From 1976 until the strike in 1988, I was a regular at the Connecticut
frontons, and an occasional visitor to those in Florida as well.
I even wrote a book on the game, receiving a great deal of help
from the managements of World Jai Alai and Bridgeport Jai Alai,
and also from legendary players Churruca and Joey.
During that period I regularly observed all the greats who were active. Orbea, Piston, Guarita, and Larranaga were gone, but everyone else who belongs in a modern Hall of Fame was playing. Therefore, I feel qualified to throw in my 2 cents on the relative merits of the various 'greats' I observed. Since I kept voluminous statistics for betting purposes, I have some statistical evidence (in the form of what in tennis would be ratios of winners to unforced errors) to back up my judgments.
Among front court players, I'd have to rate Bolivar on top. I saw him in Bridgeport at his peak against Egurbi, Ondarres, etc., and I also saw him at Hartford, Milford, and Tampa. I was present on his final night in Tampa, April 11, 1979. The fans booed him when he came out for his first game, and it visibly annoyed him. The result was one of the greatest performances I have ever witnessed. He won all 4 games he was in, and 19 of 22 points he played. It was as though he was telling the fans not to forget him. Boli's serve was not great, but he really had no weakness on either offense or defense, and his point after point, night after night consistency puts him on top in my rankings.
Joey was even better on his best nights, but he was not as consistent as Bolivar. There were a lot of nights when Joey would drop too many balls. But when he was on, his remate was the single best shot of any player at any time. He would pick up the ball on a short hop and rattle it into the screen faster than anyone could move. But the rest of his game, while good, was not remarkable. He relied very heavily on his one uncatchable putaway shot.
Egurbi was a streak player. At his best, he was awesome, with perhaps the best serve in the game. His cortada was wicked, and no one has ever had a better three wall shot into the crack in the back wall. His game was all power.
Ondarres was just the opposite, a beautiful finesse player. He was remarkably consistent on both offense and defense, very difficult to put away and always dependable in putting others away. A lot of players wasted kill opportunities. Ondarres rarely did.
Bengoa was past his prime when I saw him. Once he had the strongest right arm in the game, but he told me that when his legs went, so did his power.
Guisasola was incredibly fast when I first saw him in the early days at Bridgeport, but he slowed down thereafter.
Bereicua was the toughest competitor at Bridgeport, but his skills were a trifle below the top guys. Nevertheless, you always got your money's worth with him.
Orbea, the younger brother of the great Orbea, was spectacular but erratic, playing best when a trophy was at stake, but often blowing easy shots in routine games.
Juaristi was known as "Hollywood" because of his grandstanding for the groupies who adored him. He had tremendous power and could throw a home run off the serve. Although he was the perennial wins champ at Milford, his indifferent play on many nights makes it difficult to rate him.
Asis was a mediocre double player, but a great singles player because of his height. When he stood at mid court, it was nearly impossible to get the ball over his head. He had the best line drive chula in the game, which he could throw from farther back than anyone else. Fred McKenna, who was head of PR for World Jai Alai, told me he believed that Asis and Bolivar never met in singles. That seems inconceivable. I wonder if anyone ever saw them play against each other?
Alberdi was as tough as Joey when catching a serve, with a beautiful remate that won him many points.
Jesus was past his prime when he played in Hartford and Tampa in the late 70's, but he had an unusual costado that almost always scored.
Uriarte/Cachin was a difficult player for me to evaluate. He was very fast and very good defensively, but he seemed to lack the killer instinct on offense. Nevertheless, he did very well playing against the best players of the day.
Remen, Mendi, and Zulaica won a lot of games, but they are decidedly below the level of the players named so far. They won a lot of games because they played a lot of games. All three were Hartford regulars who usually played the entire season, whereas some of the bigger names only played half the season, then went to Florida.
But what about Michelena? While I saw him play in Hartford for several years, he was still very young and did not play a great deal. My stats on him were good, but he was not yet being tested in top flight company.
