The excitement of having the Miami Vice crew here had faded and I was now starting my seventh year in Miami. Sue had given birth to our second child, Jason, in March of 1985. We were dealing with being parents of two young children, no in-town family for support. Sue was doing a phenomenal job dealing with the kids while I sometimes “worked” late (those gin games with Donovan and Rico did not end until Donovan was ahead). Then, I would arrive home, my clothes stinking of cigar smoke.
Business was good, though you could see the summer seasons at Miami, Dania, and Tampa chipping away at the seasonal attendance and handle. But, the overall yearly totals were still much higher, so the owners thought the extended seasons were beneficial. I, on the other hand, was worried.
Our best promotion still remained the intercity tournaments, now called the NAJF (Nat’l Association of Jai-Alai Frontons). The hosting fronton was packed the night of their round. Most of the time, the management would travel to the tournaments to support the players. Some of the owners played golf, like Hort Soper, who owned Orlando Jai-Alai. We would fly to Orlando or Daytona Beach early to get in a round of golf before the tournament that evening. Yep, tough job, but somebody has to do it.
I would drive to the Palm Beach round, usually taking Sue and the kids with me. They would stay in the hotel while I went to the fronton. I felt badly leaving them, but Sue found it a respite, almost a vacation.
I have fond memories of seeing Palm Beach owner, Arthur Sylvester, Sr. He always wore these colorful sports jackets, light colored pants, even white shoes. He was quite a character and a very nice guy. Everybody loved Art.
The Miami team usually consisted of Joey, Asis, Juaristi (who later went to Dania and represented them), Alberdi or Elorrio in the frontcourt. The backcourters would be Soroa, Enrique, Ecenarro, or hard-throwing Elorduy. There was fierce competition between the frontons.
One late afternoon, while Donovan, Rico, and I were “in a meeting,” Frank Duffin, Director of Player Personnel and one of Miami’s Assistant Managers, walked into Donovan’s office. Frank, being an ex-FBI agent, whispered something to Dick. Frank was always whispering. Maybe his past experience as an agent made him think the office was bugged. I heard faintly something about Joey.
I later found out that Duffin had told Donovan that he got word (he had his “informants”, mainly Alfredo Garcia, player manager) that Joey was trying to open a Jai-Alai fronton in Arizona. Donovan dismissed it as almost a joke. After all, he had tried to get Jai-Alai legalized in various states and even other countries and failed. For Donovan, if he couldn’t do it, nobody could.
I didn’t think much about it. Rumors of this sort popped up all the time. I was good friends with Joey. I had spent time with him on our national media tour. We had played golf together. I now thought he was not only the best Jai-Alai player in the world, but a very close friend. I couldn’t really see how or why this rumor was true. And, if it was, good for Joey.
Days and weeks went by…then, Duffin approached Donovan again. Rico and I were sitting in his office discussing advertising. Duffin told Dick that Joey was trying to get some of the players to commit to leaving Miami Jai-Alai to go with him to Arizona if he got the fronton. Now, that got Donovan’s attention and he got angry.
Donovan said that he had some sources that told him Joey, indeed, and a couple Miami insurance guys were trying to get a facility on the Gila Indian reservation. Reservations were treated as sovereign nations and were exempt from some state laws. Their attorneys felt it would be legal to have Jai-Alai on the reservation. Joey would be a partner in this venture.
While this seemed to be very secret, it was revealed to Donovan through some financial guy out in Arizona. I’m sure Joey had to keep it a secret for fear of one of the Florida owners stealing this unique idea, Native-American gaming. (The concept was truly ahead of its time and their idea became the framework for the many Native-American casinos throughout the country).
I remember Donovan saying, “Frank, don’t tell anyone that I know about this. I want to see if Joey comes to me to talk about it. But, keep me posted if you hear about any more discussions with players.”
When Duffin left, I said, “Dick, there’s no way Joey is trying to steal our players. He wouldn’t do that.” Donovan said he trusted Duffin’s information and that Joey could try to get another fronton and leave, but he couldn’t try to take any of our players. For me, if Joey could be an owner and make more money, I was all for it. He had always been drastically underpaid, as were all Jai-Alai players.
Then, it finally happened. It became public as the Arizona papers got wind of the story. There were comments from the Governor who said he would never let it happen. He was completely opposed to gambling and was dead set on finding a way to stop it. But, since reservations were not technically under his jurisdiction, he would have to be creative to stop the deal. And, he was. The Arizona project died, as did Joey’s dream of owning a fronton.
With the news stories being faxed around to the state frontons, Joey now had no choice but to face Donovan. He told Dick about the deal, that his partners had sworn him to secrecy, and that he definitely had NOT talked to players about leaving World Jai-Alai to go with him. I believed him. Donovan didn’t. Donovan would make Joey pay. But, in the end, World Jai-Alai paid, by losing Joey.
Joey had a contract to play with World Jai-Alai and Donovan didn’t mess with that. But, Joey, also, had a discretionary bonus in his contract. Joey was a special player. He was used extensively in promotions. He was always willing to do anything extra that would promote the sport or Miami Jai-Alai. But, I think it was, also, tied to making sure he didn’t sign with any other fronton.
Joey was “the Face of Miami Jai-Alai.” That bonus was important. And, Donovan withheld it from him. He claimed it was “discretionary” and had the right not to pay it. Of course, he had paid it for years. It was a lousy thing to do. It hurt Joey, it hurt the sport, and it hurt World Jai-Alai. I knew things would never be the same for Joey.
Later that year, Joey announced he was leaving and signed with our biggest competitor, Dania Jai-Alai. Steve Snyder, owner of Dania, pulled another huge coup signing Joey. This was like Mickey Mantle leaving the Yankees to go to the Dodgers. I couldn’t believe it. The “Favorite Son of Miami Jai-Alai”, my best promotional tool, my good friend was leaving us and going to Dania. Donovan was beside himself. Now, lawsuits flew everywhere.
Joey, I know, didn’t want to leave. But, he had no choice. He began to thrive in Dania and quickly went to the top. Of course, he was chosen to represent Dania in the next NAJF Tournament. This caused a huge, unforeseen problem. Donovan immediately wanted to withdraw.
Dick Donovan didn’t like to lose… at anything. Losing Joey was a slap in the face. When Dania submitted their teams for the tournament, he told me we are not going to participate. I begged him to reconsider, that it would look bad for us and we would lose our biggest revenue night. He finally compromised by saying we could participate, but Joey could not play on our court… at our round. He drummed up some excuse that if he got hurt, he would surely sue us.
Well, that still made it impossible. Dania was not going put in a substitute just for the Miami round. It was an unreasonable request. Donovan’s justification was ridiculous. Any player could sue us if they got hurt.
In the end, he finally relented and the tournament went on as usual. But, Donovan was nowhere in sight during the Miami round. Joey was cheered that night by his old fans. He played like he always played, winning most of the tournament games.
Joey went on to have a record setting career in Dania. He was always a winner and it didn’t matter where he played. There is no doubt he wanted to finish his career where it started, at Miami Jai-Alai. But, he did what he had to do.
There has never been a better emissary of the sport than Joey Cornblit. And, we lost him from Miami, probably when we needed him the most. We were about to enter the “Year of Doom” for the sport of Jai-Alai. 1988, Winter is Coming!