Monday, March 22, 2010

20 questions with Jai Alai Player David Stark, by Pelota Políte

David Stark. Who is he? A teller - a parimutuels clerk - for Orlando Jai-Alai and Race Book? Yes. He has probably taken your bet. But who is he REALLY? He is a man who represents the American Dream. Stark is a man who stood before a Goliath and defeated him. He's jai alai through and through.

20 Questions with Jai Alai Player David Stark

PELOTA POLÍTE: Mr. Stark, for both fans and non-jai-alai fans alike, you have a valuable perspective. You were both a world-class jai alai player, a long-time Orlando Jai-Alai employee and an insider into the sport of jai alai in general. We value your perspective and thank you for appearing in Jai Alai Manners.

QUESTION 1: This year there is a new owner of Orlando Jai-Alai and Race Book. Last year was supposed to be the last year for Orlando jai alai. Somebody bought the place. Who are they? Why all the mystery as to their identity?

STARK: "I don't know. I don't know what the reasons are for this secretiveness. Bottom line, whoever it is, they must have a vision of being able to get cards in this building. There isn't a jai alai facility in the State of Florida that will make money without a POKER ROOM in it. For me, it has to be a person either connected enough or a person with vision and knowledge that these laws will change within the near future. Otherwise it makes no sense."

QUESTION 2: What name did you use when you played jai alai? Who are some interesting players you've played against?

STARK: "'David.' Some interesting players? Bolivar was probably the best player I played against, the best player of our generation, quite arguably one of the best front court players ever. He played in West Palm Beach. "Bolivar" was a province in the Basque country. So he didn't use his real name. He used "Bolivar." Other players will shorten their name or use only part of it. Their last names. Their first names. Like "Larru" he plays here (Orlando). His name is Michael. I call him "Mikel." He always knows when it's me on the phone because I call him "Mikel." There's Joey Cornblitt, who was by far, hands down, the best American jai alai player to ever play, just like an artist painting a picture out there. He was fantastic. I played against Alorzo, who was probably the best back-courter of that era. God, I've played against Armao and Javier and Juaristi and Acha and Saballa. I mean I've played against some pretty talented people out there. My career wasn't as long as I would have liked it, but I look back on it and I was really blessed. It was an honor just being able to play against those guys."

QUESTION 3: Where did you play professional jai alai? How did you first become interested in playing this fascinating game?

STARK: "The first time I ever put a basket on my hand, I was 15 years old in Milford, Connecticut. I lived in an apartment complex with a bunch of players. I befriended them from down at the swimming pool, tennis courts and what have you. One of them gave me a basket. At that time in Connecticut, you were allowed to go to jai alai as long as you went with your parents. And my dad took me to jai alai, and the game just absolutely fascinated me. I lived in York and then moved to Connecticut, and there's a Jai Alai court in both Milford and Bridgeport. And in the apartment complex I lived in, the jai alai players would live there for the summer, and when they went to Dania (Daytona Beach) the guys from Bridgeport guys came and rented the apartments for the other half of the year. I mostly played baseball and basketball when I was young. The football players used to make fun of me, calling me "wimp" because I didn't want to play anymore. I mean, NOBODY played in my high school. But the first time I put that basket on my hand, it was just so different than any other game I had ever played. I was growing and getting good at the game. There was me, Bob Rasmussen and Ed St. John. Three guys in Milford Jai Alai - 3 guys in the entire school. Two of them winded up playing pro and Ed St. John was terrible. Bob Rasmussen, whom I lived with when I first moved to Florida, turned pro and then me. I went to the Bridgeport Jai Alai School when I was 15 for one summer. I kind of got to the point where I felt that I could do this. My parents divorced when I was young. I was living with my stepdad and mom. I went to them and asked them if I could move to Florida to player, and of course both my parents were like, "Your 15 years old, you're not going anywhere." Well, the player's manager from Bridgeport Jai Alai went to my home and told my parents, "If you let him go, there is no doubt in my mind that he will play. He is a very talented young man." I moved to Florida in February of 1979. I think I was the youngest American at that point to turn pro. I was 16 years old when I turned pro in Melbourne, Florida, and I played the Melbourne/Daytona circuit, which was like 5 months at one place, 6 months in the other and took about a month's vacation during the year. And I played 5 years there, and then moved to play in Dania Jai Alai for 2 years. And then the strike started (1987). And then I played in Tijuana, Mexico instead of crossing the picket line. I played to 1990. I played in the National Tournament when I was in Daytona, which enabled me to go and play in Dania. While I was playing in Dania, I winded up going back to play also in Milford where I lived when I was a kid. It was very funny. All the people who used to make fun of me for playing jai alai - and here I was a professional player out in the spotlight every evening - and they were bagging groceries or out of work, so it was pretty cool."