Now for the back court. There were a lot of backcourters whose game was primarily steady, reliable catching, but not much else. Names like Goyo, Echave, Laca, Gorrono, Boniguen, Salazar II, and Soroa come to mind. Soroa had a lot of power, as did Elorduy. But the names that stand out would be the following:
Churruca, of course, was the greatest. The great things about him were his remarkable court sense and his swing. He reminded me of Ted Williams and Tiger Woods. Every backhand catch and throw was grooved & exactly the same as every other one & just perfect. When he played in Bpt he was well beyond his prime. But instead of running around like most players, he just ambled to where the ball was going to be and always seemed to be in perfect position to make the play look easy. The very first time I saw him (in 1976), Egurbi threw one of his devastating three wall shot that landed near the players cage and came out a couple of inches above the floor. But Churruca just shuffled over and returned it as though it was routine. I didn't believe what I had just seen, and I don't think I ever saw anyone else ever return that shot of Egurbi's.
When Bolivar came to Bpt a few yrs later, Churruca was on the downward slope. Yet I recently went back and checked my program notes and found that the Chief actually outscored Boli in singles when they went head to head. It was a point of pride with Churruca. Those encounters were some of the best of my recollections. If Boli served an ace, Churruca would just play it off the back wall. Sometimes, he'd throw a dejada from the back court and catch Boli off guard. It was a wonder to witness. Remember this was when Boli was running wild to prove himself in Bpt, winning over 200 games.
Bob Beslove used to have me into his office before the games and we would discuss the players endlessly. He said that when Churruca was young, he was noted more for his speed and leaping ability. I'd think, "Christ! How could he have been any better?"
Then there was the 'Spanish Tiger' - the great Chimela. Before his car crash he was a real sensation to watch - in a class of his own. "Chimela goes up the wall!" "And again!" "And again!" He was the only player who could throw with real power while still up on the wall. I was in Bpt on the day he returned after Sol Rosencrantz put him back together again. He was a pale shadow of his former self, but every time he touched the ball the crowd roared, "Mucho!" It was very emotional. Chimela played until he was over 50. He may have tied Erdoza's record as oldest player.
Chasio was a particular favorite of mine. He had that high kick overhand shot that was so good that the fans would scream "Overhand!" every time he caught the ball. Unfortunately he threw his arm out with it. He also had a soft two wall shot that he threw high on the side wall and that bounced crazily when it hit the floor and scored a lot of points. Someone told me the shot was called 'pica y vete' (roughly 'bounce and go'). I recall that one season Chaz was not in the opening night roster. I asked Bob Beslove where he was, and he told me that Chasio was delayed since he was burying his sister who was a member of ETA, the Basque separatist organization. She had been killed in some sort of terrorist incident.
Elorza was another power back who could be pretty dangerous in singles. But his catching was not consistent, keeping him from being as great as his offense promised he could be.
Lasa, the son of Bpt Manager Ricardo Sotil, was the fastest player I ever saw. He was still improving when he became involved as the leader of the players' strike of 1988 that led to the killing of jai alai. I think he was faster than Cachin or Geese in his prime.
Javier was a personal favorite of mine. He was ultra reliable on defense and had a good assortment of offensive shots, plus he could play singles in the featured game in Hartford. He was the backcourt equivalent of Bereicua for always giving 100%+
Wow! That is a passel full of memories. And those are just the greats. There were also so many younger or over the hill players, and players of lesser talent who also provided so many thrills. Remember Ispa (Hartford) who had zero power but never dropped a ball? And Gerny (Hartford) who was all power and hustle and would get so mad at himself when he eventually made a mistake and lost a point?
One of my most frustrating moments that still rankles when I remember it came when I had Cachin and someone in the final game. They were at trifecta point for a lovely 8-1-7 trifecta. They were playing against a team that had had a last minute sub of an early game player in the front court. I think it was Pete. Pete throws a poor dos paredes that Cachin catches easily on the wood at the four line. Any shot wins. Pete is too close to field a cortada, and too far inside to retrieve a return two waller. Cachin calmly throws the ball low, and my $1000+ payoff goes up in smoke. I still dream about that shot nearly 20 yrs later!
I hope this has rekindled some memories of your own for all the fans who loved jai alai as it was played in the 70's and 80's.