The Swift and the Dying
The musty sound booth affords Todd Sorensen a rare vantage on a fleeting sight. Twenty feet below the announcer, four men clad in Crayola-colored vests and helmets brandish cestas, the yard-long claw-baskets that jai-alai players strap to their right arms to catch and throw a ball against a 45-foot-high wall. The action here is deceptively balletic. Players zip around the rectangular court, a third the width and half the length of a football field, sometimes climbing the side wall with their momentum, sometimes sliding to make a catch, sometimes leaping with that oversized crook to pluck from the air that wicked little nugget.
The rubber-and-goatskin ball, five-sixths the size of a baseball, hard as a Vegas hangover, travels faster than any other sphere in sports -- nearly 190 miles per hour at top speed, mid-100s routinely. Protecting the good folks in the matinee audience is a chainlink fence that's as big as a drive-in movie screen and pockmarked. Protecting Sorensen, the sound equipment, the computers, and the old eight-track tapes in the booth are two plates of Lexan, a compound strong enough to be used as space shuttle windows. All in all, those windows, blistered from the jai-alai balls, have held up better than the bulletproof glass that used to be there and now stands in the lobby covered with gigantic spider cracks.
The match begins, and Sorensen, whose voice normally sounds like a math teacher's, adopts a buttermilk tenor to announce: "Good afternoon, game six, double's match spectacular." The ball raps against the wall with shotgun blasts that ECHO Echo echo echoechoecho until a player retrieves it and again slings it against the granite front wall, a couple of feet from Sorensen and his Lexan shield. The game is not to be taken lightly, and Sorensen's false teeth are proof of why.
"I got hit in the face," he says. It was Good Friday 2001, and he was playing a friendly game, standing too close to the wall. A ricochet came off fast and popped his mouth. He didn't comprehend the damage until he spat out clumps of gore. His right front tooth had exploded, leaving the nerve exposed like a strand of seaweed that sang Christmas hymns of pain every time he inhaled. The blow broke his upper jaw, which took four months to heal, so he had to wait to have his teeth repaired. His replacement tooth looks just fine, but the other damaged one will eventually blacken and die. "The doctor told me I was lucky," he says. "Yeah, if it would have hit a couple of inches higher or a couple of inches lower, I could have died. If it would have hit me right here" -- he points at the top of his throat -- "it would have crushed my trachea, and I would have been done. If it had hit higher, it would have hit my nose, and depending on how my nose broke, it could have splintered.
"This thing coming at you scares the living daylights out of you for a good long time. And even these guys" -- he says, indicating the pros -- "it scares the crap out of them. They get used to it, build up a tolerance."
Then Sorensen's tenor returns to the mic: "A bounce into the corner caught by Endika. A possible game point for Gorrono and Endika. Trying to stop them are SCOTTTTYYY! and Carvalho." Sorensen chuckles and, then referring to veteran Scott Klier, says, "He likes when I do that."
As it turns out, Scotty and Carvalho (jai-alai players go by one name) lose the point in about 15 seconds. They trot off the floor. Moments later, the round-robin game concludes. The weekday audience, true to form, barely stirs, giving a hint as to why this is one of only five live jai-alai venues in the country. On an exceptional day here, only a thousand people may pay their buck-fifty to attend matches, even in this, America's second-oldest professional jai-alai arena, with its Disneylandian, 24-acre parking lot. During its heyday from the 1960s through the 1980s, as many as 10,000 spectators jammed the place daily, including illuminati such as Jack Paar, Yogi Berra, Jayne Mansfield, and Gene Hackman. To say the sport is in decline belies the short distance it has left to fall.
The game long ago seduced Klier. He's the only gringo among the Spanish/French/ Mexican/Cuban cabal of 45 professionals in Dania Jai-Alai's rotating stable of players. He stands an even six feet tall (average for a jai-alai player), 180 pounds, sturdy, with short brown hair, a goatee, and the cantalouped right biceps of a 27-year-old who since 1997 has made his daily wage slinging the 118-gram bullet with his starboard arm.
