“The Past Revisited”
Note to Readers: It was suggested by our Pelota Press host, Jeff “Laca” Conway, that I should write about my recent trip back to the Basque Country prior to finishing the last chapter of my career memoirs. It had been more than 50 years since my first visit in 1971. I decided to put a link to my earlier published stories that relate to my recent visits for those readers that might have missed them. I hope you enjoy it.
Top left: Jai-Alai players from the 70’s; Solaun (Tampa) our guide on this trip, frontcourter Urizar (Tampa), frontcourter Juan (Miami).
Bottom left: Miami and Tampa’s star backcourter Javier.
Right: Young amateurs about to compete in Durango.
Top left: Arrieta, past Dania star and father of current Dania player, Arrieta.
Bottom left: Garita, Dania star when I was Asst. GM there.
Middle: Jose Arregui, past Player Manager of Dania and wife Grace.
Top right: Chino Bengoa, legendary frontcourter.
Bottom right: Lecue, backcourter at Tampa Jai-Alai.
“I would love to visit the Basque Country,” my wife Sue told me while we were planning our special “Retirement Vacation.” “This was such a major part of your life, I would like to see the birthplace of Jai-Alai and share that experience with you.” My heart swelled.
I’m sure the Basque Country, the small villages in the Pyrenees Mountains in Northern Spain, are not on many “must-see” travel lists. Yet, my wife wanted to visit Durango, Markina, Gernika, Bolivar, Elorrio… the birthplaces of 90% of the professional Jai-Alai players in the world.
So, I began planning the trip. Ricky Solaun, my Basque brother for over 50 years and retired Tampa star, (see “They Win with a Smile and Lose with a Snarl Marty Fleischman Blogs – Page 8 – Pelota Press) was spending 6 months in Tampa and 6 months in his home town of Durango, Spain. I thought… why not expand the trip and drive all over Spain and Portugal. I will ask Ricky to be our guide and end our journey in Durango. Then, with Ricky’s help, we could visit all the small Basque towns, the ones I remember from the early 1970s. Sue agreed and so did Ricky. Little did Sue realize that her kindergarten skills would be needed dealing with us.
After making an itinerary and obtaining our plane tickets, an unexpected event occurred, Covid 19. Spain was one of the hardest hit countries in Europe. We put our plans on hold… for 3 years! It finally became a reality last month.
I won’t bore you with the early part of our trip prior to arriving in the Basque Country. But, it certainly didn’t start out well. Please read Jeff’s posting below this article. I mean, who gets in a train wreck? I was texting Jeff, telling him how relaxing it was on the train to Miami, when, “BAM,” we hit a semi trying to sneak across the tracks. Not a good start. Luckily, we were going down a day early to stay with our son, Jason, and we made the flight on time. When we arrived in Madrid, Ricky was waiting for us, and our trek began.
After two weeks of seeing so many beautiful places in Spain and Portugal, we arrived in Durango, about 35 miles southeast of Bilbao, the largest city in the Basque Country. Ricky’s sister, Mari Nieves, has an apartment in the center of Durango and was an amazing host. She welcomed Sue and I as part of the family. The only problem, Mari Nieves speaks no English. My Spanish has suffered greatly since leaving Miami. Sue took French in high school. Needless to say, there were some interesting conversations.
The last time I was in Durango was in the early 1970’s, traveling back to Spain with the players, staying at Ricky’s “casaria” or farmhouse. But, I had few memories of Durango, except there were many bars, nothing to do there but drink, and I was constantly cold. Ricky’s casaria had no heat except a cast iron stove in the kitchen. I hardly left that stove, except to go to the bars. In those days, I really didn’t drink. So, it was not the most exciting post-season vacation for me, except I got to live for a while in Durango.
