The 2 G's and I went out last night for Sicilian fare at one of our favorite local haunts on the Hill (Providence...at our age, sans wives and girlfriends to nag at us incessantly about putting the toilet seat down, cutting the grass, etc., we relish our Friday night dinner club!) The conversation inevitably turned to Jai Alai because an old friend of mine called from Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain (I've stayed there a couple of times.). He told me that he went to watch a Jai Alai performance in the Mutriku fronton yesterday. He remarked that there were only 20-30 people in attendance watching the partido between Goixarri and Lopez vs. Beaskoetxea and Félix. As I relayed this news to Gio and Georgi last night over calamari and 2 bottles of Chianti, we subsequently began to reminisce about the past:
It was like yesterday, I tell you! I recall clearly arriving by bus in Mutriku (small fishing village in Gipuzkoa), where some of the greatest names in professional Jai Alai were born: Txurruka, Piston, Egurbide, Lekube, and Txikitodebergara (Whew!! Tough one to spell...think I got it right!). I stepped off the platform of the bus and headed towards the plaza...I remember a tall. looming white statue in the dead center near a church. It was about 4:30 PM...lots of townspeople in the plaza having drinks on the outside of the bars and some aficionados that traveled on the bus with me from Markina and Durango were milling about a small bar making their way around the corner in almost straight line formation that led to a small flight of stairs. I ventured down to check out if this would be my final destination. Suddenly, the crowd began to whisper amongst themselves, and yes, folks, before my own eyes, I caught sight of Patxi Txurruka, the legendary backcourt player sauntering rather unassumingly down to the steps of the Mutriku fronton which had been newly renovated. Behind him, carrying his cestas and sportsbag proudly, were two young boys, who looked as if they were carrying the crown jewels of a queen. It was a spectacle in the sense that at that time, to be a pro Jai Alai player was to be considered royalty...as I was told by a French man who happened to speak English and sat next to me in the middle rows.
The atmosphere was electrifying inside of the fronton. Although
personally speaking, I thought that Mutriku's cancha was too low
(14 m) in height for the big boys. The smoke from the Havana cigars
in the fronton was as thick as fog in the San Francisco Harbor.
There was not a vacant seat in the house, with many people standing,
and also a glut of non-ticket holders straining to watch the performances
from the windows. I made my bets with the help of the aforementioned
French man from Biarritz (a bonafide millionaire's playground
on the sea). Let me tell you, folks...I was not the recipient
of a juicy take of the winnings, but it didn't matter; I felt
like I was the luckiest guy on earth in those precious 3 hours!
Egurbide and Calzacorta II lost against Del Rio and Idiondo. Del
Rio was exceptional and beat Egurbide easily on the front lines.
In the other game, the 2 FC players, Uriarte (Cachin) and Etxeba,
also played an incredible match...so good in fact that the winner
Uriarte (who won by a hair) received a standing ovation at the
end of the game. What a memorable event in my life! I even managed
to get an autographed pelota by Txurruka and Calzacorta because
I went down to the screen to congratulate them in gringo Spanish
and mostly English. (They were estatic someone from RI was there
to watch them play...it was touching!)
Let's talk about the sad reality of the current state of affairs of professional Jai Alai. The company Eusko Basque, that organized the partido yesterday in Mutriku, charged 20 Euros (about $22 American) for the entrance fee. What gall! That is highway robbery! I certainly understand that the company has to turn a profit, but charging inflated fees will not bring the masses of aficionados out in droves. Even worse, the games played yesterday were, in his words, 'substandard' compared to the glory days of yore. Conversely, the jai alai company JAS, is luring a fair multitude to the University of Markina (the other day about 500 persons). The reason for the vast difference is that JAS charged only 5 Euros ($6) for ex-jai alai players, 3 Euros ($4) for Senior Citizens, and for all others 9 Euros ($11)...a bargain for an entertaining evening.
I personally do not believe in miracles and I think that professional Jai Alai will disappear within the next 5-10 years. There will always be games at the amateur level because it is a part of the culture of fiesta celebrations. There are reputable Jai Alai schools in the Basque region (Zumaia, Berriatua, and Markina to name a few), but the 'American Dream' of going pro for youth is over. The kids are not passionate about coming to the States anymore to pursue it and are privy to the gossip surrounding the lack of professionalism and courtesy by management and administration of the frontons in the States. Jai Alai is not taken seriously as a long-term professional career.
I have digressed, but I leave you with this:
Thanks to fans like Tiger, Larry and Bill that provide us with useful sounding boards like 'Chalk-Talk' to express our full range of emotions in relation to this incredible sport...YES!! I said a sport!...Jai Alai will live on into ad infinitum into the future! God Bless Jai Alai!!!
Tony and the Crew