He is, no mistake, an anomaly -- the rare athlete who spurned dreams of baseball and soccer and football and wound up with a basket strapped to his arm. He is exactly what jai-alai needs -- an American hero for American fans. But on the eve of a vote on slot machines that could resuscitate this ailing, brutish ballet, Klier's one-time passion has worn to a nub. Both jai-alai fans across the region and Scotty Klier wonder how much longer their love affair with this elegant, 500-year-old Basque competition can continue.
Slip in the anonymous back door of Dania Jai-Alai before a match and ascend a couple of flights of musty stairs with handrails so worn that bald iron shows from under the paint. Turn a corner and, in a barren lounge as big as a 7-Eleven parking lot, there's Klier sitting on a blue plastic couch pulled up to a beat-up Ping-Pong table, gnawing meat from fried chicken wings. A plastic Publix sack, his makeshift dinner plate, collects his bone pile.
"It's a fuckin' graveyard," Klier says with dark congeniality. "Yeah, you can start off the article, 'I walked into a fuckin' dump up here, and this guy's eating fuckin' lo mein and chicken wings. He was eating off a fuckin' Ping-Pong table and these couches from 1944. '"
Pardon the French, but Klier just finished his games in a Tuesday matinee and has only a few minutes to inhale his fuckin' lo mein before strapping on his cesta for the evening round. Between six weekly performances and his thrice-weekly classes at Broward Community College, where he is studying to become a physical therapy assistant, he sometimes doesn't eat well. He displays the wound-up countenance of an athlete in mid-workday, bouncing a knee as he sits. A violet nebula bruise on his calf marks the spot where an errant shot popped him a few nights back. For jai-alai players, pain comes wrapped in goatskin.
How this kid came from a comfy Sunrise neighborhood to the major leagues of this sport from the Pyrenees baffles even him sometimes. He was always a tough kid, according to his eldest sister, Lisa Rapp. When he was 3 years old, neighborhood boys three times his age would knock on the door to ask if Scotty could play. Once, when the kid was about 7, he started beating on his other sister, Bonnie, his senior by four years. Lisa used a clunky phone receiver to deter him. "I was pounding his back," she says, "but he was not even stopping."
Naturally, Scotty channeled his toughness and athleticism into sport. He started playing soccer around the time he began T-ball, and he always enjoyed football. Says his cousin, Jack Tacher, who grew up on the same block: "He probably lost some of his childhood from playing so many sports. A lot of his time got eaten up, baseball and soccer and this and that." Klier played on some sharp league teams as a boy. At age 12, his baseball team of hand-picked talent won Florida and traveled to St. Louis to play for a national title.
Klier's father, Ken, took the boy to his first jai-alai match when he was about 12. Back in those days, just 15 years ago, the numbers were large enough that the father-son pair had to linger for the crowd to thin so that they could upgrade from the rear to box seats, right against the fence.
"I thought it was scary," Scott Klier recalls. "I thought it was mysterious. When I see something mysterious, I get curious."
The sport's speed, the movement, the individual workouts, all appealed to Klier. "It's like tennis but a lot more complex," he says. "This game makes tennis look like a pussy sport." Over time, tendonitis in his shoulder forced him to limit himself to either baseball or jai alai. Klier picked the latter.
His father guesses that, had the boy stuck with baseball, he might have earned a scholarship to a junior college, then perhaps transferred to a four-year university. "He really didn't have the great hitting ability," Ken Klier says. "He was probably above average, but nothing really special." The boy's forté was fielding and throwing; he played shortstop well. "I went out and spent, like, a thousand dollars on a machine to throw balls not only for batting but [so that] he could field them automatically," the father recounts. "Thousands and thousands of gyrations of throwing balls. He wasn't born with that ability."
Says the son: "Story of my life. Catching balls."
But baseball for Klier always meant pressure -- from dad, from his teammates, from his coaches. Jai alai was... release. Ken Klier, of course, pushed Scotty, but friends and neighbors didn't really comprehend the game. It was outside of their experience. And it was the kind of solitary pursuit in which a sensitive, talented introvert like Scotty could be himself.
So he convinced Ken to back his newfound passion, and three days a week, Scotty and his father drove to train at Miami Amateur Jai-Alai in North Miami, where the boy learned his mechanics, his technique, his strength. Soon, he took a job making minimum wage as a ball boy at Dania, practicing between performances, as only employees may.