QUESTION 4: What's your favorite memory of playing the game?

STARK: "No doubt about it, the night I stopped Bolivar's win streak in the National Tournament. This was 1984. For the Tournament, I played here at Orlando Jai Alai professionally representing Daytona. For Florida there was Daytona, Orlando, Tampa, West Palm Beach, Miami and Dania. Each one sent their best players. Enrique II and I played the first night here in Orlando and Bolivar won the game. We played the second night in West Palm Beach and Bolivar won the game. We played the third night in Tampa and Bolivar won the game. Fourth night in Miami, he won. And then the fifth round in Dania, Enrique II and I actually stopped his WIN streak. It was just unbelievable. I couldn't believe that I went from this being this kid from Brooklyn, New York, Brighton Beach, who only 6 years after I put on a basket, I won a game against the best jai alai players in the world. After I won the game and walked into the player's cage, the first person standing there to shake my hand was him. And he looked at me and shook his head and said, 'Si, señor.' It's a game I will never, ever forget. It was a great time in my life."

QUESTION 5: What skills are necessary to becoming a good jai alai player?

STARK: "You must have hand-eye coordination, that is the biggest thing. All great players of any sport have vision. Good vision is very important. Jai alai is a very simple game. You throw the ball to the back of the court and you move up to the front of the court. The closer you catch the ball to the front wall, the better your angle is. Jai alai is a game of angles. It's really not a game of strength. Not a game of power. If you have power and catching ability, it helps, but the basics of the game is angles. If you catch the ball in the front of the court at the 5-LINE, you now control the ball to the INSIDE, you can throw CARON shots. If the opposing BACKCOURTER moves up, you can throw it over his head. Where as if you don't catch the ball at the 5-LINE, and catch it back at the 10 or 11-LINE, how do you play the POINT from there? Your angle is not as good. I was a very cerbral player. I wasn't blessed with a lot of power. I didn't throw the ball very hard, but I caught everything. I had a good REBOTE (when it comes off the back wall). I had a lot of HEART when I played. You have to know who your opponent is. It's why football, baseball and basketball teams scout. You need to know the tendencies of your opponent. It's like any sport. I bet you Kobe Bryant knows where every Magic player is when he's on the court."

QUESTION 6: When did you know you had the right PELOTAS, so to speak, to play with world-class players?

STARK: "The Bridgeport Player's Manager wouldn't have shown the interest if I hadn't had some God-given ability. I went to the Bridgeport School one summer, but North Miami offered a year-round school. So after I moved, I worked and played at the amateur jai alai fronton in North Miami for about a year and a half. My teacher's name was APARICIO. He was a player from the Basque country in Spain. At the N. Miami amateur jai alai FRONTON, I sewed balls and repaired baskets and punched people on and off the clock to play in free time. I used to lock the door at midnight. Or sometimes the owner would come by at 3 in the morning and go, "David, it's 3 a.m., you gotta go home buddy." Jai alai is all about practicing and learning and having that desire to be the best. I then played at the Melbourne and Daytona FRONTONS, which is like Triple A baseball compared to a Major League jai alai like Dania, Bridgeport, Miami or Tampa. I progressed enough and I started and played only one season in the early games and moved to the middle and late games, then played nothing but late games."

QUESTION 7: Tell us about your EQUIPMENT. You know, like the HELMET, CESTA, PELOTAS, SHOES and your PANTS. Where do you get this stuff? JC Penney's?

