Bye-bye, Jai Alai?

Slot machines at the fronton could spell doom for the sport.

As picket lines go, the gathering of jai-alai players in T-shirts and uniforms at Dania Jai-Alai last week was on the pathetically puny side. Well, it was strictly an "informational picket," a handful of rank-and-filers said. When the 'Pipe pulled up, a strapping 27-year-old named Iker Foronda Rojo was just making his way to the locker room with an orange posterboard hanging around his neck bearing the words "SAVE OUR SPORT" and pictures of little jai-alai arm baskets drawn in black marker.

"We think if they build a new building for slot machines, they will not fix this building," the Spaniard said, echoing an elemental fear for jai-alai players at Dania Beach.

Voters approved a measure in 2005 that will allow slot machines in Broward pari-mutuels, but until the state decides how to regulate those little cash registers, the players' future is uncertain. With the value of the blocky-looking, repair-needing fronton stadium on Dania Beach Boulevard resting more on its potential as a casino than on its setting for jai alai, the prospect of the tail wagging the dog seems all too real here.

So who needs jai alai, a fading sport with Pyrenean roots that draws a few hundred tenacious bettors a night when there's an insatiable hunger out there for slot machines?

The worst-case scenario is that Florida winds up like Rhode Island, where slot machines doomed live jai alai, says Riki Lasa, president of the International Jai-Alai Players Association. Once Little Rhodie found itself strapped for cash, it renegotiated with the owners of the fronton to jettison the costly enterprise of jai alai in exchange for higher slots taxes.

"It's ridiculous that everywhere they've built a casino, jai alai dies," Lasa said by phone. "They get their teeth in, the legislature gets a taste of that money, and they say the heck with the sport."

Dania Jai-Alai's assistant general manager, Marty Fleischman, is happy to report that, in case you hadn't noticed, Florida isn't Rhode Island. "Jai alai has been part of Florida since 1926," he says. "It's been part of the fabric of Florida. To worry that the same thing will happen, I don't think that's something that should be a concern." He also notes that the law stipulates that Dania must run at least 150 annual jai-alai performances to operate slots.

The current number, including matinees and evening shows, is more than 400. "We have no plans to change that," Fleischman says.

Forgive Tailpipe for hearing nothing but the jingle of coins in Fleischman's avuncular assurances. These promises are not worth the toilet paper they could be written on. How long do you think it will take for the jai-alai magnates to start shaving the performance numbers, once the slots are in place? How many jai-alai cards a year was that? Oh, let's say 400 going on 150...

Of course, the players haven't been assured any cut of the inevitable slots windfall. Those pickets want some formal assurances that their careers won't be slowly whittled away. And they want a piece of the action. Jai-alai players, whose skills include catching and hurling a pelota (the size and hardness of a cue ball) at speeds of 150 mph, earn at most about $50,000 a year (and some less than that). They get health benefits, but, if one of those speeding objects smashes a bone, there's no assurance that there will be a new contract.

The 'Pipe can't begrudge players pressuring their bosses for fatter wages. Jai alai can be a brutal game, and the big leagues are in Dania and Miami; there's no higher level to aspire to. The troops deserve a slice of the proverbial pie. The 'Pipe took his cut the other night, hitting the exacta in the fourth match of the night, which Foronda and Ulises won. Gracias, Foronda. Long may you share in the winnings.

Rigged Science

Tom DeRosa has long dreamed of opening a "creation science museum." Once a science teacher in the Broward County public school system, DeRosa found God in 1978 and, ever since, has been doing his best to undermine Darwin's theory of evolution. A special sore point has been the "secular" science museums, "places of worship for those who deny the creator" and their dubious evolution displays.

In 1988, with the help of D. James Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries and the Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale, DeRosa founded the Fort Lauderdale-based Creation Studies Institute to promote "the biblical foundation of creation," the idea that the fossil record supposedly proves that Earth was made 6,000 to 10,000 years ago, and that Adam and Eve cavorted among dinosaurs. The centerpiece of his vision has always been a science museum that puts God in his proper place: at the center of natural history, in the middle of the dinosaur bones. DeRosa has been leading devout Christians on fossil-digging expeditions along the Peace River in Southwestern Florida for years, amassing a collection of fossils supposedly from the Flood and pre-Flood eras. Until now, they've been stored in a trailer.

DeRosa's dream finally becomes reality in May, when the Creation Museum and Science Resource Center will hold its grand opening. But the 'Pipe couldn't wait to check out Fort Lauderdale's newest museum. A few weeks ago, he popped in to the unmarked building on the edge of the Calvary Chapel campus in Cypress Creek, expecting a great shining structure, not unlike the pearly gates, to mark the museum entrance. Instead, at the end of a short hallway lined with classrooms and a library, he found... another classroom.

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