Note to my readers: As we finally reach the end of a disastrous 2020, we do have great hope for the coming year, 2021. Thank you for reading my memories of better times. I have much more to share and hope you stay entertained. I looked forward each year with great optimism then, as I do so now. I hope you all have a healthy new year and stay safe.
You Jinxed Him!
Tampa Jai-Alai was the place to be New Year’s Eve. On December 31st, 1971, I was celebrating my first New Year’s Eve high atop the announcer’s booth at the rear of the playing court. I had come to the realization I would be working on most holidays. After all, holidays meant people were not working and were looking for some place to go. Some of our biggest matinees and evening performances were New Year’s, Christmas, and Good Friday (the greyhound tracks were closed). This was a small price to pay for working your dream job.
There was not much we could do in the way of any special “celebration” at Tampa Jai-Alai. Our pari-mutuel clerks and telewager girls wore party hats. But, we had no drink specials. Ernie Larsen, fronton general manager, didn’t feel we needed to discount anything, since people would come anyway. I soon found out he was, how shall I put it….CHEAP!
His extreme frugality went way beyond reason. In fact, while he tried to save money to affect his bottom line, he made idiotic decisions that made my job very difficult. I soon found out “the bloom was coming off the rose.” The words in Johnny Barker’s three page letter of resignation began to ring true.
One very important aspect of my job as Public Relations Director was to establish a rapport with the local press, which would hopefully generate free publicity for us. This, in turn, should lead to more business. The key word here is “free.”
So, when anyone from a newspaper, television, or radio station came to the fronton, I was authorized to “comp” their food or drinks and show them a good time. Developing a good relationship with them was key to getting positive and plentiful publicity for the fronton. Ernie spelled this out specifically when explaining my duties my first day. But, I soon found out there were many exceptions to this policy.
“Don’t give any of those radio guys tickets or anything,” he told me a few weeks into my first season. “They’re just a bunch of goddamn hippies,” he explained. But, when I asked him what I should tell them when some of the top radio personalities called me, he said to just figure it out.
One of the nicest area newspaper guys was John Brockmann from the Sarasota Herald Tribune. He absolutely loved Jai-Alai! He and his golf pro buddy Joe Mann would make the drive from Sarasota many weekends to see the games. Now, John was the top guy in that newspaper sports department. He gave us ample publicity and we had quite a following from Sarasota and Bradenton.
Ernie Larsen really liked John Brockmann. But, when I would tell him John was coming tonight and I want to set him up for dinner in our restaurant ( a common perk extended to the media), Ernie would reply, “Just buy him a hot dog…. John loves Jai-Alai anyway.”
The biggest problem I endured the first season was the Box Office VIP List. There was a list of names, local politicians, celebrities, player families, etc. that could get free reserved seats for any performance. Reserved seats or boxes only cost from $2.50 to $5.00, but it was still prestigious to know you could get a free seat on a Saturday night at Tampa Jai-Alai, even if we were sold out.
When I began selling program ads before the start of the season, Ernie told me to let the buyers know that they would be included on the VIP List if they purchased an ad. This helped me as an extra selling point and many bought because of this perk. But, by mid-season, Ernie had a change of heart. Advertisers called in only to be told their name was no longer on the list. I quickly started getting calls, not only angry that they couldn’t get seats, but demanding refunds on their ad buys. Nothing like really pissing off some of your biggest supporters and making me look like a fool.
I, also, learned a few other lessons that first year. Bolivar, our young phenom frontcourter, was about to set an all-time wins record for Tampa Jai-Alai. #47 “Boli” was now the odds-on favorite in almost every game, double and singles. He was saddled with the weakest backcourt partners. Yet, he won three out of four games a day. In singles, his main competition was Almorza, the veteran fronton favorite. “Big Al” and “Boli” had some memorable single’s points that often ended in standing ovations as both players were sprawled on the court.
I’m announcing a singles game near the end of the season, with Bolivar one win away from breaking the record. More than 7,000 fans were there that Saturday night and I felt I had the crowd wound up with our signature announcing: “Great save by Pablo!” and “Laca comes down with an amazing catch!” You could feel the excitement throughout the fronton as we approached the tenth game, feature singles match.
While many fans look at the statistics, some are casual fans. I thought it was a good idea to let the audience know the following and said: “Ladies and Gentleman, if #47 Bolivar wins this game, he will set a new wins record for Tampa Jai-Alai.” This would call more attention to the game, the feat, and hopefully create some additional excitement.
Well, Boli did not win the 10th game singles that night. The phone rang immediately after the game in the booth with Ernie tearing me a new you-know-what. “YOU JINXED HIM!” he yelled at me. I said, “What?” He continued chastising me for announcing the possibility of the new record and that I had changed history.
“From now on, you are never to say anything like that again or you’re fired!” he said to me and hung up the phone. I looked at Ralph Amadeo and Mike Menendez, pale as a ghost. I asked them if they think I “jinxed” Bolivar and that Ernie almost fired me. Ralph grinned and said that he didn’t bet on Boli that game anyway, so if I did, it was fine with him. Mike just calmly said not to worry about it, that Ernie probably had too many martinis and he would forget about it by tomorrow. Bolivar did set the record the following week. I was not announcing that game, Ralph was. He told the fans after the game Boli’s accomplishment. I was now awaiting closing day, ending my first season, re-evaluating my dream job, trying to determine how I was going to deal with a maniacal boss. But, with Ocala Jai-Alai not built yet and no summer employment, I was heading to Europe for three months. Maybe things would be different when I returned. I could never have dreamed what lay ahead of me.