Ocala Jai-Alai proved the sport could be successful in rural areas. (r. )Nik Niks and bell bottomed slacks were in style when we opened in 1973.
Ocala Jai-Alai will always hold a special place in my heart. Maybe it was the people. Or maybe because I was able to live in Gainesville and extend my “college” years from four to 12. Regardless, I look back on those years with such great memories.
From the time Buddy Berenson walked the streets of Ocala shaking hands with voters to clearing pastureland in the middle of nowhere, Ocala Jai-Alai was destined to be unique.
The other frontons in the state were in large, metropolitan areas, like Miami, Palm Beach, Orlando, and Tampa. This was the first fronton in a rural location, a true experiment in expanding our sport throughout the state. It, also, afforded me near year-round employment. Tampa Jai-Alai closed in May. Ocala Jai-Alai was our summer fronton.
So many random memories come to mind concerning Ocala Jai-Alai. I am going to write this a little differently. I will try to relate some of these memories that come to mind.
I still remember vividly the excitement of packing my two seat, bright orange Datsun 240Z with all my worldly possessions (they fit easily in this small car, the television taking up the entire passenger seat). My destination was Tanglewood Apartments in Gainesville where Ricky Solaun and I would share an apartment. This was 1973, the inaugural season for Ocala Jai-Alai. There was extreme nervousness on everyone as the construction was not complete.
It was interesting to see many of the Miami employees, like Steve Bourie, Rick Bergman, Bob Hickey, and others move in to Tanglewood. Though Miami Jai-Alai was our sister fronton, there seemed to exist a rivalry between Miami and Tampa. We no longer felt we were the “step” sister at Tampa Jai-Alai. Now, Ocala was neutral ground.
Ocala’s roster was mostly my Tampa roster, with the exception of Joey (still a youngster in 1972 but becoming a top Miami star), Mendiola (a veteran Miami backcourt star), Randy (one of the best American players from Miami), and Iturregui (a veteran Miami frontcourter). I watched Joey mature that year, already starting to show his superstar status and a promising future to be one of the world’s best.
After we made it through our initial opening problems, I noticed that the local ranchers, farmers, and rural residents began to embrace the sport. They had their own pronunciations for the strange Basque names. But, no matter what named they called them after missing a game point, the players soon knew exactly to whom they were yelling their epithets.
Ocala Jai-Alai beat their projected numbers that first year. Some physical improvements were to come in future seasons. The near complete Tampa roster would come to Ocala the following years as Ft. Pierce Jai-Alai opened in 1974. Ft. Pierce would become the summer home for the Miami players.
With more summer seasons under our belt, I developed many friendships with some of the Miami people. I remember Steve Bourie, who worked in the calculating room (where all the odds and payoffs are tabulated) in Ocala was quite the practical joker. Some nights at our apartment complex, Steve would put on this scary rubber mask. He would tap on the window of some player’s units and try to scare them. No one was affected as much as Grace Arregui, Jose Arregui’s (assistant player manager) wife, who thought there actually was a burglar about to break into their apartment. To this day, I still kid her about Bourie.
Many nights we would get a chance to play on the court after the final game, about midnight. Sometimes, Steve Bourie and I would play amateur partidos against Rick Bergman and Bob Hickey. Other times, I might take someone else out onto the court like sportswriter Jim Haynes from the Orlando Sentinel.
Jim (or Jaime, his Jai-Alai name) was a huge Jai-Alai fan. He not only gave us valuable publicity in a major state newspaper, but he would drive all the way from Orlando just to watch, bet, and maybe play Jai-Alai. “Jaime” was an awful amateur player, but I never would tell him that. He was larger (in width) than any player I had ever seen on the court. He was slow. And, he had no idea where he was throwing the ball. But he loved to play!
So, one night, he drove two hours from Orlando after work, getting to the fronton about 10 p.m., Jim asked me if we could play after the last game. I had one ball for us. The ballmaker had gone home and this one pelota had to last the entire night. Should be no problem, under normal circumstances.
After the last game, Jim strapped on his cesta and a helmet, and I handed him the ball. I had to do a two-minute results show on the radio by phone and told Jim to practice while I finished up. While on the radio, I heard the crack of the ball on the front wall twice, then silence.
I walked out of the back office into the court area and saw Jim, shoulders slumping, a look of sheer disappointment on his face. I asked, “What happened?” He meekly pointed to the ceiling, where our ball sat resting on the overhead wire screen.
Jim “Jaime” Haynes had been the first to throw a ball so high that it penetrated the seam and never came down. He handed me the cesta and made the long drive back to Orlando having thrown the Jai-Alai ball twice.
Ricky Solaun, a great frontcourter in Ocala, and I roomed together many years in Gainesville. Brandywine Apartments had a game room that had a ping pong table. I didn’t think they ping pong in these small Basque towns in Spain. I had played a lot growing up.
Ricky would challenge me almost daily to play ping pong. I wanted to make it interesting, so I said, “loser buys dinner.” Ricky liked the steaks at Western Sizzling. I must confess, I don’t think Ricky bought dinner the entire summer season. The waiter at Western Sizzling knew exactly what he wanted each night, automatically handing me the check without asking.
The summer of 1976 will always stand out as one of my best memories. That was the nation’s bicentennial, and the year Richard Berenson was my roommate. “Richie” being the son of owner Buddy Berenson was a good friend. But, that summer, we became GREAT friends. We worked, we played, we partied, and we ate… in no particular order.
Richie, I knew, was one of the most knowledgeable people on the sport of Jai-Alai. I soon found out, he, also, liked music and wrestling. He brought to our apartment a multitude of wrestling magazines. His favorite record albums, The Beach Boys, Barry White, and Super Tramp were played constantly on his horrible $12.95 Hi-Fi “system”. But he loved Chinese food and every Sunday we ate dinner at Joy-Loy in Gainesville.
Every night, after the games, the first one back to the apartment would turn on “The Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder” (who ended up featuring Joey in a future show) and Fernwood Tonight, a great late show satire. Then, we’d head to a player’s apartment for some late-night food. Great memories.
There were some other significant people that revolved around Ocala Jai-Alai. I remember the night I met Giles Ellis, Jr., who answered an ad to work there in the front office. Giles quickly became General Manager of Ocala and assistant GM in Tampa. Giles was a great guy and a top manager.
Dick Gerrity got his start in Ocala and quickly was promoted to manage Tampa Jai-Alai. As I mentioned in previous articles, Dick was a former FBI agent and avid golfer. I will never forget our many golf outings with the employees at the Williston Country Club and other area courses. I had so many great years working with Dick.
Finally, I always think of my late great friend Tom Contreras who was synonymous with Ocala Jai-Alai. Tom met Dick Gerrity on the USF golf course while he was in his senior year. Dick hired him to run group sales at Tampa (possibly because Contreras beat him that day and he wanted another shot at him).
Tom became general manager of Ocala Jai-Alai during much of the 1980s and 90s. He had moved to Ocala and got to know everyone in town. He was a generous, jovial guy and we became great friends. Part of Ocala’s ongoing success can be attributed to Tom Contreras.
Sadly, today Ocala Jai-Alai is basically just a soulless building. The sport of Jai-Alai has nearly disappeared there and I’m sure will shortly not be played at all. It has a poker room and there is a small turnout for simulcasting.
Yet, when I drive by the Orange Lake exit on I-75, those wonderful memories come gushing back… and with a tear in my eye, I smile.