The Swift and the Dying | New Times Broward-Palm Beach


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.