Collett, Jr. react if I told him I was leaving, and joining the “enemy?”
Pelota Press Note: Marty will be heading off for summer vacation and his incredible series of 40 years in Jai-alai will continue when he returns. I remember Goldberg as a pretty good handicapping expert on NFL games for ESPN and CBS. He was a very close friend and a golfing buddy of Joe DiMaggio. I wonder if Jolting Joe went to Jai-alai.
The official announcement that Tampa Jai-Alai would never reopen again was a jolt to the Jai-Alai world. The crudely written note taped to the door was a sad ending for all those employees, players, and fans who had supported the Tampa Fronton since it opened in 1954. It hit me very, very hard. My dream of someday being the General Manager of Tampa Jai-Alai was now over.
Richard “Richie” Berenson, grandson of founder Richard Berenson, son of L. Stanley “Buddy” Berenson, was my confidant, one of my closest friends. Since the day I was transferred to Miami, Richie and I met for lunch weekly.
Since his family had essentially been exiled from Jai-Alai in Florida, the family had purchased Hartford Jai-Alai from World Jai-Alai. He and his dad, Buddy, would rotate trips to Hartford to manage the fronton. We still managed to meet for lunch.
Later, another person joined our lunch meetings, El Senor Pedro Mir. Pedro was the legendary Player Manager for Miami Jai-Alai during the “Golden Years.” He had played as a youngster in Cuba and came to the U.S. to play at the first fronton here located at Hialeah Park in 1926. Pedro was now retired and suffering from a badly arthritic hip, injured from the many fall-down rebotes thrown during his playing years.
Having worked for the Berenson’s for many years, Pedro was essentially like a grandfather to Richie. As with many older, retired athletes, Pedro was getting little attention in his senior years. But Richie would not abandon Pedro. He would dutifully pick him up every week and bring him to lunch with us. Both of us would listen, wide-eyed, to the many old stories Pedro would share. And you could tell, he loved telling us about the old days of Jai-Alai.
After Pedro passed away, Richie’s father, Buddy, joined us at Victoria Station (“The Train”) on N.W. 36th Street, right down the street from Miami Jai-Alai. Our weekly get-togethers became invaluable to me as I dealt with the frustrations of the new ownership of World Jai-Alai, the Collett’s.
“I’m not sure about the future of the sport,” I told Richie and Buddy one day at lunch. “Your family started it here, had a passion for Jai-Alai,” I said. “The Collett’s and Florida Gaming don’t… they sold off Tampa! Ocala is probably next.”
Buddy and Richie loved Tampa Jai-Alai. When they acquired it in 1969/70, they felt it would one day surpass Miami Jai-Alai in attendance and handle. In fact, after the family left World Jai-Alai, they secretly tried to buy the Tampa Fronton back during the player strike of 1988. Fortunately, Roger Wheeler, Jr. wouldn’t make a deal with them. I say “fortunately” because the business never rebounded, and it would have turned out to be the worst deal Buddy ever made. Still, they were heartbroken to hear it was now closed, sold off for real estate.
One afternoon, I was sitting in Benny Collett’s office shooting the breeze. As I had mentioned previously, we got along really well and I had felt like Dan Licciardi and I were his team. Then he hit me with this: “You really are a talented guy, Marty. I don’t understand why you don’t get a job with the Marlins or the Miami Heat.”
I told him I loved Jai-Alai and though we were struggling, I still wanted to try to save it. He said he understood, but that with Tampa gone and not knowing the future of Ocala, there were so many other good opportunities out there. I left his office worried. Was that a hint? Was Benny trying to tell me something?
That week, I met Richie and Buddy, telling them of the conversation I had with Benny. They did not trust the Collett’s and were always looking out for my best interests. Neither were encouraged by that conversation.
A few weeks later, I was sitting in my office when my assistant, Kim McGuire told me Steve Snyder was on the phone. Snyder owned Dania Jai-Alai. I rarely had contact with him, except at some of the NAJF meetings or Jai-Alai tournaments. I probably had 2 conversations with him over the past 20 years.
However, I did know John Knox, Dania’s General Manager pretty well. John had helped me in my early years at Tampa Jai-Alai and I worked closely with him organizing the Jai-Alai tournaments. He now had a habit of “checking in” with me almost weekly.
Dania was our closest competitor, our rival fronton. Yet, after the strike, we were all facing the common enemies: the lottery and Native-American casinos. Benny Collett, Jr. didn’t care for Knox or Snyder. I wasn’t sure if it was because they were our competition or just a petty jealousy. But he would often say disparaging things about them. However, I liked them both.
But this was Steve Snyder, not John on the phone. I had no idea why he was calling. Snyder got right to the point. “I wanted to give you a heads-up that the Miami Herald is doing a story on how the player strike has affected our businesses,” he told me. “I just got off the phone with them and I believe they are going to call you next.”
I thanked him for letting me know and told him I would try to be prepared for their call. As I was just about to hang up, Steve casually asked, “So, how’s it going?”
Normally, I would answer that everything’s great and thanks for asking. But, for some reason, and I truly don’t know why… maybe just the mood I was in that day… I confessed to Steve that I was considering moving back to Tampa, leaving Jai-Alai.
I had not discussed this with anyone, except my wife Sue. I did not know Steve Snyder well enough to blurt that out. I just said it. His response was startling. “Marty, don’t do anything until you meet with me. Can you join me for lunch, Friday, at Georgio’s Restaurant? I have a proposal for you.”