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Tampa-raised jai alai aficionado hangs up the cesta

NORTH TAMPA

From the moment he could snare the fast ball in the basket and hurl it back to the wall, Marty Fleischman was hooked on jai alai.

He said he almost flunked out of the University of Florida because of it.

"My major became jai alai,'' he jokes.

It would have been an appropriate major, because Fleischman spent a 41-year career in jai alai — in the front office, not on the courts. He started as public relations manager in the 1970s at Tampa Jai Alai, when opening night at the fronton on S Dale Mabry drew standing-room-only crowds to watch and place bets on the players.

The Tampa native, 63, son of the late "Salty Sol'' Fleischman, a popular Tampa Bay sportscaster, rose to be corporate public relations director for World Jai Alai, overseeing the marketing efforts at Tampa, Miami, Ocala, Fort Pierce and Hartford, Conn., frontons.

He retired this year as assistant general manager of Dania Jai Alai and moved back to Tampa, where he took a job as a computer technician for Hillsborough County schools, delighting in not being a manager.

His career arc coincided with the heyday and decline in the sport, along with the other pari-mutuel outlets, dog and horse racing, as slot machines and high-stakes poker in Florida drew gamblers away.

"I never got tired of the game,'' he said.

He looks back fondly on jai alai's early days in Tampa, when anticipation surrounded the start of the annual five-month season.

"Opening night was like opening night on Broadway,'' he said. "People would call me weeks in advance for tickets.''

On weekend nights, 7,000 spectators would crowd in, more than half of them standing. On closing night, the Spanish and French players would venture out into the crowd to say farewell, and crying women who idolized them would dive into their arms.

"It was like they were never coming back,'' he said.

In later years, Fleischman would walk through Dania Jai Alai — a place that once required jackets for men — and see a few hundred people scattered about. "It was heart-breaking towards the end.''

Memorabilia from his career decorate the office in his home off Gunn Highway. A framed photograph signed by Dania players and staff hangs on the wall, a retirement gift. On display, too, is the curved wicker basket, or cesta. And a pelota, the goatskin-covered rubber jai alai ball that is still made by hand. It's three-fourths the size of a baseball, harder than a golf ball, and can be tossed by pros at 175 miles per hour.

The game, similar to handball, is a lot trickier using a basket. In college, when Fleischman first tried playing, "I threw it straight down and backwards.'' It took an hour before he could control the cesta enough to send the ball to the wall.

A longtime friend, Richard Berenson, who also played amateur jai alai, said to see Fleischman practice — "incredibly skinny, no power, very poor form'' — you would think he'd be terrible at the game. But "nobody has the hand-eye coordination of Marty Fleischman … The guy never missed a ball. He would catch everything and he would basically wear you down.''

Berenson, 58, is the grandson of the late Richard I. Berenson, who got the Florida Legislature to allow betting on jai alai in the late 1930s and is chiefly responsible for the game's huge growth. His late father, Louis Stanley "Buddy'' Berenson, bought Tampa Jai Alai in 1970 and made it a success. (The old Tampa Jai Alai fronton was demolished years ago.)

Fleishman, Berenson said, was born to the job of public relations, with a knack for saying the right thing and the ability to carry on a conversation with anybody. "Any type of interview Marty would go on, he would ace it.''

After 18 years in the front office, Fleischman's big sports moment came — and went. It was 1988, when jai alai players went on strike. In Miami, about half the players walked out an hour before the opening game.

The company president walked in Fleischman's office and said, "Marty, if you want to play, this is your chance. I'm going to let you go out there and be a pro tonight.''

A couple of thoughts passed through Fleischman's mind. "No. 1, this is my dream. But the Miami crowd is a tough crowd — you drop a ball and you're going to hear cursing in every language that there ever was.''

He decided against trying it.

The players strike dealt a blow from which the game never fully recovered, Fleischman said. At the same time, the Florida Lottery was introduced, taking 15 percent of customers. Cruises to nowhere took people beyond the three-mile limit to play blackjack, roulette and slot machines. Eventually, the Seminole tribe opened Hard Rock casinos and the pari-mutuels had to add poker rooms and — in South Florida — slots to compete.

"We had a monopoly on gambling, and we lost the monopoly on gambling, and that's what really hurt.''

It was fun while it lasted. He remembers bringing some NFL players on the court during a 1970s Pro Bowl game in Tampa. "They couldn't hit the wall.''

He also demonstrated the sport for former heavyweight boxing champ Larry Holmes.

He did a bit part in a Miami Vice episode at Miami Jai Alai, playing an announcer, something he did routinely.

He was thrown into the fire of handling a real crime drama in 1981, when World Jai Alai's new owner, Roger Wheeler, was gunned down. A year later, the bullet-riddled body of a former World Jai Alai president, John Callahan, was found in the trunk of a car at Miami International Airport.

News stories link the murders to notorious Boston crime boss James "Whitey'' Bulger, who reportedly had Wheeler killed because he was about to expose a money-skimming scheme from World Jai Alai's parking operations by Bulger's Winter Hill gang. (Bulger was the model for Jack Nicholson's character in the 2006 movie, The Departed.) Callahan was killed, it is believed, because Bulger feared he was going to talk about the Wheeler killing to the FBI.

Both times, Fleischman, as company spokesman, had to handle the press inquiries. The morning after Wheeler's killing, he had 30 pink message slips on his desk, from all the major media.

He said he still can't believe that Bulger's group was skimming money from the parking operation, knowing how thoroughly the state audits every dollar.

And while he was overwhelmed at the time with interview requests from Dan Rather to Geraldo Rivera, it was exciting. Rather interviewed him on the CBS evening news, and Fleischman laughed to recall his father's comment:

"You know, son, I've been on radio and (later) TV since 1928, and I never was on the national news.''

Philip Morgan can be reached at pmorgan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3435.

Tampa-raised jai alai aficionado hangs up the cesta 05/16/13 [Last modified: Thursday, May 16, 2013 9:45am]
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