“Farewell to a Local Legend”
Dania Jai-Alai’s Marty Fleischman Calls it Quits After 4 Decades
Each morning, when I sit down at my computer in my house, I glance up at the framed newspaper clipping on the wall directly above me. Nick Sortal, writer, and editor for the South Florida Sun Sentinel, (currently Mayor of Plantation, Florida) honored me with this article on the morning of January 5th, 2013, my first day of retirement from the sport I so loved.
After my wife Sue secured a teaching job in Tampa months earlier, I had to fulfill my part of the bargain. It was time to give Dave Winslow, the Chief of Operations at Dania Jai-Alai, my notice. I had to give him an actual date.
Sue and I had decided that we probably could not sell our Dania house and make the complete move together before the school year started in Tampa. So, she and my wonderful dog Cody, would move into our new Tampa house while I remained in Dania putting our house on the market. I was hopeful all could get done by the end of 2012.
I decided I needed to tell Winslow the plan so we could train a replacement. Knowing that Winslow’s operating strategy was to cut costs and operate with the fewest employees possible, I could see only one person that could absorb many of my duties, player manager Benny Bueno. But this would require a tremendous amount of help and guidance from my very experienced administrative assistant, Doanie Wright. Also, CFO Clint Morris would be essential in keeping all aspects of the operation running smoothly.
I knew Dave really liked Benny. He was already spending a great deal of time with Benny, getting his suggestions on things even outside the player’s area. He would view this as a great opportunity to have “his man” basically as his assistant, handling the marketing and player manager duties.
Sitting across the desk from Winslow, I said, “Dave, it’s finally time to call it a career. I’m very close to a final date.” I could see him disguising his excitement that I was finally leaving. Yet, he was cordial and very understanding. I explained that I needed to sell the house, Sue was moving first, and I hoped everything would be settled by the end of the year. “Whatever date you decide is okay with me,” he told me. “Who do you suggest take over marketing?” he asked. “I think Benny could handle the job,” I said.
This was mid-summer and I told him I could start training Benny immediately. There was still plenty of time to slowly familiarize Benny with the marketing situation.
Sue moved to Tampa with Cody. I packed up a rental truck with half our furniture, leaving only the rest for staging. The house sold fairly quickly, so I was able to finalize a retirement date, Friday, January 4, 2013. Dave quickly agreed, knowing I could help get them through the “busier” end of year holiday schedule.
The closing on the house took place in early November. I had no place to go for the last two months. Clint Morris came through for me. I will never forget his generosity when he offered one of his rental properties located a block from the fronton. He charged me nothing… except an occasional beer and cigar when he stopped by after work. I still have fond memories of sitting outside reminiscing with Clint as he puffed on a stogie. We felt like it had been light years since the day’s owner Steve Snyder, GM John Knox, Clint and myself would do our daily lunches together. Now, it was only Clint and I, soon to be Clint alone.
As my retirement date approached, Dave Winslow arranged a “farewell” dinner for me at a local Dania Beach restaurant. The department heads that were still left attended along with Dave and Clint. Chris Gibase, Executive VP from Boyd Gaming, flew in from Las Vegas to attend. I greatly appreciated that.
After dinner, they dropped me back at the fronton. As I was walking to my car, my cell phone rang. “Marty, this is Bill Boyd,” said the voice on the line. “I heard you’re retiring and just wanted to wish you the best.” Mr. Boyd was son of the founder and Chairman of the Board of Boyd Gaming. I had met him the day Boyd Gaming purchased the fronton. Now, he was making a personal call to me knowing I was leaving the company. This was probably one of his duties, yet I still am appreciative of the call.
One request I made to Dave before I left was to allow me to address the Jai-Alai players. He agreed. The final weekend I was there, Benny called all the players together before the 7th game. I spoke to them in what I’m sure was terrible Spanish. I wanted to show them the respect I had for them by speaking their language. I didn’t know enough Basque, so I stuck to Spanish.
I thanked them for their support and friendship over the years. “To me,” I said, “you are the greatest athletes in the world!” Then, I ended with the only two Basque words I knew, “Eskerikasko (thank you) and agur (goodbye).” They gave me an ovation as I tearfully left the player’s quarters for the last time.
As I pulled away from Clint’s apartment on Saturday morning, car packed with boxes from my office and two spare cestas (knowing I would probably never play again, but for my wall at home), I did a final drive-by of the Dania Jai-Alai Fronton. The “Flaming Pelota” sign on the front of the building, which Steve Snyder asked me to design at the beginning of my tenure there, brought to mind many great memories of my nearly 15 years at Dania.
I, then, realized I was just blocks away from where it really all began, at my college roommate’s house in Hollywood, almost 45 years ago. Had Ronnie Aranow not answered the phone that Saturday morning when our frat brother “Wild Bill” Hoffman asked us if we wanted to try playing Jai-Alai, I don’t know what my path would have been. A chill came over me.
