One of our PR goals for Ocala Jai-Alai was to help out the local community. Here we contributed baseball jerseys to the local youth baseball league in the adjacent community of Orange Lake.
The headline in the Ocala Star Banner on the front page read, “Jai-Alai opens to sparse crowd.” The Gainesville Sun had a similar story. I was responsible for the Ocala Jai-Alai publicity. There was a hollow feeling in my stomach.
Yes, we had great media coverage prior to opening. After all, the opening of a gambling facility in north central Florida was big news. Plus, the Ocala fronton was still a very touchy subject to the conservative, religious residents of Marion county.
The small fronton was our company’s first venture beyond Miami and Tampa and the first new fronton to open in Florida in almost 20 years. Ft. Pierce Jai-Alai, our other new fronton, was under construction and due to open next year. So, all eyes were on Ocala Jai-Alai.
Tanglewood apartments, located in Gainesville and only blocks away from the renowned “Sin City” complex of student apartments, was now my home for this first summer season. After hanging out together almost every day during the Tampa season, Ricky Solaun and I were rooming together. Nearly the entire roster of players were staying at Tanglewood.
Ricky was attending player practice during the days and I was setting up the announcer’s booth. I was, also, handling all the live interviews for television and meeting with the local newspapers. But, at night, it was party time. It seemed like these were not only the greatest athletes in the world, but the greatest chefs.
We would wander from apartment to apartment. Paellas, croquetas, steaks, fish prepared Basque-style were not only offered to us but insisted upon by the hosts. Of course, it would be an insult not to indulge… and I indulged! I found the players to be the most hospitable people I had ever met. Vino, as well as their favorite, Bacardi and Coke, were plentiful. This would go on until the wee hours of the morning.
I would soon learn that this was their normal routine, even during the season. Always there were heated debates, mostly revolving around politics in Spain. The “discussions” were mostly in Spanish, changing to Basque when things got passionate. There was hardly a night that I didn’t get to bed until 5 am (non matinee days). Ricky and I would sleep past noon. Those were the days!
My main topics for the pre-season press coverage were two talking points: Ocala Jai-Alai would be featuring one of the best rosters in the world, the top Tampa players combined with some of Miami’s best, including Joey; and the schedule was from 2 pm until 10 pm, Monday through Saturday, with consecutive straight point games.
All frontons in the state usually run night performances starting at about 7:15 pm. Some days there are double performances with a matinee at noon. No facility had ever tried our new, unique schedule that was designed to always be open for the tourists heading south on I-75. The thought being that the Gainesville-Ocala market could not support the fronton without those tourists.
So, on opening day, as the players warmed up for the first game and the mutuel windows opened for betting, there were no lines. No lines of cars coming in, no lines at the box office, and no lines to place a bet. We had some locals from Orange Lake, Citra, and Ocala stroll in. But that was it.
Buddy Gilbert, chosen by Buddy Berenson (President of the company), was my boss and general manager. Buddy was short, about 5′ 6″, mustached with a calm demeanor and subtle sense of humor. But there was nothing subtle about this situation as we stood in the lobby, waiting for customers. It turned out we only had to wait a few more hours.
At approximately 7 pm that opening performance, cars began filling up the parking lot. The seats began to fill up. There was only one problem. We were already in Game 9 of the 12-game performance. These people came to bet. But we only had three games left. The night was a financial failure!
Unfortunately, the same thing happened on the successive performances. Nobody came early and big crowds arrived around 7 pm. Buddy Gilbert, realizing this was a pattern, asked me to start trying to delay the games, hoping we would have more games left when the larger audience arrived.
“Go out on the court and stall them,” he said. “What am I going to do, Buddy, sing and dance? You’ve never heard me sing, but I assure you, whatever crowd we have in here now will leave if I start,” I told him.
So, I went out onto the court with a microphone between games and invited some of the fans out onto the court to throw the pelota. While this was entertaining for a while, the few fans that had placed bets on the upcoming game got restless. The betting periods started lasting 30 to 45 minutes, trying our new bettor’s patience. They began to boo.
There were serious discussions back in the home office on what to do. Some thought it would just take some time for the locals to adjust and for the tourists to find their way in. Others wanted to change immediately back to the standard schedule. The decision was made to keep this schedule. We ran this way for another two weeks. Finally, we reverted to a standard schedule with evenings starting at 7 pm and two matinees at noon.
Meanwhile, little did I know that this experiment kindled the flame for an insurrection. It would involve greed, power, and revenge. A storm was brewing that would cause chaos in our world and affect the sport of Jai-Alai for generations to come.