Jai alai is fronton and center among bettors

Chicago
By Chicago 7 Min Read

LAS VEGAS — I seemed to have found “Miami Vice” on an obscure cable channel. Multicolored lights glistened off a nighttime South Florida waterway, bridge and cityscape, a pulsating backbeat and jai alai.

Crockett and Tubbs, in those natty linen jackets, certainly would appear next. Some of us in the San Diego State fraternity, during that era, had acquired white ones. The Tri-Dorks.

Except actors Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas, respectively, never showed on my flat-screen.

This was all jai alai, the Basque sport that refuses to exhale a final North American breath.

I had discovered the World Jai-Alai League, from the Magic City Fronton in Miami. Both DraftKings and BetRivers, who operate in Illinois, offer odds on the matches.

Vegas bookmaking fixture Johnny Avello, DraftKings’ race and sports director, has been pricing them since September.

“It’s OK, not bad,” he says of the interest. “Better than what I had thought it would be.”

In 1979, Avello briefly peddled cars here when a colleague, a former jai-alai player, brought a cesta to work. Avello tried to wield the narrow, curved two-foot-long wicker basket used to snatch and toss the pelota.

“So I hit a few off a wall, catching it, just to see how the game is played. Not easy. Very delicate. When you watch those guys play they make it look easy, but it’s a tougher game.”

He eased into bookmaking and would visit the MGM Grand’s fronton to catch an evening’s final few games.

“That late, they’d let you in for free,’’ he said. ‘‘I enjoyed it. A fun game.”

CELEBRATING MIAMI

 Jai alai had a brief Chicago residency, at a fronton inside the Rainbo Gardens at Clark and Lawrence, in 1927.

However, authorities arrested Rainbo owner Fred Mann on gambling charges, alleging that he was sponsoring illegal pari-mutuel betting on jai alai. They padlocked the building.

In the ’30s, occasional tournaments drew crowds but the novelty had worn off. Wrestling matches were staged. A bowling alley, and ice-skating and roller rinks, showed promise. Led Zeppelin played the property.

It was all razed, in 2003, to construct the condo complex Rainbo Village.

The sport gained South Florida steam in the 1970s, since the only other legally bet-able sports were dog and horse racing. Miami jai-alai crowds sometimes surpassed 15,000.

Fourteen frontons were once active in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Florida and Nevada.

Today, in Florida, there are four seasonal arenas and two year-round, in Dania and Miami, from which I’ve watched Iturbide, Zulnika and Iñaki play recently on television.

“Zulnika shoots a two-wall!” bellowed the announcer Sunday morning. That’s a tricky shot that caroms off the huge side wall and front wall, zooming across the floor while landing in bounds, at an acute angle. Difficult to retrieve.

I realize what I’m watching is on tape, which doesn’t affect its appeal. If wagering on these matches, though, live feeds are available on ESPN3, a WJAL streaming channel and YouTube.

I’m likely only seeing these two-hour replays due to investment influxes from entertainer Pitbull, three-time NBA champion Udonis Haslem and NFL Hall of Famer Ray Lewis, among others.

Armando Christian Perez, or Pitbull, said it isn’t just about business.

“It’s about celebrating Miami’s culture and history. We’re going to redefine the game and reach a new generation of fans.”

FEARLESS

Hemingway was an aficionado, even recruiting Basque players to possibly lob grenades into open conning towers of German U-boats from his 38-foot Pilar cruiser in the Caribbean. Fortunately, there were no confrontations.

“It’s fast, flashy, cheerful,” Papa wrote of jai alai, “and also puts in a lot of danger for those who practice it.”

It didn’t last at the MGM Grand, either, and that fronton’s granite wall blocks were obtained by the Fronton Palacio, in Tijuana, where I ventured several times in the spring of 1986.

I was developing a feature for the San

Diego Section of the Los Angeles Times. Frat bro Mike Roblee tagged along for a trip. The linen jackets we left at the house.

I had arranged interviews in the dressing room and didn’t notice Jose Alberdi chatting with Roblee. An hour later, I left to find Roblee, in helmet and cesta, taking lessons from Alberdi on the massive court.

A versatile athlete, Roblee had played a lot of racquetball: “So I had some idea about using the walls, angles, the side wall, but the speed of the ball was friggin’ ridiculous. I wasn’t ready for that.”

The rubber-cored, goat-skinned pelota, smaller than a baseball, can zing at 170 mph. The width of the cesta is only a bit larger than that ball.

“The speed of that pelota . . . so fast. And in throwing it, the release point isn’t like throwing a baseball; it’s more like a 2 o’clock position.”

Alberdi encouraged Roblee, invited him two more times. After a nifty catch-and-release, Alberdi nodded. Roblee joked that he might swipe Alberdi’s spot.

“I’ll come outta nowhere, like a ghost!”

“Oh, yeah,” Alberdi laughed. “Fantasma Gringo!”

I howled with Roblee, 58, a couple of weeks ago as we recounted those zany days. He says, “When we were fearless.”

He’s in his 35th year as an educator, in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Player strikes and poor attendance helped shutter The Palacio in 2002. I ask if he made the correct career call so long ago?

He laughs.

“I could be in a Masters Division somewhere. Fantasma Gringo!”

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