As I made the drive from Venice Beach to Tampa, the words of Bennett Collett, Sr. echoed in my head. “We want you to be the General Manager of Tampa Jai-Alai. You’re the man for the job.”
My mind drifted back to 1971, when I sat across the desk from Tampa’s GM, ex-Naval Commander, and hippie-hating Ernie Larsen. I was a young, long-haired recent UF grad with a passion for my new love, Jai-Alai. Ernie, though he loathed my look, filled me with hope that I could one day take the reigns of Tampa Jai-Alai.
Then, I thought about my ex-boss and friend Dick Gerrity, who took over for Larsen, and suffered a premature death at the hands of cancer. I was sure my turn had come to return to Tampa and fulfill my dream. But, Gerald Coakley, our Ft. Pierce GM, was somehow chosen to go to Tampa. Befuddled by that decision, still I was patient.
In less than two years, Coakley was removed from the Tampa post and to my amazement, I was passed over again! This time, Giles Ellis, many years Gerrity’s assistant who had just relocated to Miami to be VP Administration, had gotten the nod.
Astounded by the decision, I went directly to Donovan to request an explanation. Donovan told me I was scheduled to go, that I had his and Rico’s support. But he said he had made a pledge to Ellis that if he wanted to return to Tampa from Miami, he would honor that request. At the last minute, Ellis made the request.
As I crossed the Sunshine Skyway in awe of the beauty of Tampa Bay, I realized my chance had finally come. But it had taken almost 30 years! And, it came from a new CEO that hardly knew me. Someone that I could barely trust. Remember Collett offering me Florida Gaming stock options? I was still waiting. Remember doubling the advertising budget? That never happened.
Tampa Jai-Alai was now but a shell of a business. It was bleeding cash. Since the strike of 1988, Jai-Alai attendance and betting had dropped almost 90%. The excitement of poker had waned as the $10 pot limit restriction by the state pushed the poker players away.
There were strong rumors that the Collett’s were shopping the property to developers and even had a possible deal. Yet, I was still leaning toward accepting the offer, thinking I really had no choice.
As I pulled into the vast empty parking lot of Tampa Jai-Alai, my mind flashed back to the lines of people at the box office. I entered the same door that I used as a teenager sneaking in with a fake ID just to get a glimpse of the world’s fastest game. I walked across the lobby to the conference room immediately adjacent to my old PR office that I inhabited in my early years. And they’re sat CEO Bennett Collett, his son Benny to his side. My future resting in their hands.
They both got up and greeted me warmly. Bennett thanked me for making the drive and repeated his offer or should I say directive. “You’re the man for the job, we want you here running things for us,” he said smoothly. Benny was silent. This was Bennett’s “show.”
I told him how long I had waited for this opportunity and thanked him for being the one to finally give it to me. But I had concerns. My biggest was the difficulty of uprooting my kids, Shawna being in high school, and Jason in middle school. Bennett suggested I commute from Miami while they finished the school year. I could stay Monday through Thursday in Tampa and return to Miami each weekend.
I processed that as he spoke, knowing that the weekends were the most important times to be at the fronton. Yet, I would be absent. I, also, dreaded flying back and forth every weekend. But I didn’t reveal those thoughts to him. I just nodded.
Then, I hit him with the big question. “Bennett, I heard that Florida Gaming had a possible deal on selling Tampa Jai-Alai to a developer. Is that true?” He looked at me as if I was a member of the media and carefully chose his words. “Marty, we’re looking at all our options. There’s no signed deal… yet.”
That was the worst denial I had ever heard. Now, I was sure the rumors were true. So, I had one question left: “If you do sell it, do I still have my job back in Miami?” I knew this was going to be difficult because they would have to fill my position with someone if I left for Tampa. But, moving or even commuting to Tampa for a short time only to lose my job with a sale… his response was going to weigh heavily on my decision.
“Marty there just are no guarantees in life,” Bennett told me. “Unfortunately, we can’t guarantee your job will be waiting for you back in Miami. But, we need you here in Tampa,” he reiterated. Now I knew my true value to them. We sell and you’re gone. Loyalty certainly didn’t seem to be in the vocabulary of the Collett’s.
I told him I needed to talk it over with my family. He agreed we would finalize everything back in Miami after Christmas. He got up signaling the meeting was over. I shook hands and Benny, Jr. escorted me out.
As the two of us walked across the lobby, he could see the look of worry on my face. I told Benny, “I’m screwed!” He calmly said to relax and “don’t worry about Senior.” I said, “Benny if you sell this place in 6 months, I’m out of a job. If I tell your father ‘No,’ I’m sure he will fire me. Your father doesn’t look like a man that takes ‘no’ for an answer.”
Benny acted like a friend to me. He tried to reassure me that I shouldn’t worry about it. I should talk it over with my family and have a nice Christmas. He would do his best to calm his father down if I refused. I shook hands and left.
After returning to Venice and discussing the meeting with Sue, I came to the painful decision that I was going to decline Bennett’s offer. I told Sue to prepare to move back to Tampa as I was sure Bennett would fire me. I would have no job. At least my prospects were better in Tampa.
One week after Christmas, Bennett returned to Miami. I knocked on his office door (he used the downstairs office which was Buddy Berenson’s, then Paul Rico’s) and I slowly went in. He was working on some papers and briefly looked up, waved me in.
“Bennett, you don’t know how much I appreciate you showing such confidence in me to offer me the head job in Tampa. It has been my dream,” I told him. He barely looked up. “After giving it a lot of thought, I really think I’m more valuable to you and the company here in the corporate office. I know you are probably going to fire me for saying this, but I have to refuse your offer.”
There was complete silence. He paused and finally looked up. “I wish you’d change your mind,” he said with little emotion. Then, he looked down again. “And you’re not fired.” He didn’t utter another word. I quickly got up, thanked him, and made my escape.
Six months later, on July 4th, 1998, the players of Tampa Jai-Alai raised their cestas as the final salute to the fans. At the end of that game, the pelota would never again be heard striking the granite wall in Tampa.
The next day, a handwritten sign for the employees was hastily taped to the glass door at the main entrance saying Tampa Jai-Alai was closed indefinitely.