ROJO O AZUL
How I found myself outside of a small town somewhere in the middle of Mexico in 1965 (when I should have been in school in Brooklyn) is another story that maybe someday I’ll write about here but in any event there I was and as I walked down a dirt road looking to find something to eat I soon heard what sounded like a crowd cheering occasionally somewhere off in the distance. I followed the sound until I came upon a plain building, no ‘neon’ lights (or lights of any kind), just a big painted sign: FRONTON. I walked in and found myself in a small hall with what looked like ‘teller’ or ‘betting’ windows lining one wall but the room was completely empty. All the sound was coming from behind a curtain at the far end of that hall, and as I parted the curtain, there it was..a jai alai court in full action.
It was the smallest fronton I had ever seen. I mean the actual jai alai court was full-size but the audience was small and sat in wooden tiered bleachers just 6 or 7 rows deep. There were maybe a couple of hundred people there. There were no ‘pari-mutual’ boards; no electronics at all. I took a seat and tried to figure out what was going on because walking back and forth in front of the bleachers were several men in either blue or red shirts yelling out things, all in Spanish of course, and throwing blue or red colored tennis balls to various people in the audience, who then threw them back at them. These balls were flying everywhere. And fast. It was one hell of a show.
I sat and watched. I finally figured out what was happening at the end of the first full game when the men from the front left the arena to man their ‘payout’ windows at the room outside. These men were taking bets. Before every point they would call out the odds they personally would offer (the players wore either red or blue shirts too). If you accepted his odds you signaled that particular guy, yelled out how many pesos you wanted to bet, he initialed a little slip of paper receipt, put it into his same colored tennis ball that had a big slit in it and threw it to you. You caught the ball, took out the slip, put your cash in the ball and threw it back to him. When the full game was over, the men went to their windows in that outside hall and if you had won on any of your bets, you handed him the slip and he paid you off. The important thing to know was that these balls were flying fast because many people needed to get their bets in because betting ended when the players started each point, and would resume as soon as one or the other players won that point, of course now with new odds as the score had changed. Each bet taker had multiple balls in ‘play’ and seemed to be throwing, catching and writing those slips simultaneously and effortlessly.
It was an incredible spectacle with just as much action happening in the stands as on the court.
Once I got the hang of it I bet too. I had no idea what the odds were that they were yelling so all I had to do was yell ‘rojo’ or ‘azul’ and hold up my pesos and a ball came flying in my direction. My biggest fear was dropping the ball thrown to me because NOBODY did that and it would screw up everything as the ball would roll down under the tiered seats. But I didn’t miss one catch and even won a couple of pesos for the night. Sweet.