You're looking at a one-of-a-kind outdoor Jai Alai cancha. Built in 2008 in St. Pete's Puryear Park, its the *only amatuer facility we know of... designed to keep the once-regarded-as-the-fastest-ball-game-on-earth alive after the luxurious frontons -- like the one on S. Dale Mabry -- closed back in the 1990s.
"It's kinda the rules like racquetball," said Scott King, a one-time Jai Alai pro
, "except you have a foul zone above about tennis height."
He went on to explain the world-record claim: "So the ball goes -- it in the Guiness Book of World Records -- at about 188 miles per hour. A lot of people dispute it. But 100 miles per hour is an easy thing to achieve. Even myself can do that."
King -- a one-time pro who played at the old Tampa Jai Alai in the 1980s and 90s is one of the dozen or so die-hards working tirelessly to keep their play alive on this hand-hewed, cobbled-together complex of handball courts. His co-horts, including our chief photographer Eric Moore converge here almost every weekend to play this sport ... or in our case, try to.
"It's a hard game to pick up," he explained. "It takes years and years of practice. Some people pick it up a little bit quicker than others. Actually -- in the beginning -- yoy'll find out that women tend to pick it up a little easier than men do."
"Like most things!" interjected Ashley,,,
In all seriousness, the catching and throwing of the hard pelota with the cestas (these woven baskets) is hard for almost anyone who's never done it... This imported basket-ball from the Basque Region of Spain is truly like nothing we're used to here in America.
"Baseball is kind ingrained in a lot of people's throwing motion," said Scott. "And its a completely different motion."
A motion we had a hard-time mastering...
"John hit the front wall, so he should go ahead and sign a contract," offered Scott -- as we assesed our efforts. "What's that pay?" we asked.
"Not much," said . It''s fun though."
Fun. But ultimately frustrating for me -- even with my remedial help from another former pro, Jose Goitia:
"If that was the front wall... he did alright," opined Scott. "But that's not the front wall," I clarified.
Finally, our hopes rested in Ashley's cesta, but that girls picking it up faster bit... Um, not so much.
"I thought she had pretty good footwork," said John, offering some support. "She had good footwork -- always," agreed Scott. "Again, the side wall was her friend."
Friendly and helpful, all the guys out here are passionate about seeing the sport survive, and share their love of the game with ANYONE who's interested... But if you go -- and try it, just remember -- you WILL be humbled!