Now, it’s September, more than 50 years later, the weather is perfect, and we have our own bedroom in Mari Nieves’s apartment. I must say, Ricky’s other sister Maricarmen, who lives in Valencia, took great care of us a few weeks earlier. Ricky’s sisters and daughter Maite (who lent us her car the whole trip) are the absolute best. They definitely erased the memory of me just freezing in Durango 50 years earlier.
The first day, we walked out of the apartment and down the street to the plaza with Durango Jai-Alai on one side and a park for kids on the other. This is where many of our Tampa players, including Solaun, Durango (Juan Luis Aguirrizabel) and Gorrono played as youngsters. Unfortunately, the doors were locked, it was closed that day. We would be back.
The next day, we borrowed Maite’s car and drove across the border into the French Basque country, visiting St. Jean de Luz, a place very special to me. I wrote about this magical place (Marty Fleischman Blogs – Page 9 – Pelota Press and Marty Fleischman Blogs – Page 8 – Pelota Press )
in my blogs in these links and always wanted to come back here with Sue. And, here we are, parking near the casino, walking along the beautiful beach, eating at one of the cafes in this charming town. I even tried to find the old Edouard VII hotel, located blocks from the casino, our home during the World Tournament in 1971. Trying to retrace my steps from 50 years ago, we found a few new hotels in this area. But I could only speculate which might have been where Joey, Piston, Larsen, and all the others sipped coffee in the mornings before the tournament.
I had great memories of San Sebastian, Spain, too, and wanted Sue to see this picturesque Basque city on the Bay of Biscay. Also, our good friends Jose Arregui (past Tampa player and Dania Player Manager) and wife Grace spend their summers there. We always talked of meeting them there and were determined to make it happen. After making contact with them, Ricky drove us along the beautiful coast through Lekeitio and ending up in San Sebastian. The views were amazing, the “pintxos” or tapas even better. Then, we had a fantastic lunch with Jose and Grace before departing back to Durango. San Sebastian is now our favorite city in Spain.
Another day, Ricky took us to one of the most famous spots in the Basque Country, known for generating some of the best talent in the sport, the tiny village of Markina. My good friend Salazar hails from Markina as did many of the superstars throughout the decades. As we entered the “prado” in the center of town, with the streets deserted at 10 am, we noticed one lone elderly man slowly walking toward us. Ricky said, “Mira, that’s Chino Bengoa.” For us Americanos, that’s like someone telling you, “Hey, that’s Joe DiMaggio.”
Chino Bengoa was a legend in the sport. A few days earlier, while talking to Ricky about his younger years learning Jai-Alai, he had told me that he modeled his game after one player: Chino Bengoa.
Bengoa had been one of the best players in Miami and Spain during the 1960’s and 70’s. He later retired and became Player Manager at Daytona Beach Jai-Alai, where I got to know him from our intercity tournaments.
I yelled, “Chino,” and we quickly pulled the car over and jumped out. Ricky walked up to him and Bengoa greeted him warmly. Ricky introduced Sue and I, and he quickly said, “Martyfleischman (they like to say my name as if it’s one word), I heard you were in Spain. How are you?” Chino Bengoa remembered me! We spoke about the old days and old acquaintances. He could not have been nicer. The Joe DiMaggio of Jai Alai, WOW!
I had to ask him one question. Why were so many great players from this tiny village of Markina. He smiled and said, “When you’re a boy growing up here, it was either that factory over there or play Jai-Alai. Most of us chose Jai-Alai.”
After we said “adios” to Bengoa, we walked over to the venerable Markina Fronton. The doors were locked. No one was there that early in the morning. But Sue and I peered through the windows and saw the court and the seating area. Seeing Bengoa, though, was a true highlight of the trip.
Our next stop was one of the most famous towns in the Basque Country, known for two things: being a test bombing target for Hitler’s air force which destroyed the town, and the nexus for the sport of Jai-Alai. The town is Gernika.
