The official announcement that Tampa Jai-Alai would never reopen again was a jolt to the Jai-Alai world. The crudely written note taped to the door was a sad ending for all those employees, players, and fans who had supported the Tampa Fronton since it opened in 1954. It hit me very, very hard. My dream of someday being the General Manager of Tampa Jai-Alai was now over.
Richard “Richie” Berenson, grandson of founder Richard Berenson, son of L. Stanley “Buddy” Berenson, was my confidant, one of my closest friends. Since the day I was transferred to Miami, Richie and I met for lunch weekly.
Since his family had essentially been exiled from Jai-Alai in Florida, the family had purchased Hartford Jai-Alai from World Jai-Alai. He and his dad, Buddy, would rotate trips to Hartford to manage the fronton. We still managed to meet for lunch.
Later, another person joined our lunch meetings, El Senor Pedro Mir. Pedro was the legendary Player Manager for Miami Jai-Alai during the “Golden Years.” He had played as a youngster in Cuba and came to the U.S. to play at the first fronton here located at Hialeah Park in 1926. Pedro was now retired and suffering from a badly arthritic hip, injured from the many fall-down rebotes thrown during his playing years.
Having worked for the Berenson’s for many years, Pedro was essentially like a grandfather to Richie. As with many older, retired athletes, Pedro was getting little attention in his senior years. But Richie would not abandon Pedro. He would dutifully pick him up every week and bring him to lunch with us. Both of us would listen, wide-eyed, to the many old stories Pedro would share. And you could tell, he loved telling us about the old days of Jai-Alai.
After Pedro passed away, Richie’s father, Buddy, joined us at Victoria Station (“The Train”) on N.W. 36th Street, right down the street from Miami Jai-Alai. Our weekly get-togethers became invaluable to me as I dealt with the frustrations of the new ownership of World Jai-Alai, the Collett’s.
“I’m not sure about the future of the sport,” I told Richie and Buddy one day at lunch. “Your family started it here, had a passion for Jai-Alai,” I said. “The Collett’s and Florida Gaming don’t… they sold off Tampa! Ocala is probably next.”
Buddy and Richie loved Tampa Jai-Alai. When they acquired it in 1969/70, they felt it would one day surpass Miami Jai-Alai in attendance and handle. In fact, after the family left World Jai-Alai, they secretly tried to buy the Tampa Fronton back during the player strike of 1988. Fortunately, Roger Wheeler, Jr. wouldn’t make a deal with them. I say “fortunately” because the business never rebounded, and it would have turned out to be the worst deal Buddy ever made. Still, they were heartbroken to hear it was now closed, sold off for real estate.
One afternoon, I was sitting in Benny Collett’s office shooting the breeze. As I had mentioned previously, we got along really well and I had felt like Dan Licciardi and I were his team. Then he hit me with this: “You really are a talented guy, Marty. I don’t understand why you don’t get a job with the Marlins or the Miami Heat.”
I told him I loved Jai-Alai and though we were struggling, I still wanted to try to save it. He said he understood, but that with Tampa gone and not knowing the future of Ocala, there were so many other good opportunities out there. I left his office worried. Was that a hint? Was Benny trying to tell me something?
That week, I met Richie and Buddy, telling them of the conversation I had with Benny. They did not trust the Collett’s and were always looking out for my best interests. Neither were encouraged by that conversation.
A few weeks later, I was sitting in my office when my assistant, Kim McGuire told me Steve Snyder was on the phone. Snyder owned Dania Jai-Alai. I rarely had contact with him, except at some of the NAJF meetings or Jai-Alai tournaments. I probably had 2 conversations with him over the past 20 years.
However, I did know John Knox, Dania’s General Manager pretty well. John had helped me in my early years at Tampa Jai-Alai and I worked closely with him organizing the Jai-Alai tournaments. He now had a habit of “checking in” with me almost weekly.
Dania was our closest competitor, our rival fronton. Yet, after the strike, we were all facing the common enemies: the lottery and Native-American casinos. Benny Collett, Jr. didn’t care for Knox or Snyder. I wasn’t sure if it was because they were our competition or just a petty jealousy. But he would often say disparaging things about them. However, I liked them both.
But this was Steve Snyder, not John on the phone. I had no idea why he was calling. Snyder got right to the point. “I wanted to give you a heads-up that the Miami Herald is doing a story on how the player strike has affected our businesses,” he told me. “I just got off the phone with them and I believe they are going to call you next.”
I thanked him for letting me know and told him I would try to be prepared for their call. As I was just about to hang up, Steve casually asked, “So, how’s it going?”
Normally, I would answer that everything’s great and thanks for asking. But, for some reason, and I truly don’t know why… maybe just the mood I was in that day… I confessed to Steve that I was considering moving back to Tampa, leaving Jai-Alai.
I had not discussed this with anyone, except my wife Sue. I did not know Steve Snyder well enough to blurt that out. I just said it. His response was startling. “Marty, don’t do anything until you meet with me. Can you join me for lunch, Friday, at Georgio’s Restaurant? I have a proposal for you.”