By Marty Fleischman
The players, all carrying their cestas, descended the movable metal stairway which abutted the Eastern Airline prop jet. Their flight, Bilbao-Madrid-Miami-Tampa, was a long, tiring ordeal. But, these 40 young Basque athletes all had smiles on their faces, posing on the stairway for the many media assembled to get the obligatory picture for the newspaper sport’s section.
This was a big day. It signified the 1971-72 Tampa Jai-Alai season was about to begin. I was there to coordinate the photo-op. Every year, the newspapers ran this picture on page 1 of the sports sections with the caption: “Jai-Alai players return from Spain to kick of Tampa Jai-Alai season on December 27th.” It was our most valued media exposure letting the fans know that soon they would be hearing the crack of the pelota.
I couldn’t help but notice the mass of gorgeous young women, also, greeting the players. Some were past girlfriends, but many were future hopefuls. I would soon find out that these young athletes had a following of Jai-Alai “groupies” similar to the rock stars of the 70s.
And, of course, I was not opposed to the possibility that my close proximity to the players might afford me a few opportunities of my own. They didn’t know I was just a “pakete” amateur. Wearing an actual player jersey might just confuse them, make them think I am one of the pros. I will tell Ernie that I was told my game would improve with an old player jersey. It’s not how you play, it’s how you look.
While some players searched for new apartments, many returned to their past rentals in South Tampa, like The Cove on West Shore or Tampa Villas. They, also, began their daily practice sessions at the fronton. This was my chance to watch and get to know some of the players. This would become invaluable to me not only dealing with the press but getting the trust of the players.
Even though my job now was preparing the program, checking out the equipment, testing the music and march tapes, preparing press releases, and answering media questions about the upcoming season, my favorite time was hanging out during the player practice.
Being less than two weeks from opening night, the seasonal workers still needed to be hired and licensed. That night was known as “Roll Call”, the pari-mutuel job fair where betting tellers, ushers, box office workers, janitorial staff, Tele-Wager girls, bartenders, and cocktail waitresses were interviewed and hired. This was done all in one night. And it was incredible. I was like a kid in a candy store, just wandering around the main lobby, like a shark circling for the kill.
During the day, the box office lines were ringing off the hook. Opening night was already sold out, all 3,792 reserved seats, from lower Loge to upper Orchestra sections. There was nothing left but the $1 Standing Room admission, where people stood on the sides or just watched on closed circuit television from the lobbies.
Finally, December 27th, opening night arrived. Cars were lined up for almost a mile in both directions on Dale Mabry. The box office had at least eight windows open, but the lines of fans still stretched around the corner into the parking lot.
From the announcer’s booth, I could see the seats gradually filling in. Our background music was playing, and the early game players came out to practice. The tension and excitement was building as we approached the 7:30 first game post time and player’s parade, the salute to the fans.
And then it happened. As I was gazing out into the crowd, eyeing the Tele wager Girls in their short mini-skirts and the cocktail waitresses in their white Hot Pants, I noticed a group of girls entering the middle section, directly eye-level to our elevated announcer’s booth. One looked very familiar. Yes, it was my ex-girlfriend. It was the girl that I dated my final year at UF, where I had said, “It’s not you, it’s me.” I was attempting to end the relationship in a civil manner as she had another year to go and I was venturing into my next step in life, which did not include her.
Unfortunately, I guess it did not work because she was surrounded by four, very tall, assassin-like sorority sisters, all staring directly at the booth. Any one of them could have kicked my a… Not once did any of them look at the practicing players, just stared straight at me. I asked Ralph and Mike to protect me if there was trouble. Ralph was too busy planning his next quinella box and Mike said he needed to concentrate on the statistics. I might survive my first opening night but wasn’t sure I was going make it home.
I spent the entire night in the announcer’s booth. When I announced a game, my voice was quivering, not from the record crowd, but from what could await me if I ventured downstairs. Fortunately, they departed back to Gainesville after the 8th game without any incidents. I still left through the player’s quarters back door.
Opening night ended well beyond midnight, smoke suspended like fog throughout the fronton. There were losing tickets scattered all over the floor, but fans still seemed happy as they lined up in valet parking, all thrilled that their favorite sport was back.
We set records that night, both in attendance and betting handle. I was now on the inside, venturing into the restricted player’s quarters during the games, and conversing with the players that spoke English. In the back of my mind, I carried the thought that maybe one day they would tell me who was supposed to win a game and I could make a big score.
After all, everyone knew that Jai-Alai is “fixed.” That is what my buddy told me the first time I snuck into the fronton. That is what everyone said when I told them I was working at Jai-Alai. My family even believed it. So, it must be, right? After all, humans are involved. It’s a gambling sport. Everyone seemed to know, except me. But I was about to find out.