He flopped at his first tournament, the U.S. Amateur Championship at Miami Jai-Alai, when he was 16. Before traveling to his next competition, the 1995 Ocala Invitational, Scotty asked Ken not to attend. Ken Klier protested -- what difference would his presence make? The son said, believe me. He returned from Ocala with a first-place trophy as big as a wedding cake.
"My dad always encouraged him to do his best," Rapp says. When told her brother recalls a great deal of pressure from their father, she hesitates, choosing her words slowly. "Let me see how I can say this," she resumes. "He always wanted to see him do his best."
Then he won another tournament, the Orlando Invitational, which earned him a tryout at the Fort Pierce venue, which is called a fronton. A few months after he graduated from Piper High School in 1996, while he was still a ball boy at Dania, Scotty got the call: Fort Pierce wanted to hire him to play pro. Scotty appealed to the managers at Dania, where the competition is tougher and more experienced. That was on a Wednesday. Two days later, Ken Klier predicted Dania would offer Scotty a contract. Sure enough, the manager called him into the little office overlooking the court and presented him a deal worth about $1,800 a month. Scotty was so excited, he sprinted around the parking lot. Ken recalls his son was actually nauseous with joy.
His parents took him on a vacation to California just to help him clear his head. "If this plane goes down and I don't get to play pro..." he protested at the time. But he had much to consider. The same week, he got to the top of the waiting list for the Broward Fire Academy. Two years before, when he was a high school sophomore, his mother had signed him up as a way to safeguard his future.
"I said to hell with the fire academy; I'm going to play jai alai professionally, in Dania," he recalls. "Back then, it was like, holy shit, that's Dania Jai-Alai." Besides, how many fire academy cadets get to look into the stands and see high school buddies cheering them on? And what teenager could turn down something he'd been chasing for a third of his life?
The heart of the gritty game at Dania Jai-Alai resides on the second floor of the players' area, around the corner from the cestas. Inside a little brown room with just enough space for a desk littered with Café Bustelo cans and the tar-like guano of countless sugary espresso splatters, there's an ancient worktable where a gentle, bespectacled ballmaker named Julio Anchia has for 30 years rebuilt the pelotas that ricochet around the fronton. His implements -- a pair of curved scissors, a greasy knife, a balance scale with 107 grams of weight on one side -- line the top of his table, which is itself bandaged in untold layers of decomposing duct tape. Beneath the table sits a small bucket of water where strips of goatskin soak, waiting to be stretched and sewn with nylon thread across the core of wound rubber.
"The most important part," Anchia says, holding a brown spherical core, "is this. The rest, we can do."
Balls are ruined when the kinetic energy from those mighty tosses turns to heat energy upon impact. Rising temperatures force bubbles to the ball's surface, warping it, making it unpredictable. Then the ball must be re-covered so it flies straight; the pelotas survive dozens of these operations. Anchia's craft is critical to the game and, like so much of the rest of jai alai, is swiftly becoming an anachronism.
The game's origins are uncertain. Its DNA traces back to ancient Greeks playing handball. By the 15th Century, Basques were competing in variations with bare hands, then gloves and racquets. The first modern jai-alai cesta arrived about 130 years ago, and the game traveled wherever Basques went. In 1904, the St. Louis World's Fair introduced the game to the United States. Some of the players -- and fans -- commuted between South Florida and frontons in Cuba.
Miami Jai-Alai opened in 1926, the nation's first professional fronton. Dania Jai-Alai followed in 1953. "Back in the glory days, just about every celebrity came here," Sorensen says. "Roger Maris came here after he hit 61 home runs. Joe Namath came here after he won the Super Bowl." Jackie Gleason, Larry King, and (no surprise) Pete Rose were regulars. Through the '80s and into the early '90s, jai alai was a well-dressed, well-heeled, and well-attended affair: A 1993 Sunshine magazine cover story said no sport drew more spectators in South Florida in 1992.
The recent past has been less kind. In his weekly commentary on National Public Radio just before this past Thanksgiving, venerated Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford recounted the elements of sport that he most missed. Among the list was this line, which probably sounded like gibberish to most listeners under 40: "Jai alai. It was so exotic. What ever happened to jai alai?"