STARK: "I pretty much wore REEBOCKS my entire jai alai career. So it's regular sneakers, a pair of white pants you get at a nursing school or a doctor's uniform store. They give you a red belt at the jai alai fronton. Some players gave me a couple of those too. My baskets I got from Spain. And when I turned pro, there were multiple basket makers or XISTEROS there that you could utilize. My player's manager had a good friend in Spain named Larenia. Basically, we took one of my CESTAS and we traced the outline on a piece of brown paper, we shipped it to Spain. He then made the frames and everything according to how it was on the paper and tweaked it a little bit. But every jai alai has one or two local XISTEROS, because back when I played there were 44 to 46 guys on a roster. Now here at Orlando Jai-Alai there are only 22. You may even get away with having only one XISTERO. I basket does break on a normal basis. You pop a few reeds from the ball hitting it every night. The basket has a frame and 13 individual ribs. One in the middle, and then 6 on each side. The wicker is woven in between the ribs. They used to ship over the MEMBRE - the wicker. The jai alai ball is compressed rubber wrapped with rubber thread and when it gets to the actual size and weight that it needs to be, they put some regualr nylon thread over that and then there's two layers of goat skin over that. They take a vice, a mold, a metal top and bottom - you can't have any seems on the ball - it must be flat. Because if the ball hits the wall it bounces funny. And that ball travels way too fast for anybody to want to be wanting to get hit. Why goat? Maybe they have a lot of goats in the Basque country. I don't know. But when the balls break it's the seem, not the goat skin, it's the stitching."

QUESTION 8: What advice do you give to youngsters interested in becoming a PELOTARI?

STARK: "Here Elorri runs the amateur program. You can rent a court for $30 an hour. You don't even need your own basket or your own ball or your own helmet or anything. He has everything to get you started. I mean once you get started you would definitely want to choose a basket that fits your style of throwing, because their all curved different, have deeper pockets, less of a pocket. The back court basket is larger because you have to throw a longer distance."

QUESTION 9: Would you please describe the DANGERS of jai alai? The injuries? The fans? The nachos?

STARK: "I lost my career to a back injury. I had 2 back operations. I herniated the L-5 disk and had 2 lumbar laminectomies. I was out for 6 or 7 months, went through all the physical rehab, the therapy and everything. I went back to play for 6 months, re-herniated the disk in my back, at 26, I unfortunately had to retire. I've seen players blow out their knees. But, I'll tell you something, professional jai alai is not really that dangerous. If you go out on the court with a bunch of amateurs, that's a lot more dangerous. But pretty much, everybody knows where they got to throw the ball. Sometimes, somebody may hook a return off the back wall, but usually everybody's pretty competent out there. For the amount of times that the ball hits the back wall, there are very few injuries. Even though the ball travels quite rapidly, it's safe."

QUESTION 10: What is the biggest misconception about jai-alai? What do most people ask?

STARK: "Everybody asks me if jai alai if fixed. Never - ever - in my entire jai alai career did I see it - was I approached about it. It was a non-issue. Some people have this notion that when the jai alai player changes the ball during a game, that they're going over and there's a little number written on the ball of who's supposed to win the point? OK, that's ridiculous. They change the ball because a new ball is not as LIVELY. A jai alai ball has that slickness. Once the ball hits the wall repeatedly, and that slickness goes away. And instead of hitting the wall and kind of sliding on it, it hits the wall and starts to get warm. So if you had a player that didn't have a lot of power, your opponent would want to use a new ball against you. If I was playing against somebody who used a DEAD BALL, and then I won the point, I would want to switch to a LIVELIER BALL because I wasn't a person who threw the ball very hard. So I wanted a ball that was a little bit more LIVELIER than a ball that was either new or just been used a little bit."

QUESTION 11: Can you make a living playing jai alai?

STARK: "We are paid a salary. And then are paid bonus money for every time we place first, second or third. Our livelihood is based on how good we play. Besides what our actual contract is. I was a rookie kid who was 16 year-old kid who signed a contract for $1200 and 7 years later, I was making $3000 a month with bonus money on top of that of anywhere from $400-$600. The best jai alai player in the world right now? He probably makes anywhere from $70K-$90K a year. A guy like him maybe makes $3000-$4000 salary a month and makes $30K-$40K bonus money on top of that. It beats flippin' burgers at McDonald's. Not that there's anything wrong with that. (laughs) You're getting paid to play a game that you love. I would of played jai alai for nothing. I was a jai alai player 365 days a year. You look at me and ask me what I do, I'd say I am a jai alai player. I punch tickets here now - a parimutuels clerk - because I'm retired - but I will always be a jai alai player."

QUESTION 12: Jai alai originated in the Basque region of Spain. Does it have any influence over the game now?

