Jai Alai Retires From Connecticut; Sport's Fans, Most Elderly, Lament

New York Times
Published: December 13, 2001

MILFORD, Conn., Dec. 12— When the big red Budweiser clock above the bettors' lounge struck 5 today, it not only ended the state's 25-year experiment with jai alai -- the speedy, balletic court game that means "merry festival" in the Basque language -- it also closed a small but colorful chapter in this state's political, cultural and sporting past.

Gone now are the players, most of them Basques with names like Arzubia, Txelis, Guisasola and Iturraspe; closed is the aging 4,800-seat multitiered stadium (called a fronton) off Exit 40 on Interstate 95; heartbroken are many of the game's fans, mostly over 50, mostly attracted by the chance to make a few bucks off a $3 bet.

"Jai alai is the best thing that ever happened to me," said Linda Ugarte, a betting-card puncher who was holding back tears while holding up a cardboard sign to the audience that read, "We Love You + We Will Miss You." Ms. Ugarte, 49, like many of the customers she refers to as family, feels indebted to jai alai.

"It got me a good husband" -- a Basque player named Okoki who caught her eye here in 1984 -- "and a lot of wonderful friends. I can't put into words how much I love this game," she said, her voice cracking as Ruben Gonzales, a hefty frontcourt player, scored on his opponent a few feet away. "And don't ever let anyone tell you the games are fixed."

In a way, Connecticut's odd rendezvous with jai alai, which began before casinos existed even in Atlantic City, was fixed from the beginning. The only reason the sport -- a combination of cricket, squash and lacrosse played by men with curved wood-weave baskets tied to their hands -- ever came to Connecticut was to make money -- for Connecticut.

In 1972, the year after the state Legislature created the lottery, horse-racing and off-track betting to increase its revenue, it added jai alai and dog racing. Horse racing, for various bureaucratic reasons, remained a stalled idea, but by June 1976, jai alai frontons in Hartford and Bridgeport were among the first, and premier, legal gambling sites run by the newly formed Division of Special Revenue.

The Milford fronton opened in May 1977; by 1978, with no competition from Indian casinos and with the Atlantic City casinos still on the drawing board, it had accumulated a million customers, who placed more than $70 million in wagers. Connecticut collected $76.5 million in revenue from the fronton in its 24 years.

"There wasn't cable television, VCR's weren't that popular yet; we were the only game in town," said Bob Heussler, the fronton's longtime spokesman.

Bridgeport's fronton closed in April 1995, and a dog track, still in operation, was built adjacent to it. Hartford's fronton closed five months later and just stayed closed. Since then, Connecticut's flirtation with jai alai has focused on the Milford arena, set behind a truck stop and sleepy motel off the Connecticut Turnpike.

What the place lacks in beauty -- the atmosphere is gray concrete, buzzing halogen lights and an electric scoreboard missing a few bulbs -- it makes up for in heart.

Down on the front row, directly in front of the metal fence that separates the gamblers from the athletes and the whizzing ball, is Frank Benida, who looks like a groggier, fleshier version of Robert DeNiro in "Casino," gold-chain crucifix and all.

"This is a tremendous, beautiful game," Mr. Benida, 64, said as a jai alai player crashed into the fence before him, spawning cheers from the crowd. For 22 years, on every Saturday "except maybe 10," Mr. Benida, a former Telex operator from Valhalla, N.Y., has been a front-row Milford jai alai gambler, losing a bit more money than he has won.

"The players know me, I know them," he said. "Every Saturday, you come here and see the same faces. They're all my friends." Three years ago, he said, Ricky Lasa, the president of the jai alai players union, came over and cooked Mr. Benida a Basque specialty, paella. And see that referee, Martija, the former player? "He did the central air in my house," said Mr. Benida with a grin.

Then there is 84-year-old Tony Consiglio, who wears a blue blazer and a Division of Special Revenue tie clip and works for the agency as a kind of fronton cop, making sure everything is legal and fair.

Mr. Consiglio was Frank Sinatra's personal valet in the 1950's and 1960's, and he said he still remains close to "Nancy and Junior."

In fact, he said, he spoke to Mrs. Sinatra in Las Vegas this morning, offering condolences on this, the singer's birthday. "He's 86 years old today," Mr. Consiglio, said with a tough-guy Hoboken inflection. He and Sinatra never graduated from high school together, he likes to say. "He was a good man," he said, waltzing off to watch the next match.

Not all fans are friendly. "Every day, it's 'Get a job,' 'You stink,' 'You're a bum,' " said Wayne Pattie, 27, one of the few Americans playing at Milford's fronton.

Thirty-four of Milford's 48 players have found work elsewhere, said Leonard (Lenny) Meyers, 67, a parking garage entrepreneur originally from Rhode Island who is president of Connecticut Jai Alai Inc., which runs the Milford fronton. Mr. Pattie, a well-muscled rising star here, is taking an offer to play in Miami; some of his older colleagues, however, are retiring, or filing for unemployment, or both.

Known as the world's fastest ball game, jai alai evolved from the sport of handball in the mountainous Basque region of northern Spain. Using a curved basket, or cesta, to hurl a ball at speeds approaching 150 m.p.h. against a wall, Pelota Vasca, or Basque Ball, was often played at local festivals, and eventually came to be known as jai alai.

Basques carried their sport to Cuba in 1898. After its United States debut at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, jai alai was introduced as a professional game in Hialeah, Fla., in 1924. Helmets were not worn until 1968, after a champion, Orbea, was hit in the head, ending his career.

"These guys spend more energy in one 15-minute game than a baseball player does in nine innings," said Jules Boullosa, 81, of Milford, a 13-year jai alai gambler who said he usually breaks even on his $50 worth of bets here.

Mr. Meyers, who said he had no choice but to close a business losing cash, is not divulging what he plans to do with the fronton's 25-acre site. Many of the 200 or so employees working their last shifts today, though, feel cheated.

Beverly Weir, 63, the fronton's $8.35-an-hour snack-bar attendant for 13 years, may never serve another hot dog or dispense another Pepsi. "Where am I gonna find a job like this?" she asked, wrapping a pretzel in wax paper. "I love this job. A lot of my customers, I don't even have to ask what they want to eat, I automatically get it for them. This is like a second home to me."

And then the big Budweiser clock struck 5, and the fronton's lights dimmed, and after 25 years, jai alai in Connecticut was dead.

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