A couple of things happened to jai alai. The most drastic, and the easiest to blame, was a strike that lasted from 1988 to 1991, an eternity for a sports stoppage. Some players crossed picket lines to keep the show alive, but when the strike began, there were 14 frontons in Nevada, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Florida. Today, there are five, all in Florida, in Dania Beach, Miami, Orlando, Ocala, and Fort Pierce. (The 2004 hurricanes ripped the roofs off the frontons in Orlando and Fort Pierce, delaying the season of the former and canceling that of the latter.) The irony is, with fewer frontons, the talent is now concentrated, and rosters at the surviving venues are deeper than ever. "The play is pretty damned good now, but nobody cares," Klier says. "You could put a monkey out there."
The strike came amid escalating competition to attract sports fans and gamblers. In those years, the NBA expanded into downtown Miami with the Heat, and Major League Baseball expanded to north Miami-Dade County with the Marlins. The Seminoles opened a massive casino in Coconut Creek in 2000 and, last year, another even larger one in Hollywood.
Gambling (in whatever form) abides at Dania Jai-Alai, but it's shrinking. Over the past 20 years, the "handle," or overall amount wagered, has shriveled. The high came in fiscal 1986-87, when bettors wagered $88 million, leaving the fronton $11 million after taxes and payouts. In 1994, 1996, and 2000, Florida's legislature eased the tax burden on the house take, so the operating money hasn't dipped lower than $7.8 million since. But the handle keeps shrinking: From $87 million in '87-88 to $39 million last year. Only half of that total was wagered live; the rest came from other pari-mutuel venues (horse tracks, old frontons) around the country.
Those are the sort of trends that inspired New York Times reporter Geoffrey Gray, after a visit to Dania Beach last summer, to write of a game "flirting with extinction" in frontons that "feel like out-of-the-way bus stations."
It's not just the fans who are dwindling: American-born competitors may soon also become extinct. Klier's jai-alai alma mater, Miami Amateur Jai-Alai, no longer trains new players and has in the past couple of years closed two of its three courts. "Part of the problem is that jai alai is not an American game," says Royal Logan, the chief operations officer in the state office that regulates pari-mutuels. "There's not really a way to develop young players. Look how long it took soccer to catch on in the United States." The only Americans on the horizon are sons of fronton employees who were able to play from a young age. Now, frontons generally don't allow anyone but employees on the court, fearing crushed skulls and shattered teeth.
One bright spot is the renovated and well-attended poker room on the second floor in Dania Beach. The other, of course, is this past November's 50.7 percent-to-49.3 percent passage of Florida Amendment 4, which will allow Broward and Miami-Dade voters to choose in March whether to allow slot machines at pari-mutuels. The betting industry thus far has spent a reported $16 million promoting the move, and for obvious reasons: Supporters project as much as $2 billion in slot wagering the first year alone. Perhaps getting that many bodies through the doors will spark interest in dog racing, horseracing, and jai alai, all of which are in decline, though it seems a Faustian way to do it.
"People will bet on any damned thing," says Mack McElyea, a former Dania Beach mayor who worked at the fronton as a young man. "They'll bet on roaches running." The decline of the sport since Florida introduced the lottery suggests as much. Just as the possibility of a payout can prompt a man to curse the impartial physical poetry of a running horse, so do exacta boxes and quinella wheels make otherwise reasonable people lob invective through a chainlink fence.
Klier's wages haven't been bad, by working-stiff standards. He has generally earned 40 to 50 grand a year, which includes a bonus of $50 for winning a match, $30 for second place, and $20 for third -- all split in doubles matches.
What he really likes, though, is when the ballet transcends the paycheck and its neon-lit venue, when a spectacular play or an epic point draws people off their betting slips and pulls them back into the grace and elegance of the struggle. "If you can actually get a night where it's crowded and you get to have a great point where everybody stands up to applaud, just to show a little appreciation for once in this fucking sport," Klier says. "Just to have that feeling of appreciation, for me, that's better than winning."
