First, some basics. The ball is called a “pilota.” It’s made from rubber and goatskin and is hard as a rock.
The arena is called a “fronton,” and it is 176 feet long, 45 feet wide, and has three walls. And the other implement: now that’s what makes jai-alai so exciting. Each “pelotari” wears on one hand a handwoven cane sling called a “cesta” that can accelerate that pilota to up to 180 miles per hour.
Jai-alai is an astonishingly quick game, especially when they play doubles and the pelotari add momentum to a pilota off the back wall or dig out a low bounce and flick it back up at the wall with the grace of a ballet dancer. Oh, and you’re gambling on it, parimutuel-style, as if the men—many of them of Basque origin, where the game originates—were racehorses. Number three to win. Trifecta box. Long odds. It doesn’t help that you can only know them by number, though the handful of hardcore regulars at a weekend matinee know their names and call them out in expletive-filled bursts when a save goes wrong or there’s an unforced error. But watch a few matches and then head out to the inscrutable betting machines to drop a few bucks on someone with middling odds and see if that pivotal point in the round-robin doesn’t make you clench up just a little bit—or whether you feel the need to throw those betting slips down in disgust after another fruitless game.
Jai-alai is still popular in some parts of the world—Latin America and the Philippines—but its heyday in the United States (in Florida and the Northeast in particular), when this fronton rocked with 15,000 screaming fans, are long gone. Today it is a bit of a charity case, by fiat, because the rules on casinos are relaxed when they’re attached to a facility that offers parimutuel betting. So it is worth letting the exciting husk of Miami Jai-Alai go on to support the tacky red casino that was bolted onto the side of it in recent years.
There is another fronton, dating to the 1950s, serving a similar function in another casino near Fort Lauderdale, and there are a couple more in Florida that open seasonally. But none of them stack up to Miami Jai-Alai for its history and air of benign neglect. The pilota will keep flying, the covers of the seats in the second tier will keep disintegrating, and the hearty few will join the club of people who simply can’t visit Miami without a stop by this stately, entertaining, ruined temple to the fastest game in the world.
Know Before You Go
As of this writing, the fronton is open for 12 p.m. matinees every day except Tuesday (1 p.m. on Sundays), and a Saturday evening game.