Click. At 5:30
p.m. the key is turned on them. For eight hours, by Florida law, they are
incarcerated: 40-odd jai alai players, innocent scapegoats of the only sport in
the U.S. designed for men to bet legally on men. At the renowned Miami fronton
they might just as well be running a Peter Pan ride at Walt Disney World. No
mustaches or beards; hair mustn't overlap the ear; sideburns monitored more
carefully than the critical mass of an atomic pile. It's the image. After all,
a clean-shaven man looks more honest. Remember Nixon's five o'clock shadow?
If wife or father
places even a $2 bet, the husband or son conceivably could be barred from jai
alai. Players are not allowed to show emotion in public. Well, a whacked thigh
is permissible. One whack anyway. Perhaps the helmet can be wrenched off in
pique. More dramatic expressions of disgust draw a fine. When they sit in the
players' cage, protected by thick glass like so many Eichmanns on trial, the
players' manager, their very punctilious alma pater, darts glances back at them
through a big rear-view mirror—the kind you see in supermarkets where
shoplifting is prosecuted to the full extent. They can't stare out at the crowd
or make amiable hand gestures or even wink at the groupies who adore noisily
just 10 feet away. Of course, you say, this is because jai alai has been shot
through with fixed games. Of course, you're wrong. In more than 40 years there
hasn't been a single scandal. As Milt Roth, Miami's very bearded
public-relations head, will tell you, "We're superconscious. We try to keep
these guys as clean as possible. We overemphasize and overstress some of these
Pedro Mir is
players' manager at Miami. It's an impossible job, and Pedro Mir has been doing
it for 42 years, sometimes 16 hours a day. A burly, expansive, cheerful man.
Jolly, with a caroming chuckle. Jolly, but tough. Very tough. A disciplinarian.
"Every play that is played and everything that happens on the court, I
know," he says. When he's not glancing over his shoulder in the players'
box, he's watching on a closed-circuit TV beside his desk. As for the
Eisenhower-age grooming standards, he says, "I want to do it like that and
they don't give me much trouble about it. They understand it and I think they
look better." Then, confidentially, as your doctor would speak, "It's
better for them because wearing the helmet and perspiring with too much hair,
it's bad, it's antihygienic." Try telling Joe Namath that he's
Mir can get away
with it. You see, three-quarters of his players are Basque. (The fourth quarter
are Mexican, South American and French. There are just three Americans, one
born in Cuba.) For the Basque, strictness and discipline are national traits.
One Basque player explains, "We have very tough fathers and we respect
everybody." Sometimes one parent will emigrate as chaperon. How can you
keep 'em down on a farm after they've seen the Eden Roc? Mir makes no
apologies. Scouting is a part of his job, and, he says, "We keep the
history of everyone, and before any player goes to one of our schools we screen
them. They must come from a very reliable family."
respect Pedro Mir, who was American singles and doubles champ twice. Yet the
respect is part fear, part anger. Mir belongs to management. Ajai alai player
is paid according to performance: so much for so many wins, places, shows over
a season. You can't win if you don't play, and Mir decides how often you play;
just the first two games maybe, or five times, including the prestigious 10th
and 12th games. It's the difference between a claimer at Hialeah and the
featured eighth race. Better players play more. They get better and they get
bettors. It's a vicious round robin. Mir is also the handicapper. By
maneuvering post positions and doubles partners (there are very few singles
games) he can balance the competition. "Right now I have players who want
me to put them in more games, but I don't have room for them. I have to look at
the business. I have to put games together that people will bet on." At the
Miami fronton you don't say play me or trade me.
