The sound of the knock on the door, that Wednesday, March 7th, 1979, melded into my dream. No one visits my apartment at 7 a.m. Then, a more forceful pounding on the door nearly knocked me out of bed. Now realizing this was not in my dream, I jumped up and struggled to consciousness. It seemed like I had just gone to sleep, having worked the Tuesday night performance that ended well after midnight.
“Who’s there?” I yelled through the locked door. “Tampa Police Department, open the door,” was the answer. This had to be a joke. Some of the Jai-Alai players lived in my complex. I was sure one of them decided to pull a prank on me.
As I slowly opened the door, I saw two casually dressed men, not in police uniforms. “Martin Fleischman?” “Yes,” I answered, rubbing the sleep from my eyes. “You are under arrest for conspiracy to commit bookmaking.”
Now, I was certain this was a gag. I didn’t even know a bookie. What the heck is “conspiracy to commit bookmaking?” Expecting someone to jump out and start laughing, I saw, instead, one of the men displaying a badge. “You need to get dressed and come with us.” Thus began a shocking, series of events that nearly ended my Jai-Alai career and that of one of my closest friends, Tampa player Jose Ricardo Solaun.
I am not ashamed to tell this story. Alas, it was an integral part of my Jai-Alai history and my growth as a human being. It would be my defining moment. Yet, at that instant, I did not realize the seriousness of the situation.
As I was escorted from my apartment, the two undercover police officers told me they had to make one other stop. We walked to the adjacent building in my complex. I quickly realized they were heading to Ricky’s (Solaun) apartment. They banged on his door loudly and got no answer. I stood back against the second floor railing, still in shock. They knocked harder and said, “Police.”
The door swung open. Surprised and still half-asleep stood young Tampa player, Elorrio. He must have crashed on Solaun’s couch that night. Elorrio spoke almost no English.
They asked if he was Jose Ricardo Solaun. Elorrio, seeing me behind them, yelled, “Ricky! Ven aqui!” (come here). Ricky finally appeared. “Jose Ricardo Solaun?” asked one of the men. “Si,” he responded. “You are under arrest. “What?” Solaun responded, not really understanding the statement. But he saw me back behind the men, nodding this was real. I motioned that he needed to come with us.
This begins the fight of our lives, or should I say livelihoods. Looking back, I so regret convincing Ricky that American football is much more exciting than European soccer. As we became closer friends, I began introducing him to American culture. I convinced him to invest in his first stock, Avon products. We both lost money in that one. Betting on football was as American as apple pie.
Many of my friends would place bets on football, small amounts… around $25. This was strictly for entertainment. It added excitement to some of the televised Sunday games, especially out of market games like the Packers versus the Bears. If it wasn’t the Bucs, what could make it interesting… a small bet on the game, right? Everyone does it, nobody cares… so we thought.
Even working at a gambling establishment like Tampa Jai-Alai, one would think we knew someone to place a bet for us. But we didn’t. Then, we found out that one of our friends that came to Jai-Alai knew a friend of a friend. He was betting football and told us to just let him know what we wanted to bet. He would just add it to his bets. It seemed so innocent, so safe. We were just having some fun on Sundays, our day off.
As Ricky and I are riding in the back seat of the police cruiser, I asked again why we were arrested. Again, one of the officers repeated the charge. I asked was that a misdemeanor or a felony. He said, “Felony.” Then, my heart skipped a beat.
Most gambling charges are misdemeanors, almost like a parking ticket. I was thinking this is small, we would pay a fine, and be at the Wednesday matinee. When he said “felony,” I knew we had serious problems.
While we were being booked at the city jail, Hugh Smith, Channel 13 News Director (my father’s station) led the noon news broadcast with “A Tampa Jai-Alai player and the fronton’s Public Relations Director were arrested this morning on bookmaking charges. Here’s Andy Hardy (my dad’s assistant) with the story.”
The Tampa Times (the afternoon newspaper) featured our arrest on the front page of the Local News section that afternoon. Other local media, also, jumped on the story. Word spread like wildfire.
At the police station, I was called up to the booking Sergeant. He asked my name. I said, “Martin Fleischman.” He looked up at me and asked, “Is your Dad Salty Sol?” Thinking I might get preferential treatment, I quickly and proudly answered, “Yes!” The Sergeant shook his head and said, “Boy is he going to pissed at you.”
I went through the normal booking process, something I had never experienced in my life. Fingerprinting, surrendering all your personal articles, removing your belt from your pants. Then, I was led to a holding cell crowded with people. Some I knew.
It turned out that they arrested about 20 people that morning, including one of the state auditors at the fronton, all for “conspiracy to commit bookmaking.”
Ricky eventually joined us in the cell, looking at me with utter confusion. I will never forget that look. I not only hurt myself, but possibly ruined the career of this great young athlete. At that moment, I decided I was going to fight this with everything I had. Our careers could not be over! The punishment did not fit the crime!
Sadly, I had underestimated what I was up against. It was already predetermined that my career in Jai-Alai was over and there would be a massive attempt to bar Ricky from ever playing Jai-Alai again in the United States.