Gernika has probably the nicest Jai-Alai facility in the area. The town has been rebuilt since World War II and still possesses great charm. My friend Neil Einhorn and I visited Gernika on our back packing journey in 1972, where we found American superstar Joey living at the Hotel Arrien. He was practicing for his debut at Miami Jai-Alai (Marty Fleischman Blogs – Page 8 – Pelota Press See European Vacation Part 1 and 2)
After parking in the city center of Gernika, we found the fronton, which was closed. I just couldn’t grasp that Spaniards were busy sipping their café con leches in the morning and really not thinking about work. Again, we could not get in to even look at it.
So, we walked about a block away, to one of the main squares where I noticed a hotel with the sign, Hotel Arrien. To my shock, this was the same place Joey stayed in 1972. I just stood and stared. I couldn’t leave. We sat at a café and had a beer, me staring at the sign, reminiscing in my mind when Joey came out of that hotel and gave big hugs to Neil and me… over 50 years ago. I must admit, I felt a tear flow down my cheek.
We spent 10 days in Durango. Ricky learned that there were no professional matches being played during our time there. However, the coming Sunday, there would be some amateur matches featuring some of the best local talent from the various Basque villages. We were excited to go, figuring we would, perhaps, see some future stars in the making. But we got an even better surprise.
As we walked into Durango Jai-Alai, the first person I saw was an old Miami star, Juan. He played many of the years I was in Miami. Juan was a very good player, who had the misfortune of getting hit by a direct shot to the head. His helmet saved his life. But the 150-mph pelota still knocked him unconscious. Our trainer, Mike Dolan, tended to him on the court and possibly saved his life.
Months later, Juan returned to continue his illustrious career at Miami Jai-Alai. What an example of guts and courage. Juan gave me a warm greeting as I introduced Sue. She remembered him and I could see she was thrilled that I was able to find at least one old Jai-Alai friend over here.
But there was more to come. Then, Ricky pointed out a past Dania star, a name I was quite familiar with, Arrieta. He was the father of a young Dania player, who became one of my favorites after joining the management team at Dania. He used his father’s playing name, Arrieta, and still plays at Dania today. The older Arrieta gave me a warm greeting and I raved about his son. We talked about the younger Arrieta’s love for fishing. The father even remembered that I had sold my son’s car to his daughter as her first car while living in South Florida. What a treat, meeting the elder Arrieta.
Another player approached us as I was finishing my conversation with Arrieta, the Tampa frontcourter Urizar. Urizar (nicknamed Capela) was a youngster on the Tampa roster when I was PR Director there in the 1970’s. Urizar is a good friend of Ricky’s and was anxiously anticipating the arrival of Martyfleischman.
I quickly noticed another star from Miami who later came to Tampa, Javier. Javier was known for his classic style and beautiful form. He told us his nephew, Argoitia (Javier’s last name) was playing in one of the amateur matches that day. He was 16 years old and had just signed up to play a few months in Dania. Now, we really had something to cheer for.
Another past player walked past us, and Ricky said, “That’s Garita.” Garita was a star backcourter at Dania Jai-Alai when I was Assistant GM during my days with Steve Snyder, Dania’s owner and John Knox, the GM. Garita came over and said, “Martyfleischman, Martyfleischman.”
Finally, looking down the row, I noticed a very familiar face in the Durango fronton audience. It was past Tampa Jai-Alai backcourter, a player that was there in my beginning years, a frequent partner of Solaun, named Lecue. I walked over to him and he gave me a big smile and a hug. He said he remembered Ernie Larsen and I visiting him in 1971, in his hometown of Ondarroa, at his father’s bar, Bar Lecue. No, the bar is now gone, he told me. But, I still remember that bar had a delicious tuna Pintxo. I could still remember the taste 52 years later.
Seeing all these great players, these old friends, introducing Sue to each of them, seeing the smile on her face… now I knew why she wanted to come to the Basque Country. It was for me, not her. She knew the joy it would bring me, and she was so right. Thank you, my love. It was a trip I will never forget.