In 1968, three
weeks before the season opened, Miami's roster went on strike. The action was
well organized. Five of six frontons in Florida went out. Pedro Mir sighs,
"They wanted 33% of the business and, not only that, they wanted only four
players to be changed every year. They were very close friends of mine. They
were very nice people. They were wrong." So, as the old joke goes,
management put all its Basques in one exit. Three weeks later it had rounded up
40 lukewarm bodies from Spain, Mexico, Italy, the Philippines, France. Though
these scabs were inept by comparison, the season opened on time. Good athletes
make the game more exciting, more credible to the gambler, but most jai alai
bettors play numbers, and a 2-6 quiniela by any other name is a 2-6
Now the parent
firm, World Jai Alai Inc., owns four frontons. Two are winter operations, Miami
and Tampa. Fort Pierce and Ocala are open now, but both are modest arenas, Fort
Pierce's capacity being only 2,500 compared to Miami's 14,000. Local interest
is minimal and the summer frontons must draw from Miami and Palm Beach.
Sometime during 1976 World Jai Alai plans to open a fifth fronton in, of all
places, Hartford, Conn. An average player takes down $15,000 net in the
four-month winter season (as foreigners on visas, the corporation must
guarantee their income taxes, so every salary is "grossed up"). Players
then have the option of working, presumably at reduced wages, in the summer
frontons. The jai alai player suspects he is grossly (or netly) underpaid. The
Miami fronton alone will handle $47 million this year: 12% to the corporation,
5% to the state. Do a little multiplication. Those figures aren't petty cash.
No question, should another strike occur, World Jai Alai Inc. would find,
invent, disinter another 40 or 80 or 120 players, even if Pedro Miranda
beardless Milt Roth had to go one-on-one for 12 games per night. Jai alai has
become a very big business.
Very big, also
very beautiful. And, like most beautiful things, dangerous. Just north of
Miami, in the rival Dania fronton, there is a display of bulletproof glass
shattered by jai alai balls moving at 150 mph. The ball (pelota) is made of
Brazilian rubber and is hand-stitched baseball style. But it is three-quarters
as big as a baseball, 10 times the price (about $70 each) and harder than a
golf ball. The combination of speed, size and hardness is savage. This year, in
the Orlando fronton, one player lost an eye. Last year a pelota, which had
already traveled 176 feet, hit the players' cage wiring with such velocity that
it expanded the diamond mesh. Pedro Mir got 27 stitches in his forehead and the
players' cage got a glass barrier. Even with mandatory helmets, the pelota can
kill. The basket (cesta) looks rather like a 1921 Stutz Bearcat front fender.
Cestas are ribbed. On just an ordinary throw, the ribbing produces English
harder to read than Chaucer. From the players' cage you can watch pelotas jump
and flutter. Imagine Wilbur Wood throwing half again as fast as Nolan Ryan.
It's a wonder the players can see the ball, let alone return it.
Yet they do more
than that. Backcourt men climb the long sidewall, catch the ball and in one
motion return it more than 150 feet before the pelota succumbs to gravity.
Often on rebote shots (a return from the back wall), frontcourt men will sprawl
headlong, snag and hurl the ball to the front wall, like violent sleepers
turning over in bed. It's spectacular and getting more so. Joey Cornblit, an
18-year-old American of Israeli parentage, has changed the game
single-basketedly. Spanish jai alai is played in 30-point partitas; energy
conservation enforced a defensive strategy. Each point, however, is crucial in
the American round-robin version. Milt Roth loves it: "Joey attacks these
guys, he doesn't give them the chance to catch the ball two times. He's going
to put you out as soon as he possibly can or you're going to put him out."
At 18 Joey ranks with the world's top ten frontcourt men. "He made these
guys realize that the catch-and-throw style of jai alai is going to
That's up front,
on court. Off court, in the players' room, you'd get more thrills waiting in
line for your unemployment check. Newsmen can enter only after a Florida Racing
Commission representative has been informed, the doors being unlocked, then
quickly locked again. The room is quiet; it reminds one of a bus station after
midnight. Now and again there will be howled Basque expletives, some loser who
has repressed his exasperation until he is offstage. Three or four play a form
of Spanish gin rummy. The cards seem unserious, being marked with vegetables
and fruits, not numbers. The game doesn't interest the players much. Others
desultorily watch a large color TV.