traditional salute of the cestas prior to each game

I wrote earlier about my first try at jai alai on November 5th. Two days later I posted some videos of pros and one of me that my jai-alai-loving/playing friend Rudy took. To encourage me to play with him the next time I come to Miami, Rudy sent me a professional cesta that he obtained. It’s worth $500-1000. Helluva gift.

So last night I went to the only fronton (jai alai court) in Connecticut—actually the only one anywhere in the U.S. outside of Florida—to practice a second time. Connecticut Amateur Jai Alai is located in a warehouse in Berlin, about 20 minutes south of Hartford and 70 minutes from my house. Anyone can rent the big court (112 feet long), although beginners like me are sent first to the smaller court (60 feet).

I had already played two matches of tennis earlier for over four hours, so I was a tiny bit tired, but I had no problem practicing jai alai for 45 minutes. A real challenge in the beginning just to reach the wall, much less catch and throw with speed. But after a while, one of the regulars joined me and showed me how to bend my wrist. What a difference. That nuance really helps whip the ball with power. It is similar to a wrist snap in tennis to increase the acceleration. Very exciting! After that workout, I was tired.

jai alai offers lots of action

I had pushed to be there last night during the once-a-month tournament that attracted 38 players competing in 15 games. It was thrilling. It was surprising. Beautiful. I had assumed I would be watching amateurs. Turns out many of the players are former professionals—six in one of the games out of 16 players—who used to compete at nearby frontons that have since shut down in Newport, Rhode Island, Hartford, Bridgeport and Milford, CT. Yet the true amateurs kept it all competitive. Many were very talented. The better players were all concentrated in the later games of the evening. The whole event went from 6:30 to around 11 pm. The owner, Matt DiDomizio, couldn’t have been more helpful. He also was a former pro from Hartford.

Al Almada appears happy to be the oldest jai alai player in CT...or maybe the entire country!

Most guys (no women) are in their 40’s and 50’s, the youngest (Matt’s son) is 26, while the oldest is a month shy of 84! This senior, Al Almada, sat next to me (after he’d come in 2nd and 3rd in his two games of the night) and was very informative. He started jai alai when he was 55 (1982) and even co-founded another amateur jai alai fronton after the Hartford space closed in 1995. Although a professional court is around 180 feet long, 50 feet wide and 45 feet high, the space Al helped open was only 21 feet high. It seems to me you had to be pretty accurate to not hit the ceiling in that one. The bigger space (28 feet high) in Berlin last night has only been open since May 2010, so it’s a welcome addition to all the enthusiasts in the region. I also met the second oldest player, Jacques Berberian, age 66, who began jai alai 27 years ago. Both men were very energetic and looked like they were in great shape.

I am looking forward to the next time I go there to practice, though I am a long way from playing a game. In tennis earlier, I did play games…some of the best ever, though my morning team lost two out of three sets…to opponents who included an 84 year old. What a coincidence! I love meeting these elder skilled players who inspire us all to keep playing and competing. We know they are the very rare exceptions, But I will strive to be one of them. The thrill of a successful placement or return is just too exhilarating to not want to keep at it.

Incidentally you can watch live action at the CT amateur facility (go to Live Feed) or even at the professional fronton at Dania Miami (http://www.betdania.com/liveflash.htm). But you have to look up when the games are on. Of course it’s never the same as being in the stands and feeling the crowd energy or seeing up close the disappointing grimaces a player makes when he’s missed a shot. There is also the anxiety of a possible injury, such as when a ball bounced off the floor and hit someone in the cheek last night. It’s definitely a dangerous sport, and sometimes players have died from colliding with a ball, especially before helmets were required. Al told me that in Mexico the pros DON’T wear helmets to show how macho they are. Not me. Maybe even a face mask will be part of my outfit, when I start competing.