"I thought the other players might resent me," said Joey. "People told me they would. But they didn't. I made a lot of friends. And when a Basque accepts you, you become a part of his family."
When the brown-eyed, black-haired youngster made his debut in Miami in December, the hometown fans made him a strong 3-to-2 favorite. "It was ridiculous," says Milt Roth, the fronton's public-relations man. "His first game, and he was the favorite." He won. "And he's been the favorite ever since," adds Roth, shaking his head. The fans knew something: In his first 15 games, Joey won five, an unheard-of percentage for a rookie.
"It's his attitude," says Berenson. "The difference between him and the other new players is that he comes out aggressive, on the offense. They all have the shots, caroms and things, but none of them use them. They feel they don't have the experience. They hesitate. Not Joey. He used everything right away. He's not afraid to try anything."
"The frontcourt man, which I am, kills the point, outsmarts the opponents," says Joey. "He's like the quarterback. And I guess I'm something of a cheerleader, too. I get so caught up in the action, I'm screaming things most of the time. And the backcourt man likes that. It turns him on. The Basques don't make as much noise as I do."
"Three Basques don't make as much noise as you do," adds Berenson.
Being an American has turned out to be a major plus for Joey. The young Basque professionals of his own age or a few years older do not understand or think about the strategy of the sport as much. Joey, who was weaned on baseball, basketball and football, thinks about both strategy and tactics; he plays a different sort of game.
"The American who understands that psychology is very much a part of sport has a big advantage over a Basque," says Berenson. "Over there they just play and play. Joey knows that if one guy is here and another guy there, he'll win if he puts the ball over there. The young Basques don't think ahead that well. At 20 or 21 or 22 it comes. Joey probably learned a lesson from reading U.S. sports pages that has paid off for him in jai alai. Our sports pages talk about strategy and our kids grow up thinking strategy. Spanish papers carry great glowing reports, but they never really get into how things happen. They're strong on adjectives but short on meat."
In his first season at Miami, which ended a few weeks ago, Joey earned approximately $11,500 for four months play. He gets a base salary plus a fixed amount for games won, seconds and thirds, plus bonuses for exemplary play and for every million dollars in mutuel handle over a certain amount. This season each player's wagering bonus was $3,980. From the Miami Fronton, Joey will move on to Berenson's plant at Ocala where he should make another $5,000—fair income for a 17-year-old American youngster playing a game in America that most Americans do not understand.
"Some day they will all know jai alai," says Echaniz II, a veteran backcourt player. "Joey will teach them. If there were more players like Joey the sport would gain great acceptance with the American public and we would all benefit. Joey could be the best thing that ever happened to the sport."