By Jimmy V
“Jai-Alai contains constant excitement and manly effort taken to the upmost limits.”
- Ernest Hemingway
The Basque ballgame which Hemingway referred to has enveloped many lives including Dania’s Player Manager, Benny Bueno. Presently, Bueno is excited with jai-alai’s return following the suspension of the Merry Festival due to the pandemic. The fronton will turn sixty-six years old this coming December. Known as the Dania Jai-Alai Palace for years when owned by Roy McAndrews in the early 1960’s, champagne-pouring butler service was provided inside an enclosed sixteen-seat Royal Box for VIPs – regality. The former professional pelotari for over a quarter century is looking forward to the Annual Jai-Alai Fall Challenge beginning in November.
Bueno of Cuban-American descent, born and raised in Miami, played America’s pastime, baseball growing up and through high school, but was eventually drawn to the game Hemingway discovered at the fronton in Havana, Cuba. Hemingway became an aficionado of the game in his forties and befriended the 1924 Jai-Alai Olympic Gold Medalist, Jose Garate who represented Spain at the Games in Paris, France. Garate referred to the Basque-originated game as “a violent game, a dangerous game.” Bueno discovered the Merry Festival as an early teen, who decided on giving up the white cowhide baseball for a goat-skinned covered pelota. Prior to joining Dania Jai-Alai in the summer of 2009, Bueno was a feature game pelotari on one the game’s top rosters during his playing days at the now-named Casino Miami Jai-Alai.
A professional playing career at America’s oldest, southernmost fronton which lasted a remarkable twenty-five years was bookended with a professional debut in 1981 and final season in 2009 fittingly closing with a Singles Championship at Miami’s sister-fronton, Fort Pierce.
Dania Jai-Alai’s Player Manager garnered many awards while at World Jai-Alai and eventually Florida Gaming’s Miami Jai-Alai, but his greatest gift to the sport continues to be his passion, desire to see the Happy Game grow and not become stagnant. The accomplishments on the cancha are plentiful first as a hard-throwing Frontcourter and then, after eighteen years playing professionally, in 1998, making an unthinkable seamless transition to a smooth-catching Backourter; the trophy case chronologically includes the following: Miami’s Most Wins (1985), Mexico City Invitational Tournament medalist (1991), National Association of Jai-Alai Frontons (N.A.J.F.) Champion (1992), World Champion Runner-Up at Guernica (1992), Tournament of Championship Winner (1994), Milford Jai-Alai’s World Series Singles Champion (1998), Orlando Jai-Alai’s Citrus Invitational Singles and Doubles Champion (1999), Miami’s Singles and Doubles Champion (2001 and 2002) and two-time back-to-back Dania-Miami Champion in 2002 and 2003.
This writer accompanied Bueno on many career days to elementary schools in Dade County and events for special needs children during the nineties, and the 2010 Amateur Baseball Umpires Hall of Fame inductee has always put the betterment of the game first and foremost. Bringing the game to children, promoting the sport, appearing in the 1986 Miami Vice episode “Kill Shot”, which brought Jai-Alai to the homes of the entire nation, filming MTV Sports with host Gabrielle Reece on a Jai-Alai feature, a weekly television show — Miami Jai-Lites, co-hosted with present Dania Jai-Alai Announcer, “Big” Dave Lemmon, as well as starting up a grass-roots amateur program following his days as a professional pelotari and prior to Dania-days. The former world-class Frontcourter who competed day-in-day-out against two of the game’s greats in Michelena and present Magic City Player Manager, J.R. Arrasate, still keeps the game idyllic. Whereas, Garate saw the game as violent and dangerous, Bueno still sees the picturesque beauty which can be brought to so many more – Hemingway’s beloved “constant excitement.”
Bueno will tell you he did not land his present position by accident. He ascended to his present duties after developing the Dania Amateur Program when hired in 2009 as Dania’s Player Development Manager, then succeeding long-time Tampa Jai-Alai and Dania Player Manager, Jose Arregui a year later in 2010. Forever the optimist, he shuns the philosophical paradigm held by previous management regimes of Florida frontons that “this (the state of the Jai-Alai) is as good as it (the game) gets.” Dania Jai-Alai’s Player Manager will always look at the sport and life through rose-colored glasses.
The Fall Challenge will run through mid-December. Please return to the pelotapress site for updates regarding participating Partido teams, dates, and results.