St. Pete Jai Alai group works to keep sport alive 50 years after Tampa Jai Alai closure

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - For almost 50 years, Tampa Jai Alai was where many players and longtime fans of the game came out before the fronton closed in 1998. However, not everyone has forgotten.

A group at the Sunshine City Jai Alai, located at Puryear City Park in St. Petersburg, is working to keep Jai Alai alive.

Eric Lanctot is a general contractor, but he becomes a Jai Alai player when the mood strikes. The group he's a part of has professional players as well as longtime fans of the game.

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"My grandfather, my dad loved Jai Alai," Lanctot said. "It was right across the Gandy Bridge at Gandy and Dale Mabry."

"It’s like racquetball, front wall, side wall, back wall," said Corky Herritt, who played hundreds of games at Tampa Jai Alai.

Tampa Jai Alai's fronton is where the ball traveled at 190 miles an hour, according to players and promoters. Among some there was a hard, lingering question.

"I’ll make it easy for you," laughed Herritt. "People want to know if it was fixed. As far as I know, the answer is no. And, none of the other players I know."

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The final night that the Tampa Jai Alai fronton was open was July 4, 1998. Now, it's largely forgotten.

There is a fronton in Dania, but Tampa and the rest of Florida’s frontons are gone. Some said the opening of the Seminole Casinos took away the gambling crowd that supported the sport. Others have different ideas about its demise.

"It’s hard to get youth involved in this," said Lanctot. "But, this is our way of trying to keep the sport alive."

So, they keep playing at Sunshine City Jail Alai, just across the bay from where thousands were entertained at the fronton.


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