Klier excuses himself to tidy his dinner setting and prepare for his first match. He turns a corner and heads to the cesta room. There, the baskets line shelves on a wall that borders the rear of the court, and you can hear the pelota pound the wall like a billiards ball. Klier walks past the old television playing Mexico's version of Family Feud and the posters of the Dolphins and Heat cheerleaders autographed to the boys at Dania Jai-Alai. He steps into the humidor that smells like a hayloft, where a hundred of the $350 cestas, with their reed skins woven around Spanish cedar skeletons, are piled like rifles in a weapons cache.
Scotty grabs his and descends to the ante room, where the players watch the action through a red chainlink fence. From this vantage, the ball's flight seems faster, more imminent. It curves in space like a knuckleball on nearly every trip.
"Welcome to Dania Jai-Alai," booms the announcer at 6:36 p.m., half an hour before the first game. "At this time, we'd like everybody to pause for the playing of the national anthem." Precisely 16 people in the stands rise. A young boy sings along in a squeaky voice.
A scant few more spectators amble in, and by 7 p.m., about 40 are on hand to see Scotty in the evening's first match. A jai-alai serve is a lit fuse -- the ball is bounced, allowed to drop in seeming slow motion, then is slung 40 yards in a nanosecond -- but Scotty's serve is unusual in that he swipes at the ball from the side, leaving the white speck visible for the tiniest instant while it's in the whirling cup of his cesta. "Let's go, Scotty!" a young person yells.
Scotty starts well, scores, hangs on. He has a shot at victory until a shot goes diagonally off the side wall, off the front wall, and onto the floor, out of his reach. As soon as it clacks off the floor, he trots from the court, his head down. The shot cost him first place and, with it, ten bucks.
Weeknights run together at Dania Jai-Alai. On "99 Wednesdays," admission, soft-serve ice cream, hot dogs, and 16-ounce draft beers run less than a buck, making it the cheapest evening of entertainment in the known universe. Otherwise, most days are indistinguishable from each other, and that includes the heckling. The voices must be a rotating cast, out there in the rows of mostly empty seats, but they're overwhelmingly male and most often in fossilized Jersey accents.
One night, from the safety of the stands, to all the players, as a ball rolls to a stop against the protective fence: "I'll challenge any one of you guys!"
To a Mexican player named Ulises: "Useless!"
To the Spanish Basque competitor Urtaran: "Throw it in the pad, bitch!"
To the 38-year-old Arecha, who drops a ball in a singles match, then makes an expression redolent of a pile of dishrags: "Retire, Arecha," and it's not even very loud in the gaping arena, almost conversational: "Retire."
To Burgo, also a Basque, who is 40: "Retire."
To Azpiri, after he misses a ball: "You're a fat bastard, Azpiri, that's why!"
From the rafters to Foronda, who bobbles a return: "Get a job!"
To the French Basque Carvalho: "You stink!" and as he tracks down a rolling ball between matches: "When I bet you, you don't do nothin'!" Carvalho stands behind the fence, close enough to look his heckler in the eye, and doesn't say nothin'.
To Scotty: "You run like a penguin!"
"Ah, Scotty! Shit, man!"
And sometimes, in quieter tones: "Fuck Scotty."
"You know that Scotty, he hardly wins," says a broad, bald fan from Miami named Reginald Wright, seated in the stands one Saturday night. "He's garbage. He never wins money for me. He's playing with a good player, so I have to play him. But he always puts it on the wood."
As Wright says this, Scotty's partner, Erkiaga, promptly misplays a shot onto the out-of-bounds wooden apron on the audience's side of the court.
"They like Scotty because early on in his career, he was winning, but he laid down," Wright continues. "He's got effort, but his game is not where it should be. They cheer for him 100 percent. He is a crowd favorite, for sure."
Klier always has the advantage of being the hometown boy, and moreover, he has long been a solid player. By the end of his first year, he was finishing in the money (that's the top three) more than 40 percent of the time and was in the top ten in wins. Scotty was solid, real solid for a kid who didn't grow up watching jai alai. Of the Basques, Klier says: "It's their T-ball."
The years have worn on. Being the only American in the clubhouse has meant learning some choice Spanish and making some friends but feeling like he was leading a secret life, one that would take him -- where? He was already as high as he could go, watching the sport melt all around him. There is no team in the locker room, only partners for one match at a time.
