FORT PIERCE – The Spanish game of Jai Alai has been played in South Florida for almost 100 years with ups and downs in popularity. During its peak in the 1980s, the television show Miami Vice included it in the opening credit montage; wedged in between palm trees, beaches, pink flamingos and, of course, aqua blue jackets with shoulder pads.
Nicknamed the world’s fastest sport, it hasn’t died quickly. The remnants of this game has returned to make a brief, monthly appearance in Fort Pierce from June 1-28.
Jai Alai has devolved into a modern sports version of a speakeasy game. No large crowds, promotions or ads have appeared locally.
Last year, after months of failed attempts to gather information by calling Fort Pierce Casino and Jai Alai, I was finally able to watch this sport live in Fort Pierce. It was worth the extra effort.
The National Anthem is played in a mostly abandoned arena, or fronton, as the players walked out onto the court. During the anthem, a couple of dangling ceiling tiles fought gravity above empty seats. None of the large bars or concession stands are open in the fronton, which makes sense considering the audience at the matinee consisted of a half dozen people and a few friends who joined me.
The once glamorous and spacious fronton currently seems like a hideout for survivors in "The Walking Dead" television series. We eventually discovered beverages were available in the upstairs Casio, which added more fun to the endeavor.
Attendees can place bets on the players to win or place. The game is played by serving a pelota, which is a very hard ball, in-bounds on a three wall court. The ball is thrown using a cesta; a curved combination of basket and glove which moves dangerously fast. The pelota has been recorded at traveling 188mph.
The object is to catch and return the serve in-bounds but placed in a spot that makes it hard to return, much like racquetball. The players take turns both competing and announcing the games on the microphone. They stay busy multitasking to keep this sport alive.
The players have answered a lesser known philosophical question: If a Jai Alai game is played in an empty fronton, does it make a sound?
Yes, it certainly does.
The loud, authoritative crack of the pelota echos along with players grunts of determination and frustration. My small but enthusiastic group also added some echoes with cheers and jeers to a game we figured out on-the-fly. We randomly bet on and rooted for players named Gallo and Frank while booing their opponent Toto.
Past knowledge of the game wasn't necessary as the serve and return routine was easy to follow. It was easy to see why this sport was popular in previous decades.
Currently, admission is free and the game is captivating. The beverages are reasonably priced. So where is everybody? Its historic downfall, as shown by a quick Google search, seems to be intertwined with stories of injured players, a mob hit of a former Jai Alai owner and a long players strike. Florida gambling legislation over the last couple decades have also complicate matters.
Unfortunately, opening day this year only had six people attending in a fronton that holds over a thousand. One of the six seemed to have found a quiet place to get some laptop computer work done, seldom looking up at the game.
Fort Pierce Casino and Jai Alai has recently become just Casino Fort Pierce. The giant Jai Alai player statue was also removed this year. The Casino Fort Pierce website consistently promotes live poker, table games and even cold drinks, but no mention of Jai Alai appeared until the schedule popped up this week. The number of players has dropped last year from eight to five. Returning players from last year include Gallo and Frank again as well as Kolt, Arresti, the versatile referee/player Robin and a player named Baba.
Spectators will share an enjoyable time and discover the sportsmanship of these remaining players and their efforts to bring back a uniquely exciting and nostalgic Florida sport.
Jai Alai matches are played Thursday through Monday at noon and 2 p.m. until June 28 with plenty of seats available. Fort Pierce Casino is located at 1750 S. Kings Highway in Fort Pierce.
For more information and schedule, call (772) 464-7500 or visit https://www.casinofortpierce.com/