With the demise of Club Jai, our focus turned to poker. Texas Hold’em was capturing the attention of the nation’s card players. The “World Series of Poker” from Las Vegas was featured on ESPN. Poker rooms around the nation were hosting their own poker tournaments with higher buy-ins and bigger prizes.
We were still drawing almost the same small audience each performance for Jai-Alai. It was now under 100 fans. This minimal amount of people in a large, cavernous 3,500 seat auditorium was depressing. Plus, people had their favorite places to sit, which spread them out throughout the vast seating area.
What was even more frustrating, the play was fantastic. Our roster of players still had great stars like Arriaga, Arregui, Oyarbide, Arrieta and so many others. How could these super athletes be playing this phenomenal sport and draw such little interest?
Meanwhile, we got the news that Boyd Gaming had made some new casino acquisitions. VP Jack Bernsmeier had been chosen to manage one of their newest purchases in Mississippi. Chris Gibase, one of the original executive VPs, would once again oversee the struggling Dania Jai-Alai.
I was spending more and more time in the Poker Room. We were still running the monthly “Dan Lebatard Celebrity Poker Tournament.” But interest in that began waning. Dan no longer showed up. Marc “Hoch” Hochman and his production crew would be the only stars there.
Dave Winslow, the HR guy, was now obsessed with the minutia of management. Many days I would come in and he would summon me to his office. He would ask me to review the surveillance footage trying to verify a customer complaint or slip and fall. The Poker Room Manager came under scrutiny for leaving a few minutes early and I had to verify it scrolling through hours of surveillance footage. This is what my 41-year career had come to?
My dear friend and Dania Player Manager Jose Arregui had finally come to the decision that he was going to retire and move back to Tampa with his wonderful wife Grace. He had thought about it for years. Finding a successor is always a problem.
Luckily, we had hired past American Jai-Alai star Benny Bueno to coordinate our amateur Jai-Alai program. Benny was the natural fit to replace Arregui. Benny had done a wonderful job in his part-time role. I was thrilled that I had suggested Benny for the job.
Dave Winslow was enamored with Benny. Benny has a great personality, was a terrific player, and very knowledgeable about the sport. I had suggested to Dave that when Arregui retired, Benny would be perfect for the job. But, Dave appeared too anxious, bordering on “pushing Arregui out the door.”
When the end of the season came, we had our normal trophy presentations to the winners. I usually emcee the event. It was going to be the night we honored Jose Arregui for his many years as Dania’s Player Manager and an illustrious Jai-Alai career. Dave, also, wanted me to announce the appointment of Benny as his successor, which I thought was appropriate.
That night, the fronton was filled with the families and friends of the players. Also, many were there to honor Jose Arregui. Benny was up there with me, not only to honor his good friend Arregui, but to await my public announcement of his promotion.
As I finished the trophy presentations, I began reciting Arregui’s career background, from player in the 1960s, to court judge, Assistant Player Manager, and finally Player Manager. But, Winslow began to nudge me and whispered, “Enough about Arregui, introduce Benny.” I was annoyed and angry. This was Arregui’s moment. I knew Benny understood. Benny is a class act. He knew his time would come.
I ignored Winslow and finished Jose’s introduction. The crowd applauded vigorously. I, then, began the announcement about Benny. It was now official. Arregui had passed the managerial cesta to the younger Benny. And, Arregui got the recognition he deserved, maybe to the chagrin of Winslow.
Rumors of potential buyers for the property began to surface. It appeared that Boyd might be ready to cut their losses. Yet we were told nothing. Business as usual.
I looked around. The owner that hired me, Steve Snyder, was gone. My fellow marketing and later GM John Knox… gone. My long-time amigo in Tampa, Ocala, then Dania, Jose Arregui was gone.
My day was coming. Was the dream over? My life, my love… the sport I could not let go. Then, one night, we got a call from my daughter Shawna in Tampa. She was pregnant with our first grandchild.