By Marty Fleischman
Jose Ricardo Solaun’s biographical data in the center of the Tampa Jai-Alai program was simple: #30 Solaun- 5′ 11″ – 185 lbs – Frontcourt – Basque. The blurb under his photo was short and succinct: “Consistent, crafty frontcourter with perfect form; his best shot is the cortada.” What the program failed to say was: “tremendously intelligent, unending loyalty, and one of the most popular players with the female fans.”
For whatever reason, fate brought this young Basque pelotari from Durango, Spain, and this young Jewish kid from Tampa together. As I said in an earlier article, I met “Ricky,” as he was known to his friends and fans, just before the season started during some of the amateur practices. Very few words were exchanged between us since I knew almost no Spanish and he spoke very little English. But life is unpredictable, and for two people from two completely different worlds, a friendship began to develop. Friendship is not a strong enough word… we became brothers with a mutual love and respect to this day.
During my first season (December,1971- May 1972), I would go into the player’s quarters a few times each performance. Officially, I was supposed to get the entries from player manager Enrique Beitia to teletype to the newspapers. But I would sometimes go there just to be around the players. Who wouldn’t? These were superior athletes, playing the fastest sport in the world. They were just plain cool.
All were very friendly to me, except those just coming off the court, having just lost the game or a playoff. They would be muttering some Basque expletives because losing was just unacceptable. But Ricky would always greet me with a big smile and a “Hi, Martino.” That was the name I chose for myself as one of the three selectors in the program. “What you doing manana?” he would ask me, his English getting a little better. “The beach?” he asked.
Ricky and I would drive over to Clearwater beach almost every day when there was not a matinee performance. We’d walk on the beach and look at the bikini-clad girls. We hardly spoke, yet we seemed to communicate perfectly, especially when he came upon another beautiful girl laying in the sand. We’d barely make it back home in time to be at the fronton by 6 p.m. This was our routine, along with him inviting me to his in-law’s house on Sundays for their weekend party. Other players would drop by for some wine and paella. There would always be discussions of how some played that week or some of the past great players. I listened and learned.
When watching the games from the booth, I couldn’t help but root for #30 to win his games. If he dropped a ball, the crowd would boo unmercifully. The fans did that to all the players. But I started getting really offended when they booed Ricky, my new friend.
When I was in the announcer’s chair, I would notice that when he was walking off the court, he would glance up and give me a little wink. Was this to say hello OR was he telling me something else?
The Tampa Jai-Alai Official Program cost $.35 and had the lineups, results from past performances, and season statistics. But it, also, had the classic reprint of an article published in the Miami Herald by esteemed columnist Jack Kofoed, titled: “They Win with a Smile… and Lose with a Snarl.” It described the fickleness of the typical jai-alai fan with such great lines (paraphrased), “The $2 bettor is a strange character. They will stand up and cheer a player when he wins. But, when the ball takes a lazy, reverse twist and falls out of the basket, they will boo that very same player.”
Kofoed, who wrote more than 18,000 columns during his legendary newspaper career was a big Jai-Alai fan. His insight into the psychology of the typical bettor was astute. No one likes to lose. But, for some reason, anytime a Jai-Alai bettor loses, it has to be “fixed.” And, yet the fans love most of the players and they adore the sport. Jack Kofoed summed it up so well with the title of his column. So, we placed it prominently in every Miami and Tampa program hoping it might convince the fans that this is a tough sport, that the players are trying to win. Since I actually played it, I knew how tough it was and why players missed balls. Unfortunately, it convinced no one, but was still good reading.
It is now the last Saturday night of the season. The fronton is packed. Smoke is hanging from the ceiling as the 7,000 plus fans are crammed into every available space. Some can’t even watch it live but are standing in the main lobby viewing the closed circuit broadcast.
Ricky and I are now the closest of friends. We have discussed summer plans, including me visiting him in Spain. I now know most of the roster very well having been invited to many of their after-game parties or Sunday paella feasts. I was even planning my summer, a jaunt through Europe with a long visit to the Basque country, visiting my new friends.
So, when I walked downstairs before the final game that night, the feature doubles match to 7 consecutive points, I was greeted by #30 Solaun and #13 Ramon, playing as team in the red shirts of post 1. They had just finished their warmup for the game and were waiting for the march-out to start the game. Ramon, one of the very friendly Basque players who, for some reason, spoke perfect English gave me a big hello. Ricky, then, said to me in a low voice, “We’re going to win this game!” I said, “Really?”
Then, Ramon says, “We can’t lose.” And Ricky nods and gives me the wink. I am now getting excited because this is what I have been waiting for. I am thinking they know me well enough to give me the “inside scoop.” I double check one more time and ask if they are sure. “Martino, we are going to win this game!!” Ricky repeated forcefully.
I quickly exited the player’s quarters and hurriedly found a friend of mine hanging out on the standing area below the booth. Now, of course, this was illegal, against the pari-mutuel rules, but I told him to wheel the #1 team on top of all possible perfecta combinations. I now knew they were going to win, but I didn’t know what team would finish in second place. A perfecta bet requires you to pick the top two finishers in the exact order. It pays from $200 to $500 depending on the combination. This would be two week’s salary for me if what they are telling me is true. And, it has to be true, because the game is assuredly “fixed,” and I just got the tip from the inside.
I give my buddy $21, the cost of the wheel bet and run up to the booth to announce the game. As I arrive upstairs, I ask Ralph if I can announce the game, he can take the game off. He quickly agrees.
Solaun and Ramon, being in post one, serve first. After a long rally, the post 2 team throws a carom shot that scores and my team slowly walks to the bench. Ricky looks up as he leaves the court and winks at me, all part of the plan, I guess.
As the round robin game continues, Ricky and Ramon get up again, still needing to score 7 points. This time, Ramon drops a deep throw by Laca that was going to chula. My team is still at zero and Bolivar is running up the score getting closer to game point. Now, I’m getting nervous and my heart is pumping, my ears are on fire.
Thankfully, Solaun and Ramon get up for a third time, surely the last chance for them. They need to run seven straight points to win and to bring in my perfecta wager. Surely this is like wrestling, teasing the fans, but coming in for the win from last place.
This time Ricky misses a difficult picada catch and the game is soon over. Post one, Solaun and Ramon, the guaranteed winner, the “fix is in winning team,” scored zero points and finished last. I began reading Kofoed’s article again.
After finishing my teletyping to the newspapers, I ran down to the player’s quarters where Solaun and Ramon were finishing up their showers. I said, “WHAT HAPPENED?” They both looked at me quizzically. I repeated the same question and added, “You guys were supposed to win.”
Ramon answered, “We tried, but I guess it wasn’t our night.” “What? Not your night?” I quickly responded. I told them I understood from them it was arranged for them to win. They indignantly said, “Are you crazy?” And, Ricky, supposedly knowing very little English, says profoundly, “Martino, You win some, you lose some.”
I didn’t smile, I didn’t snarl. And I didn’t win! But I would figure out later how to get “inside” information that would help me hit it big… or would it?