At first, his folks used to come see him play, but they moved to Boca Raton and now watch games live on the fronton's website, dania-jai-alai.com, where a few hundred people a day, from around the world, watch the live webcasts. He took some community college classes here and there. A couple of years ago, Klier picked up a real estate license he hasn't used. Watched as the crowds dwindled. And dwindled further.
"Sooner or later," Klier says, "reality hits."
The break point came during a match in October 2003, when he put his arm against the wall and dislocated his shoulder. He was in a sling for a month. The scar tissue locked the joint. A doctor put Klier under and, in lieu of cutting, spun the arm every which way. Rehab started that afternoon and lasted six months. Swimming. Lap after lap at 24 Hour Fitness in Plantation. "Worked my ass off, dude," he says. He didn't know whether he'd play again, so it was then that he applied himself to school full-time, atop jai alai.
The injury forced him to acknowledge what he already knew. "I looked at it as God telling me, 'You better get moving, kiddo,'" he says.
Hell, you can't even pick up women as a jai-alai player. When Klier goes to bars, he sometimes tells people he's a pro athlete. He looks enough like Olindo Mare, apparently, that people will ask him if he's the Dolphins kicker. If only. Where would the fire academy have taken him? Closer to a pension, that's about all. What about baseball? Klier was always wicked fast. You can't teach that, but they can teach hitting.
Klier doesn't dwell. He's playing a little better. The last time he finished in the money more than this season was 2001. His pride still showed in early December; he missed a ball, the crowd jeered, and he turned almost imperceptibly to the wall and delivered a tiny, frustrated kick.
"I think I would have been better being involved in high school sports and doing it that way," Klier says. "If I had a son, that's what I would have him do."
Would he teach his son to play jai alai?
"Hell, no," Klier says. He laughs. "Are you kidding me? I wouldn't let him go near it." He laughs again. "No, not a chance."
On a weeknight, before he takes on the ball, Klier is splayed on a heating pad in the training room. The Simpsons plays on a TV nearby. He folds his legs and rolls his back over the heat. It's nearly time.
The night begins unevenly for Scotty. In the first match, he snatches a shot and slings it low. The ball caroms off the wall and hops twice before his opponents can reach it, ending the point. Soon, though, Scotty's partner misses a return. The pair finishes third.
In the second game, a singles match, he seems lethargic. A shot comes low at him; he flips it back and loses an easy point. He later places a nice, long return that an opponent bobbles trying to chase down. Point Scotty -- but then he loses to Carvalho (who goes on to win the eight-man match) while someone on the side wall says, "Scotty not gonna do it."
The third match brings more of the same. Scotty makes a bad serve to an opponent, who knocks him out with one quick return. Game four, fourth place.
Then in the sixth game, Scotty's last of the night, something clicks. He and a partner are stuck in the seventh position. As the match unfolds, someone yells, "Come on, Scotty!" Quick as you please, Scotty's partner slings a hard shot that one adversary narrowly misses and the other has to duck to avoid. Then Scotty wings a slick return, and the fan's voice is back: "Come on, Scotty! Stay alive out there!" and for an instant, you can glimpse what this game once was. Klier may never have been a legitimate savior for the sport, but with enough players like him -- homegrown, affable, capable -- he could have slowed jai alai's slide into anonymity. If Amendment 4 can bring the slot hounds through the door and introduce them to an exotic pastime, perhaps there will be more money and recognition to inspire future Scottys.
At this point in Scotty's match, a remarkable string of luck arrives. First an opponent's return sails too high and nails the puffy red pad above the front wall with a thunderous THOOOM. Then the mistake is repeated. "All the way, Scotty!" comes the yell.
On the potential game point, Scotty digs out a return and wings it into the corner. It comes back over the head of his opponent, Larrea. Scotty and his partner complete the improbable sweep from the seventh post, a dynamic win.
If anyone claps, they don't do it audibly. As the players trot off to the locker room, though, someone in the middle rows shouts to Larrea: "You're the worst player on the floor!" Larrea turns, looks back, and says nothing. Just ahead of him, Scotty trots off, head down, a winner paying $16.40, $8 to show, $6.40 to place.
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