It starts with a single drip. A small pinhole in a dam that gradually gets larger. In the end, the dam breaks causing a massive flood. Or, a tiny spark that ignites a twig, that becomes a massive forest fire causing catastrophic destruction. This happened to us. This happened to my sport. An insignificant drip, a small spark that unknowingly led to the end of Jai-Alai.
It was now late 1987, I was in Tampa meeting with my close friend Rick McEwen (son of legendary Tampa Tribune Sports Editor, Tom McEwen). Rick was a director at WFLA-TV, but had a small production company on the side. He had pitched us the idea of making a promotional film on the sport. The video could be used for condo groups, trade shows, or other media opportunities. It, also, could be a slick presentation for the promotion of our company, World Jai-Alai. Donovan agreed on a budget for us and the project began.
Our friendship went back a long way. Rick and I played Junior High School golf against each other. We maintained our close friendship throughout our lives, even after my departure to Miami. Thus, it was great that we could work on this project together.
I wrote the script. His team would shoot fresh video of action, crowd scenes, and interviews with the players. He would edit any existing footage we had and integrate the new shots into the script. I wanted the narrator to sound like the legendary voice of the NFL Films, John Facenda. Rick found an almost exact match. I knew this was going to good, but didn’t realize how good.
I remember specifically many of the player interviews. Some were with our American players, specifically Daniel and Corky. But, many were with the Basques. There were quotes like, “The company has done everything for us, given us everything… it’s like a big family.”
The testimonials from our players about the sport could not have been more positive. They even praised World Jai-Alai and how they were treated by the company. This would remain in the back of my mind as that narrative would quickly change.
The production was finished in late January of 1988. We called it, “Jai-Alai, There’s Nothing Like it!” I said it then, and I will say it now, it was the best documentary on the sport of Jai-Alai ever produced.
Rick (who passed away last year) did a phenomenal job on the film. I still get goose bumps when I watch it. But, some of those player quotes are filled with such irony. (here is a link to it: ” THIS IS JAI-ALAI ” Documentary 1988 – YouTube )
On one of my trips to Tampa during production, someone mentioned that a player in Connecticut (Bridgeport Jai-Alai, not associated with World Jai-Alai) had gotten upset with management and ripped up his contract. He soon went on a food strike, touting low pay and poor working conditions for Jai-Alai players. The drip.
When word got back to us in Florida about the antics of this disgruntled player, we all thought “he was crazy.” Some on the Tampa roster knew him from the Basque country. They dismissed his antics as “loco,” a player with a personal problem. It seemed all our players in World Jai-Alai (Miami, Tampa, Ocala, and Ft. Pierce) were happy and had no major issues. A few weeks passed, then, the spark.
Years earlier, Ricardo Lasa Sotil had played on the Miami Jai-Alai roster before being cut. He was angry and some say carried a grudge against Miami Jai-Alai for his abrupt dismissal from the roster. That anger carried on for decades.
Ricardo Lasa Sotil, Jr. was now a star player on the Hartford Jai-Alai roster. When hearing of the situation in nearby Bridgeport, father and son joined the cause of the disgruntled Bridgeport player. They thought salaries were too low and the players weren’t treated with the respect they deserved. Contract negotiations were one-sided and players had little or no choice in accepting contracts. The father/son duo began pushing for a “player’s association” that could negotiate as a group on behalf of all players.
On March 6th, 1988, they soon formed the International Jai-Alai Players Association (known as IJAPA). Ricardo Sotil, Jr, known as Ricky Lasa, became president. Thus, began the movement, starting in Connecticut and quickly spreading to Florida, for a recognized “player’s association.”
When I first heard about this in our corporate offices, I personally felt the players had the right for an association. I knew it existed in the NFL and the NBA. If the players had some problems, why not let them discuss it with management.
