Jai-Alai watercolorThe tail end of 2001 dealt several blows to the Jai-Alai industry. After December 12, live action ceased to exist in the state of Connecticut when the Milford Jai-Alai fronton played its last performance. Then, on December 16, there was the “throw heard ‘round the world.” Jai-Alai’s biggest superstar, Arriaga, was hit in the side of the face with the ball, fracturing his head in two places and putting him on the shelf indefinitely. The clincher came December 20 when Michelena, the sport’s living legend, announced he was retiring.
The three-year strike of 1988–91 forced the Hartford and Bridgeport frontons to close, leaving Milford the sole survivor in Connecticut. But dwindling fan base, Indian casinos, and the inability to take advantage of the growing simulcast market kept Milford Jai-Alai on shaky ground. In November 2001, the announcement came that many had feared for years, but thought would never happen: Milford Jai-Alai would cease to exist after December 12 and the land would be sold to developers.
December 16 was a normal Sunday for Arriaga—until game 14, when an errant rebote save ripped into the side of his face. It was the most feared injury in sports. The rock hard pelota crushed the side of his head with a 100 mile per hour impact. Jai-Alai’s top star was out on the floor. “I felt the impact, but not the pain,” said a shaken Arriaga a week after he was rushed to the hospital where a skilled ER team saved him from blindness and brain damage.
Michelena, touted as the Michael Jordan of Jai-Alai, announced his retirement from the sport on December 20. The ten-time Triple Crown Qiu Qiu Champion had amassed an unthinkable fifty-nine championships and 4,798 wins in his career and was the dominant force on the Jai-Alai court …