Future home of the Ocala Jai-Alai Fronton. Located in the
middle of nowhere, it was a big gamble on whether it would be a
success when it opened in 1973.
Note to Reader: I was asked to recount my memories of my long 40-plus year career with the sport of Jai-Alai. Undoubtedly, there were some important female relationships that occurred along the way during the 70s, prior to encountering the most important one, meeting my wife, Sue. I will omit discussing them, not to minimize their importance to me, but because it is off the topic of my history with the sport itself. These ladies, now probably grandmothers, were an important part of my early years. If any happen to be reading this, I thank them for their patience with my Jai-Alai addiction and only wish them the best.
Ocala, A Losing Bet?
After nearly 3 months of travel throughout the entire continent of Europe, Neil Einhorn and I somehow made it back home. Our friendship survived, as do the memories. But, it is now time to prepare for the 1972-73 Tampa Jai-Alai season, my second full season.
Having seen the World Amateur Tournament in St. Jean-de-Luz, and visited the Basque Country seeing the historic frontons from Guernica to Mallorca, I felt like I had gotten my Masters or PHD in the sport of Jai-Alai. Also, being an avid amateur player, I thought I had a true perspective of the sport. I figured, though only 23 years old, the media could not ask me a question that I couldn’t answer. Also, I was truly looking for the players’ respect. Few Americanos had ever really immersed themselves in the sport like I had, spent time in their small villages, played on their home courts. I even tried to learn some of the Basque language, which was completely unique and had no relationship to any Romance language.
The big news at home was the actual construction of the newest Jai-Alai fronton in the U.S., our facility in Ocala. Now, it wasn’t actually in Ocala, though it did sit in Marion County, nearly halfway between Ocala and Gainesville. We got word that it was due to be completed in time for the coming summer season in June of 1973. This would have a tremendous impact on many of the employees of Tampa Jai-Alai, especially me. Though many employees had other local jobs or worked at the other Tampa pari-mutuel tracks, some (like me) needed continuing employment. Ocala Jai-Alai, operating in the summer following the Tampa season, meant at least nine to 10 months of work.
One other issue was the impact on the players. The Miami and Tampa players, playing the winter season only, had to return to Spain. However, opening a summer facility would give some of them longer contracts, which meant locking in the stars to play for us. No other Florida fronton could offer nine months to a player, since the other state frontons were, also, seasonal. But the dilemma for Buddy Berenson (and son Richie) was deciding which players would be sent to Ocala that very first inaugural season.
My problems with Ernie Larsen, my boss, did not get any better. He was getting more erratic, drinking more, and going back on more of his promises. But I loved what I was doing and realized that Ocala Jai-Alai might be a game changer. Maybe, there was a future management position for me there?
One day, Ernie called me in and told me the Ocala playing court was nearly finished. Buddy wanted someone to go up there and try it out, see how the pelota reacted against the new granite front wall. The actual roster players were playing that night, so “send Marty up,” Buddy told Larsen. I was thrilled. I would be the first person to ever throw a ball on that court, a historic moment.
So, I got into my Oldsmobile Cutlass, that had 4 inches of water in the trunk leaking from corrosion holes and drove up. I was told to exit I-75 at the Orange Lake exit and head east. After passing the city of Ocala, and heading another 19 miles into farm country, I saw the sign for Orange Lake. I headed east on SR 318, crossed U.S. 441, and over a big hill. There was nothing, then suddenly appearing on my left was what looked like a secret government installation. Only farmland around me. Goats were grazing in front of the airplane hanger-looking building.
As I drove on a dirt road up to the building, the thought came to me, “Who in the heck is going to come here except a few farmers? The goats don’t bet!” I drove to the rear and saw the three-walled court, but there was no roof on it. The right side had no screen installed. Pine trees surrounded the rear of the building, dropping pine needles all over the court floor.
I grabbed my cesta and a few practice pelotas ballmaker Anibal had given me. My first throw was a hard (I exaggerate slightly) backhand that made a loud crack as it rebounded quickly off the front wall. This was the first crack of the pelota off a fronton wall ever heard in North Central Florida. But it was heard by only the goats and a few squirrels. So, did it really make a sound? I threw all my shots and found the court to be a little faster than the Tampa court. The bounces were true and consistent, as long as it didn’t hit a pine needle. I still can hear the wind blowing through the pine trees, the quiet serenity of being in the country, mixing with the swish of the cesta, followed by the bang of the ball. But though the court was solid, could this fronton in the middle of nowhere be viable?
After reporting back to Ernie, the condition of the court and my concern for the location, he revealed the marketing strategy. The fronton was built midway between Ocala and Gainesville for a purpose. The thought was, neither one of those small cities could support the business on its own. We would need to attract customers from both. But, in addition, Ocala Jai-Alai would need the many tourists driving down I-75 to pull off and take in some games. This was deemed vital to the success of this fronton.
And, in order to open for this mass of tourists, the plan would be for the fronton to run a continuous “performance” starting at 2 p.m. until 10 p.m. This had never been done! There would be “straight point” games to seven points, no “Spectacular 7” scoring where the points double. The games needed to be long, so the fronton would be operating for those consecutive hours. This was a novel idea. Could it work? With a more than $2 million investment, it had to work. The future of our company, my future depended on it working. I had no idea that this would have repercussions that changed not only the sport of Jai-Alai, but the future for so many.