“You have to take it!” Richie Berenson, son of Jai-Alai’s founder Buddy Berenson, excitedly told me as we sat at our usual table at Victoria Station. Richie had just ordered his “usual”… the turkey sandwich, no lettuce, no tomato, no mayo, “just plain turkey on bread.” His father, Buddy, listened intently as I told them both of my meeting with Dania Jai-Alai’s owner Steve Snyder the previous day.
“Marty, I’ve known Steve Snyder for many years,” Buddy said. “If he is making you an offer to go to Dania, I agree with Rich, take it.” I had told them that I was still undecided about the prospect of leaving what was once World Jai-Alai, now Florida Gaming Corporation. I had been in Miami 18 years. I was supposedly part of the “inner circle” with the Colletts and Dan Licciardi. Yet, I had still not received the promised stock options and had taken a pay cut. Some inner circle. Might have done better in the “outer circle.”
“You have no future there,” Richie said. “The company is shrinking. Dania is a great option.” Richie and Buddy, then, related a story to me about Steve Snyder.
“When we bought Hartford Jai-Alai from Roger Wheeler back in 1981, the deal included all the assets, including the 109 pelotas (Jai-Alai balls) and straw on hand to repair the cestas,” Richie said. “A week before our grand opening, we discovered that the balls and straw had been mysteriously shipped to Miami violating what was in the agreement, leaving us with nothing. We could not open without pelotas.”
Buddy took over the narrative. “In a panic, I called Steve Snyder (who owned Milford Jai-Alai and Dania) and told him of our dilemma. The next morning, a box of 109 brand new pelotas and enough straw for months of cesta repair were sitting in my office at Hartford. Steve Snyder saved the day for us.”
Though Dania Jai-Alai had competed in virtually the same market as Miami Jai-Alai, Buddy told me he always respected Snyder and it was a friendly rivalry. Buddy and Richie left no doubt in my mind that I should strongly consider his offer.
But there wasn’t an official offer, yet. Snyder said John Knox, his General Manager, would be calling me in a few days, if he could get Hort Soper from Orlando Jai-Alai on board to share some of my services… and expense.
That night, I told my wife, Sue, about Buddy and Richie’s full-throated endorsement of a move to Dania. She, of course, told me the family would support any decision I made. I still was concerned about the long commute from our home in Kendall (way south in Miami) all the way up to Dania (near Ft. Lauderdale). It was about an hour drive, depending on traffic.
It was now the weekend; I was grilling burgers for the kids when the phone rang. It was the unmistakable golden voice of John Knox (Johnny Knox to his throngs South Florida fans where he was a legendary radio DJ for years prior to joining Dania full time.)
“I’ve been talking to Steve about the possibility of you joining us here in Dania,” he told me. “Hort agreed with his proposal and is willing to have you do the Orlando advertising along with ours.” Then, John officially made me an offer.
“John, I told Steve I would only come if I was, also, your Assistant General Manager, your right-hand guy, I would not come to be only the Marketing Director,” I told him. “I don’t need a parallel move at this time in my career.” He assured me that I would fill both roles. He thought we’d make a great team. I told him I needed to think it over and would call him back.
After I hung up, I looked at Sue. “If I accept this, when Shawna graduates from high school (she still had more than 2 years left), can we sell the house and move up to Dania?” I asked, knowing that the long commute would end. But I had not considered my son Jason would, then, be entering high school. The decision was made, and I dialed Dania Jai-Alai’s number.
When I told John I would accept their offer and join the team, I actually was floored with his response. “That’s WONDERFUL!” he said with more emotion in his reply than I had ever heard from him. He genuinely was thrilled. I knew at that moment I had made the right decision. Now, I had to break the news to Benny, my current boss.
The next afternoon, I went into Benny Collett, Jr.’s office down the hall from my office. After some nervous (for me) chit-chat, I said I had something to discuss with him.
“Benny, remember the times you told me that there were so many better opportunities out there, that maybe I should approach the Dolphins or the Marlins about a job?” He nodded. “Well, I’ve followed your advice and I’ve accepted another job,” I said.
“Marty, that’s great!” he said with a little too much excitement. “What are going to do?” he asked. “I’m going to be the Assistant General Manager at Dania,” I said calmly. His face changed completely.
“You’re going to work for Snyder and Knox?” he said with a completely different tone. “You really want to go to Dania and work for them?” For some reason, Benny just didn’t like them. And, though he had told me that our company was shrinking and advised I start looking around, he couldn’t fathom me going to Dania Jai-Alai.
“Hey, Benny, they seem to really want me. They are not what you think. Of course, I will stay and train my replacement. Remember, you were the one that started all of this,” I reminded him. “But, Dania, Dania. Are you sure you want to go there?” he seemed shaken.
We both agreed to talk later about who might be able to take over my duties and I left his office. I knew he was pissed, but that didn’t bother me. The only two I cared about there were Dan Licciardi and Kim McGuire (my assistant). Since they were both like family, I knew they would understand.
As I drove home that night, I thought about the last 27 years. Though the company had changed from the Berenson’s, to World Jai-Alai, to Florida Gaming, it was still my home. It had been the epicenter of the sport of Jai-Alai. Dania was our rival.
Now, I was going to Dania. I was excited. It would be a new beginning. With this new team, I felt that Dania Jai-Alai would now have no rivals.