By Marty Fleischman
When I first started playing amateur Jai-Alai on the Tampa court, I heard Alex Borges, one of the Cuban amateurs, call me a “pakete” every time I missed an easy shot. And that happened often. It became very apparent to me that this was definitely not a compliment. Not knowing much Spanish, I turned to Alex and said, “What does pakete mean?” He replied, “You are a pakete!” “Maybe I am,” I shot back, “but why do you keep calling me that?”
Alex finally explained that “pakete” means package in Spanish. Some Cubans used it as slang for somebody that does something stupid, like me missing so many easy balls. I, also, found it fits so many situations, including the day I walked into the Tampa Tribune to give Tom McEwen, the venerable sports editor, a bottle of Scotch. Indeed, I was a pakete that day, and many days to come.
“Fleischman, don’t walk into the sports department with a bottle of liquor under your arm,” he yelled at me that day in late 1971 as I was passing out Christmas gifts to the media. “People think you are trying to bribe us with Scotch. The Tribune has a policy about that.” He probably should have added, “pakete.” Ernie Larsen failed to tell me about media policies. McEwen finally whispered that he would follow me down to my car later and grudgingly make the transfer.
I, then, sat down in front of his desk and started to discuss the upcoming Jai-Alai season, about how we could get some publicity. Then, I became a “Super Pakete.” Ernie had told me to remind them about how many advertising dollars we spend on the Tampa Tribune each year. That implication should carry some weight. Sure, Ernie!
So, I mentioned that to Mr. McEwen, knowing I was already reeling from the Scotch fiasco. He looked straight at me with his Wauchula dead pan face and sternly said, “Never, ever, think that because you spend money with us, you get anything extra. The Sports Department is completely separate from the Advertising Department! I don’t give a damn what you spend with us!” Now, I’m sure he was actually thinking of doing his next column on “Marty Fleischman – Tampa Jai-Alai’s Biggest Pakete Ever.” Might have won him a Pulitzer.
Later on, he was generous enough to give me a tip. He told me the time between Christmas and New Year’s is the deadest time of year for sports. There are only bowl games, not much else. They actually have space to fill. If I bring them a feature story on a player, they would probably run it. I was extremely grateful for that. But that was nothing compared to what that man, a lifelong media associate and friend of my father, would do for me about nine years later.
Some of you reading this may not be that familiar with Tom McEwen. Media was different then. There was no internet, no Facebook, no Twitter. People actually got their news from television, radio, and newspapers. Tom McEwen’s Morning After column was a must-read every morning by anyone interested in sports in the Tampa Bay area. His influence on this community was astounding. He was instrumental in getting a stadium built. Then, came the Bucs, baseball, hockey, the Yankees, you name it. Tampa would not be a big-time sports town, if not for the support of Tom McEwen.
But his strongest attribute was not just bringing people together or making things happen. It was loyalty! Loyalty to his family, his friends, his city. And, somehow, he showed that loyalty to me, the “pakete” son of his good friend, Salty Sol, my dad. when I needed it most.
I won’t go into detail about it here, (saving it for my tell-all book) only to say that my career was on the line in 1979. No one would help. I was in trouble. My last resort was to call Tom. Without hesitation, he said, “no problem.” He saved me. Without him (and my wonderful lawyer cousin), I would not have had 32 more years of a successful Jai-Alai career. But loyalty runs in his family.
Rick McEwen, Tom’s son, has been my friend since facing each other in junior high golf and local junior tournaments. While his dad was working behind the scenes to help me, Rick maintained our friendship when few others would. McEwen Loyalty!
We still laugh to this day about how, when Tom was going through some marital issues, he crashed on my dad’s couch. So, when Rick had the same problems, he found his way to my apartment where a similar sofa awaited him. While Tom and Salty are playing some heavenly rounds of golf together, Rick and I are still close friends to this day.
So, I did bring back my first feature story on a player. I remember writing this beautifully, long, insightful story on frontcourter Renedo. It was filled with beautiful complex sentences, flowing introductory adjective phrases, as poetic as Shakespeare prose. I was so proud of it when I handed it to Mr. McEwen that holiday night.
He quickly picked up his red “editing pen” and….. ripped it apart! Working at warp speed, he marked lines through my beautifully constructed sentences, added simple phrases, deleted words, and tossed it back to me.
“This isn’t English class, Fleischman,” he told me. “You are writing for the general public. They don’t have time. Keep it simple, straightforward, nothing fancy.” He told me to follow his notes and resubmit it to him. I was totally destroyed. It looked nothing like what I handed him. Forget my UF English classes. But it was one of the greatest writing lessons I ever learned.
The next day, I went back to the Tribune sports department and handed it in. I opened the coming Sunday sports section, and a smile came over my face. There was an action shot of Renedo and my first published story, word for word, with no edits. I had “graduated” from the McEwen School of Journalism and was now ready for whatever lay ahead in my new career. Or was I?