But, I quickly found out the answer. Dick Donovan, our president, and the other company owners were adamantly opposed. They felt a player’s association would lead directly to unionization. Management hates unions. No way did they want to give up ANY power to the players, no matter what.
So, a meeting was hastily called by all the fronton owners throughout the country. The meeting was to be held right down the hall from me in Donovan’s office. All were invited… The Connecticut frontons (Hartford, Bridgeport, and Milford), Rhode Island (Newport, owned by Palm Beach), and all the Florida facilities.
The purpose of the meeting was simple: how to prevent unionization of the Jai-Alai players. Recommendations would be heard for hiring top labor attorneys to represent the group. Donovan already had his recommendation, Hogg, Allen, and Rice, a top labor firm located in Miami. This meeting would bring together a group with a history of strong rivalries and bad-blood battles.
I quickly understood the ancient proverb: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” when Buddy Berenson walked into Miami Jai-Alai to attend the meeting. Buddy, past major stockholder of World Jai-Alai whose family is credited with being the “founders” of the sport in this country, had unfairly been ousted from the company.
Amid lawsuits and acrimony, the Berenson family had been exiled from the sport until purchasing Hartford Jai-Alai from World Jai-Alai almost 10 years earlier. Yet, Buddy Berenson courageously swallowed his pride and attended that meeting. Hartford, indeed, was in the crosshairs of Ricky Lasa. Buddy knew he needed allies in order to fight a player’s union. He knew this was going to be another battle for survival.
I have distinct memories of the day of the meeting. I was asked to attend, since undoubtedly there was the potential for a large media response.
The owners began to file into Donovan’s office sitting at his large conference table. Then, L. Stanley “Buddy” Berenson made the familiar walk upstairs to Donovan’s 2nd floor office, which was his Conference Room during his reign. When I saw him, I greeted him with a smile and we shook hands, knowing how tough this had to be for him.
Buddy, son Richard, and I met for lunch occasionally back in those days as I maintained my close friendship with both of them after they left World Jai-Alai. I always appreciated their kindness toward me and giving me the start in my Jai-Alai career.
Then, the other owners saw Buddy and greeted him warmly. As Donovan approached and reached out his hand, I wondered if Buddy would actually shake it. As painful as I’m sure it was for him, he quickly shook it and sat down right next to me.
Donovan, being the president of the largest Jai-Alai company and host of the meeting, spoke first. “We all know this “association” is leading to a player’s union,” he said. “There is no way I’m going to negotiate anything with Ricky Lasa.”
The other fronton owners nodded their heads in agreement. Art Sylvester, Palm Beach’s colorful owner, said that he had a friendly relationship with his players. “Maybe an association is all they want?” he said.
Berenson and the Connecticut frontons were ardently opposed to a player’s association. “Connecticut is a union state. I guarantee you this is going to lead to a strike,” Buddy said. I noticed, probably for the first time ever, Donovan wholeheartedly agreeing with Berenson.
Then, Dick Donovan told them he had invited Jesse Hogg, managing partner of a law firm that specialized in labor disputes, to speak to the group. Dick said he felt Hogg should represent all the frontons not only to save money, but to speak as one voice. Hogg entered the office.
Jesse Hogg looked like his name. He was a big, burly guy that had a friendly demeanor, but a certain toughness about him. After being introduced, Hogg discussed his view of the situation.
“The players had probably applied to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to certify their association. This was tantamount to becoming a union. We can oppose certification,” said Hogg. “There are reasons the NLRB does not have jurisdiction in this matter. The state regulates this industry, not the federal government,” he went on to say.
But, his closing statement to the group still rings in my mind. “We will sue on the jurisdictional issue,” he said. “We will delay and delay. The players will eventually give up. They will never have a union,” he concluded.
With those comforting words, the meeting adjourned. The Florida frontons agreed to hire the Hogg firm. The Connecticut frontons decided on separate representation. Both were determined to see Hogg’s words become a reality. “The players will never have a union.” A drip, a spark, and …..!