“Do you want to go see Joey?”, said my buddy Tim Suitum, as he passed by my dorm room in Donnellon Hall at STU.
I accepted, thinking we were headed over to the Rathskellar for a few cold ones, never having met Joey. No “Rat” that night, instead we’re in his girlfriend’s car, I believe he had just taken her keys and not asked as we raced up the Palmetto and then ’95. Not many words were spoken until I finally looked up and then saw the infamous sign atop the Pirates Inn on the corner of US 1 and Dania Beach Boulevard – “Dania Jai-Alai” in fluorescent lights lit up with its yellow arrow pointing towards the fronton. “Jai-Alai?!”
Sitting down for my first game, listening to the march, watching the Players Parade, seeing all the flags from various countries adorned above the upper padding, hand-woven cestas made of reeds from the Pyrenees Mountains with leather gloves sewn on each for the players right-hand to fit into and cinta used to wrap around and tie to the pelotaris hand, the crisp white pants, red fajas – I was just like a little boy watching in amazement. Then the “crack” of the pelota against the frontis to begin the game and with the light crowd on a Tuesday evening you could hear the whipping of the cestas, view the athleticism of the players, the wall-climbling of Lavell – the Merry Festival had hooked another. A fan of “action” at the window, from visits greyhound and thoroughbred tracks, it took a few games to figure out the points and Spectacular 7 and 9 Scoring, but the pari-mutuel wagering I had down. Then the man we went to see, Joey, came out for the late, feature games and went 0-for….just my luck, but an experience, I remember like yesterday. Although I don’t recall cashing a ticket, the quicksand of Jai-Alai had captured another fan for life.
Fast forward four years later – after a number of visits to the Palace and just one to Miami Jai-Alai which I thought was an absolute zoo (a huge tournament night, I could barely see the action as the place was absolutely packed and we were standing three-deep watching in General Admission) – I’m working as a P.R. Intern at MJA thanks to fellow Grad School classmate at STU, Dan Licciardi, then Assistant General Manager, but has been the Patriarch at the “Home of Jai-Alai” for well over 20 years now.
Two weeks later, it’s a Friday, so I leave early to meet a friend for the special late afternoon post-time which Calder Race Course ran back in ’94. My buddy and I enter and quickly buy The Form, grab a beer each and head towards the doors further down leading outside. One problem! All I say is “f#@%!”. There is only one person headed straight towards us. I believe the second race had not yet started; it was absolutely quiet being early on the Friday card. My buddy asks me what’s wrong. I said that’s my boss heading for us, “I just started this job, I left early, I’m f****d!” So…we are getting closer, and he says “Jimmy!” I thought I was going to piss my shorts (I had actually gone home first and changed). “You want to split the next race?” I’m like “What?” He says, “I apologize, Mr. Rico gave me a winner the other day and I had to come in to cash a ticket; I have to get to the card game at work or else I would stay”. Here I think I’m out of job and my boss is apologizing for not staying and wants to split a bet with me. “Ok, I’m in!” Even after he left, I was still shaking my head trying to process what occurred and it didn’t slip my mind that he had to get to the fronton not to get to work, but the card game, which I had already heard was legend in just the few weeks of employment at MJA. That man was Tommy Contreras – and those who knew him probably aren’t surprised. The Late TC was a true Jai-Alai ambassador, a great friend, whom I deeply miss – the beers, laughs, and ball-busting shared would span from that one day on the first floor of Calder for another two decades. For some reason, I still have his number in my cell; I often tell our mutual friend Randy Macarella, Top-Shelf Mutuel Manager at Dania forever, one day I’m going to call him for a horse selection.
I am thankful to Jeff for the invite and opportunity to share stories from the past and present, pertinent features on the Pelota Press platform. Grateful to Martino (who I believe hired TC and has been a great friend, mentor since my start in ‘94), the Actuary, Al Q., and Benny Bueno for your continued support, and recommending me to Jeff!