New Haven Register (New Haven, CT)

Fun at the fronton

Connecticu­t Amateur Jai Alai a haven for players

- By Dan Nowak

BERLIN — For years Matt DiDomizio of Cromwell, a former profession­al jai alai player at the now-defunct Hartford Jai Alai, dreamed about building his own amateur jai alai fronton where people could learn how to play the game and experience­d players could come and have some fun playing jai alai in a nongamblin­g atmosphere.

In 2010, despite family and friends advising him not to take the chance, DiDomizio decided to take a leap of faith. He mortgaged his house and invested $150,000 to build the fronton with his own local version of a “build it and they will come” scenario.

“To be honest, I was extremely nervous at the time,” DiDomizio said. “Everyone told me not to do it and I thought I could be building this thing just for myself, no one would come and then I’d have to tear it down. But I was driven to do it. Although the three (gambling) frontons in Connecticu­t had all closed by 2001, people still knew the game.

“There were many experience­d former profession­als like me and amateurs out there who would find a spot in their community where they could throw the ball against a brick building or some structure and play. I knew if I built an exceptiona­l fronton that had an exceptiona­l

playing surface, maintained it on a regular basis, it would be attractive to players. Build a really great fronton and I was convinced players from around the state would come.”

They came to play when the fronton opened May 1, 2010 and they are still coming today. But to DiDomizio’s surprise, while most players who come live in Connecticu­t, word of the fronton opening spread through media coverage and social media. That exposure helped draw people from throughout the Northeast and around the country.

There are no leagues. Most players come on a specific day that is convenient for them and everyone who shows up set up singles and doubles games among themselves.

“This place is fantastic,” said Milford resident Bob Savarese, a 73-year-old amateur who plays on Wednesday nights from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., and a building contractor by day.

“Most of the guys I play with on Wednesday are 50-70 years old from Milford, East Haven, Stratford and Trumbull. We love it. We’re mostly amateurs but you also get to play against former profession­als and that makes it exciting, especially if you can stay competitiv­e with them or even beat them.

“I first learned about the game when I went to gamble on it at Bridgeport JaiAlai. I started learning how to play and I fell in love with the sport with all the fast action involved with it. The bottom line is it’s a good workout, you get to shoot the breeze with friends and most of all you have fun. There aren’t many places where you can do that for $20 these days.”

This year marks the 20th anniversar­y of the last fronton that closed in Connecticu­t where you could gamble on the sport. Milford Jai-Alai closed in 2001 and Hartford Jai-Alai and Bridgeport Jai-Alai closed in 1995. Bridgeport Jai-Alai actually closed that year to change its product and operated a dog racing track for pari-mutuel wagering.

While a profession­al fronton is 176 feet long, DiDomizio did intense research for months before starting constructi­on of the fronton to find the best materials and design to use. He came up with his own design to make his fronton 112 feet long to accommodat­e the amateur aspect of the facility with an extremely smooth playing surface that always gives the ball a true bounce.

DiDomizio charges $20 per person to play for anyone who shows up at his fronton, whether you are a former profession­al or amateur. Many of the players who show up love the facility so much they end up giving DiDomizio more than $20 to help him offset operating costs.

“The day we opened we had 90 people lined up outside our door to play jai alai,” DiDomizio said.

“That number was steady for a while despite some players moving out of Connecticu­t. The pandemic did kill us a bit and numbers dropped to about 40 a week. We are back up to about 50-60 now.”

Players have come from as far away as the state of Washington to play. Two players who come from out of state every Saturday are 51-year-old Tim Suitum of North Oxford, Mass. and 72-year-old Barry Leavelle of Roselle, N.J.

“I was first introduced to jai alai when I went to college in Florida and saw it played down there,” Suitum said. “I learned how to play and I fell in love with it. It gives you a chance to get some exercise with its physicalit­y and the competitio­n you face.

“I first learned about Matt’s fronton when I was surfing the Internet looking for a jai alai based screensave­r. In the process I found Matt’s website. I’ve been coming here for seven years now. The guys are great, competitio­n is great and it’s just a lot of fun being here.”

Leavelle said despite the long trip to the fronton it makes him feel young when he gets there to play.

“I started playing when I was 36 and I’ve been to the amateur fronton in Miami,” Leavelle said. “But Matt’s fronton is great. The balls have a true bounce here and Matt’s focus and research to find the right materials to build it make it an exceptiona­l fronton to play on and compete.”

Matt LaRusso, 46, of Milford and Anthony Guerrin, 50, of Southbury try to get to the fronton every Saturday.

“I learned about the game and how to play when I lived in Florida,” Guerrin said. “When I came up here to live four years ago I found out about Matt’s fronton and started coming here. At first my expectatio­ns weren’t high because I didn’t know the court or any of the guys here. But these guys who play here all take you under their wing and make you feel right at home.

They give you pointers and help you.

“I have to drive a long way to get here but it’s worth the time and effort. Different guys play at different levels but it’s like one big happy family here. This place is more than just the jai alai that is played, there is a camaraderi­e that goes beyond the sport aspect.”

LaRusso learned about the sport and how to play when he worked at Milford Jai-Alai as a camera man filming games during a performanc­e.

“There are a lot of unique things about this place that make it a special place to come and play,” LaRusso said. “There are A players, the former profession­als, and the B players, amateurs, and we all play each other depending on who shows up on any given day. I try to get here 2-3 days a week and spend about two hours playing when I’m here.

“It’s really not about winning or losing when you play. You just want to make it as competitiv­e as possible and have a good playing session. There is no bigger thrill than making a great play on a ball that comes at you over 100 miles an hour.”

Regulars who play at Connecticu­t Amateur JaiAla have played in tournament­s. Nine players, including DiDomizio and LaRusso, have left for Miami, Fla. to represent Connecticu­t Amateur Jai-Alai in the United States National Jai-Alai Championsh­ip tournament at the Magic City Casino Jai-Alai fronton from Friday-Sunday. DiDomizio said Connecticu­t Amateur Jai-Alai will host its own tournament from Dec. 3-5 open to anyone with jai alai playing experience.

With the fees he charges, DiDomizio has made back about two-thirds of his original investment. These days, the fees he takes in pays for the daily operating costs.

“I never intended this to be a big money-making venture,” DiDomizio said. “If I can keep breaking even with operating costs, that’s good enough for me. I love the people who come here, we have a lot of fun and I love to play. As things have improved with COVID-19, we are starting to get a few more people show up each week to play.”

DiDomizio offers lessons to those who want to learn to play and has a smaller practice fronton court next to his main fronton. Located on 500 Four Rod Road in Berlin, the facility is closed on Monday and Friday, open during the week at 6:30 p.m. and on Saturday and Sunday at 9:30 a.m.

 ?? Brian A. Pounds / Hearst Connecticu­t Media ?? Jai Alai players from across the state get together to play the sport at Connecticu­t Amateur Jai Alai in Berlin on Aug. 18.
Brian A. Pounds / Hearst Connecticu­t Media Jai Alai players from across the state get together to play the sport at Connecticu­t Amateur Jai Alai in Berlin on Aug. 18.
 ?? Brian A. Pounds / Hearst Connecticu­t Media ?? Matt DiDomizio, owner of Connecticu­t Amateur Jai Aai in Berlin.
Brian A. Pounds / Hearst Connecticu­t Media Matt DiDomizio, owner of Connecticu­t Amateur Jai Aai in Berlin.

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