STARK: "There is no governing body or anything. The game originated with the Incas way back, but it's a Basque game. When I turned pro their were like 46 guys on the roster. We had like 4 Americans. Maybe 5 or 6 Mexicans. Two guys from France and the everybody else was Basque. That's why I speak fluent Spanish. Number one, I thought it was the respectful and the proper thing to do, and Number two, I didn't want anybody talking any crap about me without me knowing what they were saying. (laughs)"

QUESTION 13: Have you been to Spain? What can you tell us about this destination so filled with mystique?

STARK: "I've never been to Spain. I hate to fly. I hopefully will get there one day. Ten hours on a plane really doesn't work with me. Larru plays on our roster now, and Olabe and Churruca and they come from a city called Marquina. There are maybe 5000 people, I believe, they said are in the entire city. The jai alai court is like right down the street from your house. The court was like the playground, where you play stickball. In Spain, kids grow up playing jai alai. I remember seeing like Little League roster pictures of them when they were young playing in Marquina. Larru and Olabe went to like kindergarten together, friends since they were 5 or 6 years old."

QUESTION 14: What are some nice FRONTONS you've been to? What's the difference? A CANCHA by any other name?

STARK: "Miami Jai Alai was the Saratoga Raceway of jai alai. Miami was nostalgia. The buildings. There's 12,000 people that fit in there. It's just huge. They used to have TOTE GIRLS come to your seat and take your bet. I always thought that was a cool aspect of jai alai. I personally didn't like the WORLD JAI ALAI courts, because the net above the court was at the top of the wall. If you go out on the court here (Orlando) and look,there's no screen, there's the top of the side wall and then you have the scoreboard. In WORLD JAI ALAI, the screen is right along the top of the wall, so you couldn't hit the ball and kind of float it up in the air a little bit. Dania Jai Alai was a little bit more of a dungeon to me. The court wasn't as lively as a court like Orlando or West Palm Beach were. Dania Jai Alai had a great restaurant that overlooked the court. We have a nice restaurant here in Orlando that overlooks the court, so you can sit, watch the game, have dinner. I liked to play in Melbourne because it was a few feet shorter. And I like to play in the drier weather as opposed to summertime, because weather affects jai alai as much as anything. The basket is made of wicker. When it's drier out, the basket tends to give a little more than when it's humid. Humidity firms the basket up. There's a wet towel that would hang on the cage and there's always players going over there and rubbing their frames on it, on the inside."

QUESTION 15: What do jai alai players eat? We want to learn about the variety of PELOTARI culture.

STARK: "I like steak with a couple of over-easy eggs on them. I like the yoke dripping over them. I'm a meat and potatoes type of guy. You will have some jai alai players who eat very healthy. I want to enjoy what I eat. I love my pasta and sausage and turkey breast and chicken. I'm a Jew from Brooklyn. My parents are New Yorkers. When I go to New York I eat nothing but pizza, bagels and Chinese food. Jews in the game of jai alai? There's Joey Cornblitt - one of the best players in the game - and me and the Hersch brothers. Joey's dad, I believe, escaped from the concentration camps -either him or his grandfather. It was funny, Joey was a player with me in Dania and he always used to call me "Son of Tel Aviv" and I would call him "Son of Jerusalem." There's black jai alai players, there's white jai alai players, there's Mexicans, there's French - whatever. Bottom line is if you have GAME and you can PLAY, it doesn't matter where you're from."

QUESTION 16: They say man does not live on bread alone, often there must be a beverage. Do players like to party after games?

STARK: "The Orlando Jai-Alai players? You'll usually see them at the Green Parrot or the Orlando Ale House. In Dania, it was Chalet Ole which was owned by a couple of jai alai players. It was across the street. We'd go to The City Limits. Back in Daytona, we used to go to Big Daddy's. I got kicked out of Big Daddy's. I'd been going in there after practice and on opening day a newspaper article comes out because I was the WINS champ in Melbourne my rookie season. So the manager says, "David, that was a great article on you today." I asked if he liked it. "Yeah, now get the hell out." I said, what are you talking about? He said, "You're only 17, now get the hell out of here."

QUESTION 17: Where do you see the game of jai-alai going in the future? Does it have a future?

