By Gregory B. Hladky
2:15 PM CST, January 22, 2013
It's been more than a decade since a cesta was swung with professional skill in this state. More than a decade since tens of thousands of cheering Connecticut fans last watched a pelota hurtle along at 180 mph and wagered millions of dollars on the game Basques called the "merry festival."
Jai alai. It was Connecticut's entry point into big-time legalized gambling, a source of political corruption and stories of mob influence, and a form of pre-casino entertainment so popular that it caused weekend backups on major highways.
Matt Didomizio now dreams extraordinarily unlikely dreams of reviving professional jai alai in Connecticut. He insists the very same institutions responsible for the game's demise would be the perfect venues to raise it up from the grave.
"Wouldn't it be ironic," he asks, "if casinos – which ultimately killed jai alai here – brought jai alai back to life?"
There are those who consider his dream a joke.
"Jai alai – that's hilarious" laughs Pete Smith, the last president of the Connecticut Parimutuel Association, a group that represented this state's four jai alai frontons, a group that bit the dust in 1995. "I don't see how you could make jai alai financially viable… In today's world, the proliferation of casinos would really prevent a new jai alai operation from happening."
Didomizio doesn't really look much like Don Quixote. And he says he's not into jousting with windmills.
He's a 48-year-old mailman from Cromwell who played jai alai professionally for a couple of years back in the day. He loves what's been called the "fastest game in the world" so much that not long ago he took out a $150,000 second mortgage on his home to create his own amateur fronton in Berlin.
"In my opinion, with what I've experienced here in the last few years, there are a lot of people missing it a lot," Didomizio explains. His amateur operation has been so successful that he's already made most of his investment back, according to Didomizio.
His idea is that one or both of Connecticut's Native American casinos could and should bring the professional sport back. "What was old is new again," he argues. "It was huge 20 years ago."
There's no dispute about that. Between 1976, when frontons in Bridgeport and Hartford first opened, and 2001, when the last one in Milford shut down, hundreds of thousands of fans wagered hundreds of millions of dollars on jai alai.
In some ways, it was a weird fit for this Land of Steady Habits.
The game was created in the Basque region of Spain in the 1800s and was originally played against the wall of churches and cathedrals. Players use a "cesta" or basket attached to their hand to hurl a "pelota" (a rock-hard ball) at speeds in excess of 180 mph. Some enthusiasts described the game as "ballet with bullets."
In its U.S. heyday in the 1980s, it was a popular alternative to horse and dog racing for parimutuel gamblers.
At its peak in 1986, Connecticut fronton patrons wagered more than $86 million at Hartford Jai Alai; $90.6 million at Bridgeport Jai Alai; and $64.8 million in Milford.
Smith recalls how, on Friday and Saturday nights, the state police would have to deal with traffic backups on I-95 at the exits for the Milford fronton.
All that gambling money brought with it allegations of political corruption and mob infiltration.
Even before the first fronton opened in Hartford, one of its owners told authorities he'd given $200,000 in cash to Connecticut's famed Democratic political boss John M. Bailey to get the project expedited. Bailey had died a few months earlier and his supporters denied the claim, insisting there was no evidence. (Bailey was also a former national Democratic chairman and one of the key operatives given credit for electing John F. Kennedy president.)
There were investigations into game-rigging, players being bribed, and suspicions that mob-connected figures were attempting to buy into Connecticut's jai alai industry.
Didomizio correctly points out that "anything can be fixed," noting that virtually every sport involved with gambling has had its share of scandal. "There were a few bad apples," he says of those early jai alai troubles. "They got caught pretty quickly."
"That's just an excuse not to have jai alai here again," Didomizio says in shrugging off questions about those scandals.
It wasn't scandal that killed jai alai here; it was the casinos.
After the Mashantucket's opened their Foxwoods Resort in 1992, gambling plunged at the frontons. Hartford and Bridgeport Jai Alai played their last games in 1995. Milford Jai Alai staggered along until 2001 when it finally closed.
"Jai alai was a very popular and dynamic industry when parimutuel gambling was introduced in Connecticut," says Smith, because there weren't many other legal ways to gamble. But as soon as the casinos opened (Mohegan Sun was launched in 1996), he adds, "All of those discretionary gambling dollars went to the casinos."
"People wanted that quick fix," agrees Didomizio. "They want to put their money down and find out if they are winners."
Six pro frontons are still operating today in Florida. Didomizio and his family went down to Orlando recently to watch the professional "Citrus Tournament," an annual Florida event that draws thousands of spectators.
"There are hundreds of Connecticut people who fly down here every year for the tournament," he says. "I bet 20 percent of the audience down here for the tournament is from Connecticut."
It's that sort of loyal jai alai fan base that Didomizio is counting on when he argues that reviving the professional sport here is no pipe dream.
Didomizio has written letters arguing his case for a jai alai revival to officials at the Mashantucket Pequots' casino in Ledyard. He's written letters to the dudes running the Mohegan Sun. And it's clear he knows he's got a tough case to sell.
"Before you discard this idea as ludicrous," he wrote in one letter to the casinos, "please read on."
Didomizio knows both Connecticut casinos are hurting right now. Slot revenues continue to drop month by month. In Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island, new casinos or slot parlors have either already opened up for business or will soon.
He contends that jai alai could play into the plans at both casinos to make their venues special and unique, offering entertainment experiences that gamblers and patrons can't get elsewhere.
"In six months to a year's time, you could recoup all of your investment," Didomizio says in his last letter.
Smith and others with experience in the gaming industry aren't nearly as optimistic. Smith points out that, in addition to building a big fronton court and theater to seat 2,500-3,000 people, a casino would have to pay rosters of professional players. "Those are some pretty significant costs," he says.
Any plan to make that sort of investment in attempting to revive a long-gone gambling sport would be a big gamble for casinos that are already deep in debt and watching their revenues slip-slid away. "If you're not getting the wagers, there's not going to be enough money to pay the bills," Smith points out.
No one at either of the casinos would comment on the idea of reviving jai alai. Officials for both tribal operations say they've never even heard of Didomizio or his proposals.
Didomizio remains undeterred.
"For me, I want to see it come back because I love it so much," he says. "I think it's too great a sport to just have it go away like that."