Gorrono, making his return to the United States, played his first season in Tampa and the inaugural Ocala Jai-Alai season. Here he shows Ocala employees and aspiring amateur Jai-Alai players the proper way to catch the pelota. From l. to r., Rick Bergman (announcer), Steve Bourie (mutuel calculator), Gorrono, Marty Fleischman (PR Director), Andy de Carlo (ballboy)
By Marty Fleischman
Ernie Larsen, Tampa Jai-Alai’s general manager, told me my mission for the start of the 1972-73 season was to emphasize two things: the fronton restaurant was now featuring Italian cuisine and the arrival of a past backcourt star from Spain named Gorrono. “And don’t forget the Roquefort dressing… it’s the best in the world,” Larsen reminded me for the 100th time.
I noticed that his talking points to the media always seemed backwards to me. The television stations and newspapers really were not interested in our Italian fare or salad dressings. This seemed embarrassing to me. But, a new player, a new bet, facility expansion… that is what interested them. Ernie didn’t know that Andy Hardy, my father’s assistant at Channel 13 would joke with me about “the great Roquefort dressing.”
Rafael Gorrono was a big deal. Having played at Dania Jai-Alai in the late 60s under the name Ralph, he honored the 1968 player’s strike and did not return to the U.S. None of the great players did. But, Richie, Buddy Berenson’s (company President) young son, convinced his dad that it was time to forget the past and try to get these Jai-Alai stars to return to the United States. Gorrono, playing in his hometown of Durango, Spain, surprised everybody and accepted their contract. He would not be playing in Miami, but at sister fronton in Tampa to bolster the roster of backcourt players that included Almorza and Laca.
When I called Tampa Tribune Sports Editor Tom McEwen touting the big story of Gorrono’s return to this country, he said, “pronounce that name again for me.” Now, Tom, who was from Wauchula, Florida, enjoyed saying some of the Basque names, with his country twang. “Gorrronnnno,” he said. “It kinda rolls off your tongue.” He, then, said it a couple more times and we laughed.
“Ok, set up a time and I’ll come to the fronton and interview Gorrronnno,” he told me as he exaggerated the rolling r’s and the n’s again. I was ecstatic. Getting a story in McEwen’s famous “Morning After” column would be a major coup for me. Now, how could I get him to mention the Italian restaurant and the Roquefort dressing, because I knew Ernie would want that more than the interview?
Gorrono turned out to be the consummate professional and a good interview. Having already spent time playing in South Florida, his English was exceptional. He answered all of McEwen’s tough questions about leaving the U.S. and being the first star to return. What kind of pressure would he face from his peers who remained in Spain? How would he be accepted over here with the younger stars? Why did the players strike? Gorrono was honest and forthright in his answers. At the end, they shook hands, McEwen wished him luck, and after he left, Tom said with a smile, “Gorrronnno.” The column appeared in the morning Tribune a few days later with a great action photo. My second season was off to a great start.
Later on, I was preparing for our first Ocala Jai-Alai season scheduled to open a week after we closed in Tampa. Since I knew Gainesville well, having spent four great years there getting my “Jai-Alai Degree,” I was tasked with trying to find a place for all of us to live, including over 40 players. I made a few trips up there thinking that this was a slam dunk. I could guarantee an apartment manager from 20 to 30 rentals for the summer, usually a slow time. However, there was a problem. The Ocala Jai-Alai season would extend through October 26th, well after the students returned for the fall semester in September.
Luckily, a new complex was opening up just south of campus called Tanglewood Manor. Being brand new, they eagerly accepted the offer. I worked with their management to offer leases to the players and any employees coming from Tampa or Miami.
It had been decided that most of the Tampa roster would play in Ocala. But, a handful of Miami players that included American superstar Joey, Mendiola, Echaniz, Randy and a few others would join them. Also, various Miami employees that worked in the mutuel department and in the announcers booth accepted the offer to come to Ocala.
The player management of the roster would be handled by Tampa’s Beitia and Arregui, the two best in the business. I worked with them in Tampa and had the utmost respect for them. Both were past pro Jai-Alai players and knew it best not to be too close to the players. They found an apartment a few blocks away called Oak Forest.
The Ocala roster that would debut that first season was one of the top rosters around. I, of course, was partial to the Tampa players. I had many debates with people whether the caliber of the Tampa players compared to the Miami roster. But, now for Ocala’s premier season, you added Joey, Echaniz, Randy and others to Bolivar, Laca, and, of course, Gorrono. The combined talent of the two rosters would showcase the sport at it’s best. But, to whom? Will the local farmers and ranchers who have never seen a game of Jai-Alai really appreciate the talent? Will the, hopefully, thousands of tourists driving down I-75 be lured in because of this great roster?
The strategy was to make a good impression on this new market. Plus, it did give another four months of employment for our players and personnel. Now, we needed the facility finished for opening because the dates had been finalized. There was no wiggle room. So, it became extremely disconcerting when we approached the last few weeks of the Tampa season only to find out that construction was behind schedule in Ocala. But, this seems to be the norm in building. However, in this business, we had to open on time, or thousands of dollars would be lost.
Tampa’s season ended with my favorite closing night festivities… the Player’s Parade through the audience. Ernie loved “Colonel Bogey’s March” from the movie Bridge Over River Kwai. So, Ralph Amadeo queued up the reel-to-reel recorder in the booth, and Mike Menendez and I gave Beitia the signal to let ’em loose.
The sell-out crowd jumped to their feet and cheered Bolivar, Javy, Almorza, Gorrono, Solaun, Salazar, Hernandez, Arambarri, and others… then, booed their favorite villain Soriano, the tall backcourter they loved to hate. The girls cried as they went by their seats, knowing they wouldn’t see these studly athletes for months. Some players would hurl their cestas to the crowd, others just hugging their adoring fans. Then, they would enter the front aisle and back into the normally locked player’s quarters door to play their final game of the season.
The following week, my roommate, Jose Ricardo “Ricky” Solaun and I followed each other to Gainesville to move in to our Tanglewood Manor apartment. I fit everything I owned into my orange, two-seater Datsun 240-Z. We helped other players move in. That night, we had a big paella party with plenty of botas filled with wine. Eating and drinking with the players made me think, “I could get used to this!”
The first Ocala Jai-Alai performance was starting that Monday at 2 pm. The fronton still wasn’t finished, ladders and painters everywhere, a trailer set up outside for the offices, and cables still being run to the betting areas. But, at 2 o’clock Monday the doors opened for the 12 game, seven straight points performance running until 10 pm.
The doors opened…but, only a handful of people came. Was Ocala Jai-Alai going to be a complete disaster. Did we build it, and nobody came? We stared across the front pasture hoping a stream of cars was certain to appear over the hill. But none came.