STARK: "It's a dying sport. There are not enough facilities open with year-round jai alai for the game to have a rebirth. God, what Jai Alai used to be compared to what jai alai is now? When I played Dania Jai Alai on a Saturday, a matinee and a night, we'd handle over a million dollars in a day. In a day! We'd do $1000, $1200, $1500 a game on weekends. We're talking a million dollars in two performances, matinee and night. There's maybe 50, 100 people in the audience now, but when I played it was 5 to 7000. When I played we'd have longer seasons, five months here, six months there. For Orlando, I think their sister property was in Quincy. So for six months, Orlando Jai Alai was the only thing in town. Then when it went to Quincy, you'd have the dog track. Now Orlando Jai-Alai only plays LIVE jai alai from February to April. Why? There's just too much stuff to bet on these days. Now you have the Lottery, Indian Casinos, poker, Simulcasting. Back when I played, you'd come in you could only bet on jai alai. You couldn't bet on horse and harness tracks in California, New York, Chicago, etc. The poker boom kinda put those last couple of nails in the coffin. You look at the world series of poker last year and everybody's between 19 and 25 years old. Every college student is online on Everybody is playing poker. And jai alai is a game that is not televised. You can't have a great player come along. Like if a "Bolivar" came along again now, he's not going to be able to do what Tiger Woods has done, where he's brought so many more people into the game of golf. I mean even here, we're only live for two months. Miami and Dania have a fair quality to their roster. And it's very hard to build a quality roster in a place like Orlando, where you're going to have world-class jai alai players, and PLEASE do not take this WRONG - whoever is on the roster right now is a PROFESSIONAL jai alai player and CAN PLAY. Please don't get me wrong. But you can't get the quality of players to come play for 7 weeks and have no where else to go.

QUESTION 18: You now work as an Orlando Jai-Alai and Race Book teller - a parimutuels clerk. Any advice for fans? Any pet peeves?

STARK: "Profanity. Yelling at the players. Also, people who do not call out there bet properly. You are supposed to come up to me at my window and say, "Orlando Jai Alai. The dollar amount of the bet first. I would like a $2 bet. Then the type of wager. Quiniela Box. And then the numbers. They come up and they say things backwards or they don't give you the racetrack. They'll come up and say, "Give me $10 to WIN on the FOUR." Which one? Jai alai? Aqua duct? The Gulf Stream. I mean there's 50 places we TAKE. For jai alai the most popular bets are for TRIFECTAS. They pay the most. Picking the proper order of the FIRST, SECOND and THIRD place. A WIN bet, you only have to pick the WINNER. A QUINIELA bet is FIRST and SECOND. You can BOX three numbers and only TWO of the three have to come in. For Race Book, if you bet every single race at every single track, you have no prayer to win. Because nobody is that good. For me, I only buy a BOOK for New York racing, Florida racing and California racing. Like Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita. You have to learn it yourself. I mean, to be semi-successful. Because if people tell you they are winning at gambling, they are LYING TO YOU. (So, it's for fun, for entertainment?) Exactly. So if you focus on one track, you will know the horses, know the track, know the jockeys, know the trainers. You know, I may look at a 10-race card and only bet 3 or 4 races a day. I think that's the smartest way to go about it."

QUESTION 19: Any more thoughts about the jai alai fans?

STARK: (Laughs) "It could definitely be a 'reality show." I work in the V.I.P. ROOM and all the guys that are in there are almost like family to me. You get Sean Britton, who comes in, in his purple pants, works for Disney, drives a bus and he's the greatest, greatest guy. One of the biggest horse racing fans I know. And Willie Bennett with that white hat and his Hummer he drives. He's a great guy."

QUESTION 20: So, who is David Stark the man? What do you like? Favorite music or movies?

STARK: "I like the '80s and '90s stuff. Bon Jovi. Elton John. Rod Stuart. Billy Joel. Favorite movie? Rain Man. I used to work with people with disabilities. That's what my mother did. I thought no one in the history of movies ever played a better part than Dustin Hoffman did. He was just so perfect. I love to laugh. Laughter is the greatest thing. Comedians and comedy. I'm always joking and laughing. There's so much crap in the world to make you feel bad or cry that it's good for us to laugh every day. I love the Mets and the Rangers and the Nicks. I love Barney Miller, All in the Family and I Love Lucy and Welcome Back, Kotter."

PELOTA POLÍTE: Thank you so much, Mr. Stark. We appreciate you. Thank you very much for your thoughtful replies and helping grow the appreciation for the game of jai alai.

Yours respectfully,
Pelota Polite

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