Miami Jai-Alai was dubbed “The Yankee Stadium of Jai-Alai.” I’m really not sure who came up with that moniker, but from a historical perspective, it seemed true. Miami Jai-Alai was the oldest facility in the U.S. The past players were legendary. The Yankees had Ruth and Gehrig. Miami had Churruca and Orbea. The Yankee rosters dominated baseball for years. The Miami Jai-Alai rosters featured the premier players in the world, seemingly unmatched by any other fronton. But, now I was in Dania.
Dania Jai-Alai was known as “The Palace.” It seemed to be a high end facility, almost snobbish. In the early years, you weren’t allowed in the lower lobby without a sport coat. Sports stars and celebrities made frequent visits. I even saw a picture of Babe Ruth standing with a cesta in the Dania lobby. They even had a special seating area in the middle called “The Royal Box.” Dania, also, had their past Jai-Alai stars.
“Egurbide (known here as Egurbi) was, by far, the greatest player ever to play on a Dania roster,” commented Richie Berenson, grandson of Richard Berenson, original founder of Miami Jai-Alai. “He was world class!”
Alex, another past star of Dania, was unable to sign with Miami due to his brother Solozabal inking a Miami contract. “In the late 60s, my father (Buddy Berenson, then in charge at Miami) loved both Alex and Solozabal,” Richie remembers. “We signed Solozabal. Brothers couldn’t play against each other in the same game so Alex signed with Dania.” It definitely worked out for Alex as he became a great Dania champion.
I began to see a completely different perspective joining Dania Jai-Alai. Having watched Tampa’s Bolivar become a force in the sport, I seemed to almost ignore the talent at the other frontons, with the exception of Miami. I knew the greatest roster ever was at “The Yankee Stadium.” Famous names like Churruca, Chimela, and Orbea were just a few of the names that made up this unbelievable roster.
But, now I see names exhibited on the Champions Plaque in the Dania lower lobby: Alex, Egurbi, Echaniz, Uribar, Boniquen, Felix, and, of course, Joey (who set wins records in every category and had his number, #37, retired at Dania). Dania did have some stellar players. And, they still do.
I had been close with many of the Tampa players, especially my “brother” Jose Solaun. I got to know plenty of the Miami players, too. But, I hardly knew this new generation of players in Dania. Plus, I was doubtful they were anywhere close to the caliber I had seen at World Jai-Alai. I was wrong.
I began to watch a young frontcourter named Arriaga, who seemed to be almost unbeatable, the way Bolivar was in Tampa. Arriaga possessed tremendous strength in his forehand throws (like Boli) and moved into precise position making the game look easy. Arriaga spoke fairly good English and I found him to be friendly and extremely cooperative with management. If he could avoid injury, his name would appear on that plaque for many years to come.
Another player in Dania I got to know and really like was the nephew of player manager Jose Arregui. He played under the name Arregui. Though short in stature, Arregui possessed amazing kill shots. He always gave 100% effort and became a fan favorite, as well as one of mine.
Then, I found out that we had an Olympian on the roster, Celaya. Celaya played for the Spanish team as Jai-Alai was an exhibition sport when the Olympic Games were in Spain. Celaya spoke perfect English and I loved the way he played the game. He was very welcoming to me in my early years at Dania.
While Miami had some hard throwing backcourters on their past rosters (Elorduy being one of them), Dania had two characters in the backcourt, Achotegui and Cuvet. I call them characters because they were. “Acho” was this dark haired, really good looking athlete, and he knew it. He had plenty of talent, but looked better on our billboards. Cuvet had amazing power and could dominant opponents. Both were French Basques, which sometimes caused problems with the Spanish Basques. But, Cuvet was a great partner as he won some tournaments for Dania due to his fierce competitiveness and raw power.
One of the first things I found out in my new role at Dania was that Steve Snyder and John Knox were very serious about having good players on the Dania roster. Signing Joey, after his contract dispute with World Jai-Alai, was a sure sign they wanted the best for Dania, even though the business was still in a tailspin. World Jai-Alai was shrinking and now held little leverage in signing the top players.
Could Dania Jai-Alai, “The Dodgers” of Jai-Alai, make Miami, “The Yankees,” just a past memory? Thus, began one of my first duties for Dania, setting up a “Dania-Miami Challenge” tournament between the two frontons. I now had to call my old friend, Dan Licciardi, and make it happen.