As I headed toward Alligator Alley, the memories swept over me: the excitement of the first time I stepped on the massive Jai-Alai court in Daytona Beach while slipping out of Gainesville with roommate Herb Gould, ducking as the speeding pelota came at my head; the love and addiction of playing this incredible sport; the day I opened the Tampa Tribune feeling the heartbreak of seeing someone else named as PR Director at Tampa Jai-Alai; the night Ernie Larsen, Tampa GM, called me in Gainesville, said it didn’t work out, and offered me the job.
I was now approaching the turn at Naples, heading north toward Tampa. I felt a tear roll down my cheek as my nostalgic ride continued. Nothing was more exciting than Saturday night at Tampa Jai-Alai. I could see the overflowing crowds in the smoke-filled fronton as I announced a game, drawing “oohs” and “ahs” from the excited fans. I could hear myself say, “Another great save by Bolivar, long carom by Almorza… SCORES!” and the crowd would jump to their feet with a standing ovation. Another tear rolled down my cheek. How did it all go by so fast?
I remembered the call from H. Paul Rico, World Jai-Alai’s Vice President, asking me to come down to Miami. When I asked for how long, he replied, “Pack a trunk, the Corporate PR Director has resigned.”
My life took a major change that night. I had to tell my prospective bride, Sue, that after our upcoming wedding at Busch Gardens in March, we would be moving to Miami. That was never part of the plan. Now, I was on my way to her, back in Tampa, after a 32-year detour. Yet, she never complained once. Tears began flowing down my face. I could hardly see the exit signs on I-75.
Our years in Miami were better than I ever expected. Our two wonderful children, Shawna and Jason, were both born and raised there. I was part of the World Jai-Alai corporate executive team and helped shape some of the policies within our company. I got to work with some fantastic people in our industry, Dan Licciardi (Miami), John Knox (Dania), Steve Snyder (Dania), Hort Soper (Orlando) and so many more. I met so many people in the media, guys like Chuck Dowdle at Miami’s channel 10 and Nick Sortal, who wrote that final piece about me in the Ft. Lauderdale paper.
I was able to meet Richie and Buddy Berenson for lunch every week, who I will always owe a great debt by giving me my first job in Jai-Alai. Later, weekly lunches with Pedro Mir, the legendary player manager in the sport. I thought about CEO Dick Donovan and Paul Rico, who supported me those many years at World Jai-Alai.
The tears continued to flow down my cheeks as I remembered getting the call from Steve Snyder, owner of Dania Jai-Alai. Had he not asked, just as I was about to hang up the phone, “So, how’s it going?”, my Jai-Alai career would have ended much earlier. His question brought me 14 more years in this glorious sport. I exited I-75 and was now 15 minutes from my new home, my new life.
The 4-hour trip back to Tampa seemed to go so fast. My 41- year career in Jai-Alai now seemed even quicker. I knew my life without Jai-Alai would be different. But though the years have flown by, my passion for the sport has never waned. I will always cherish the memories, memories of a lifetime.
When I wrote the script in 1988 for Rick McEwen’s production of, “Jai-Alai, There’s Nothing Like it!”, I ended it with these profound words: “Those who play it, live it; those who watch it, love it.” That best describes my life in the sport of Jai-Alai. I lived it and I loved it!
When Jeff “Laca” Conway, creator of the website pelotapress.com and major Jai-Alai enthusiast, approached me about doing this series on my career in the sport, I told him I really didn’t think anyone would be interested. Jeff convinced me to give it a try. So, I did. And he was right. I heard from more readers than I could have imagined. I want to thank you, my loyal followers, for giving up your valuable time to read these articles. Your comments and e-mails kept me going… for three years! Also, I have to thank my wife, Sue, for proofreading each piece, finding my typos and sharing my thoughts. Jeff, thank you for your encouragement and support. I hope I was able to give some insight and enjoyment to your readers on this unique and wonderful sport.
Pelota Press Note
Marty is sorry for the long delay in closing out the series, but he had to put a lot of time into this last story before posting it, while coming off a long vacation team trip to Spain and the Basque region.
As we mentioned before, the Pelota Press will rerun the entire series again, from the first “episode” that ran nearly 3 ½ years ago as the website “Pelota Press” was initiated. The same story will appear on the new Facebook page “Pelota Press Tampa Bay” for any feedback our readers would like to give.
Also, a color booklet will be made, likely in two parts. It will be comprised of all the stories and photographs that accompanied the story, plus dozens more. Copies will be available at a modest cost to anyone interested at a date to be announced (hopefully by Christmas time). We will announce the details when it is available.
I’d also like to thank Marty for participating in this adventure. I had to push hard for him to agree and was so glad he said “yes” in a timely matter. He tripled the viewership in no time at all to over 800 readers worldwide. I know he spent hundreds and hundreds of hours on this project. None of us were paid a dime for doing it, but now we have a place to go see and remind us of the good times (and bad) that jai-alai gave us.