The last of the Filipino Pelotaris

October 21, 2009
I was the only screaming fan in the bleacher on the bleachers: Go Manooooong!
I was the only screaming fan on the bleachers: "Go Manooooong!"

I love watching these senior guys go at it. The ancient Basque sport is still played occasionally at the back of Instituto Cervantes in Manila, where a parking space doubles as their fronton. Jai Alai is alive, at least in the hearts of these old timers. “kakaunte na lang siguro ang nakakapaglaro nito” say one aficionado. Donning the  sports traditional colored shirts, they hurled and returned the pelota (the fastest ball on earth) using their cesta, made of swooping wicker, strapped on their arms.

A legal ruling by the supreme court killed the sport of Basque pelota, declaring that it was “against the national interest” and that it can only be “franchised by the government”, with this, chances of reviving it played in the professional level are nil. Aside from the fellas I met in Kalaw, there is also an amateur group somewhere in Quezon City. But without the professional association and its tournaments, it will continue to wallow in obscurity.

The betting was the sports main draw, it was our alternative to horse racing and the sabong. The foreign players were called “Kastila” but they’re not, they are Basques (I’m sure they did not appreciate being called Kastila by the locals). My Father’s favorite was a pelotari named Greco, he even named a dog after the guy. I remember seeing the game  in the opening credits of Miami Vice, its still is a very popular spectator sport in Hispanic countries.

Jai alai at the sky dome (a wonderful art deco building demolished by Mayor Atienza) starts every afternoon, 14 games are played with 20 minute breaks in between. Just like in any Filipino gambling sports, viewers are loud often appearing unruly. My Father usually brings his eldest at the fronton (and also in San Lazaro my brother confess). In 1986, the games was stopped because of a game fixing scandal. There were several attempts to revive it but all failed because the government wants it stopped. Obviously, not enough money was going their way.

I was reminded of this sport when I read in the news that a group calling themselves Manila Bay Tourism & Jai Alai Corporation is seeking for the reinstatement of the centuries old sport in the country. I’m not really sure why its being opposed in the first place; if we have casinos, horse racing and sabongan – what on earth are all these people complaining about? If this new group is serious in making this happen, I say, let’s start throwing more money at it, shut these people up and lets play ball!

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  1. I was able to watch jai-alai also there! one time when we had bible study there in cervantes, i think it is also called casino espanyol de manila as what the players call it. Try watching the game again, cause what i saw where not old timers, but mid 20’s guys pumping it out. Maybe they got young players? DAMN those balls are fast.

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