4 Years of stardom: Shelton native recalls days as pro jai alai player

SHELTON — Art Botsford, born and raised in Shelton, is known about town for his years with parks and recreation and these days, with the senior center.

But Botsford was once a bona fide star — a professional athlete in what became known as the “fastest sport in the world.”

Botsford was a professional jai alai player from 1988 to 1992, mastering an incredibly fast-moving sport which required skills, athleticism and intelligence — with the added plus of allowing spectators to wager on games.

“It was the best four years of my life,” said Botsford, who, in his late 20s, early 30s, starred on the courts of both the Bridgeport and Milford frontons. “I did it for the sport. I loved playing the game … it was a unique, different game and not many people could do it.”

When Botsford signed his first professional contract in 1988, there were only 751 individuals in the United States playing professional jai alai. When a knee injury ended his career in 1992, he was among the top 20 on his 52-man squad in wins, singles and doubles combined.

The sport originated in Spain's Basque country, and requires players to use wicker baskets — called cestas — to catch and whip a ball around a three-sided court at speeds exceeding 175 miles an hour.

“I don’t brag about it,” said Botsford, a 1975 Shelton High graduate who starred in track and cross country in his high school years.

Botsford recently donated one of the cestas from his professional days to Shelton High’s athletic department archives.

"We are grateful for him thinking of us,” said Athletic Director John Niski, who watched Botsford play. “It is not too often that we have professional athletes who have graduated from Shelton High School, regardless of the sport.

“I am certain that the current students would have no idea about the sport, nor really appreciate the history of the game and the value of having one of their alumni as one of the professionals who once graced the courts of the Bridgeport and Milford frontons,” Niski said. “Art is a great guy with an interesting career in the sport.”

Jai alai was once a popular destination event in Bridgeport and Milford, with people lining outside to get into either fronton — and place their bets.

Botsford said he was always athletic — captaining the high school track team and competing in the Junior Olympics, where he earned a bronze medal with a 6-foot high jump in 1975.

The love for jai alai began while he was recovering from a hernia that forced him out of his day job at nearby Valley staple Hershey Metal Products.

A tool maker by trade, Botsford began visiting the Bridgeport fronton during his recovery and decided he was going to try his hand at the sport.

He said he began practicing during his lunch breaks at Hershey Metal Products, throwing the balls against the outside wall. He said he remembers being tossed off the Service Merchandise property by police several times for practicing against the back wall.

“I was self taught,” Botsford said.

He said the sport proved difficult to master, as “you have to be able to direct the ball where you want it to go with a 2 ½-foot cesta on your arm in the most awkward position. Your wrist has to be back and your elbow straight.”

Charlie Hernandez, an American who played at the Bridgeport fronton, also helped in his development. He had his first tryout in 1985 in Newport, R.I., another jai alai hotbed.

“I played at the amateur academy in Milford, and I went through the ranks … B, A, AA, AAA, All Stars. I kept getting trophies,” he said. “I never thought I’d be a professional, but when they came and offered me a tryout, I became determined. I said ‘Let’s give it a ride.’”

The tryout was the first step in his move to play pro, a dream that was realized in 1988 when the Bridgeport Jai Alai team offered him a pro contract, he said.

“It was incredible. I had to go to my boss (at Hershey Metal Products) — I was a foreman in three departments at the time — and tell him,” Botsford said. “How could I say no? They were paying me two and a half times what I made at Hershey Meadows for 20 hours a week — to play a game.”

Botsford played with both Bridgeport and Milford franchises, competing for a total of eight seasons from 1988 to 1992, since each jai alai season lasted six months.

A severe knee injury ended his professional career.

One of his favorite moments playing the game, he said, was his first victory, which came in doubles when he teamed with fellow Shelton resident Mike Gaydos. Botsford said that the pair was one of the top 10 teams at Milford Jai Alai for all the years he played, including 1989, when the team was tops among doubles teams.

Over a six-month season, Botsford said he would play some 1,000 games. Overall, combining singles and doubles, he won nearly 700 games in his career. His best season was in 1990 when he had 126 wins over the six-month campaign.

Players competed Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, a matinee at noon, with games at 7 p.m. Single performances were held on Thursday, Friday and Sunday. In all, players averaged 45 games a week.

“The sport is comparable to football, to hockey, in the toll it takes on the body,” Botsford said. “Like every game, you could blow out a shoulder, a knee. You could get hit with the ball. It could be brutal on the body.”

Botsford said there were bonuses for every first, second and third place finish, whether playing singles or doubles. He said the scale was $60 for first, $42 second, and $28 third, on top of the regular salary.

What carried him to the heights of professional jai alai success?

“My will, my desire,” he said. “I wanted to win.”

“After my playing days, for four to five years — I had a hard time throwing a softball straight because everything is different, but it was the best four years of my life,” he added.

His other top memory was his performance in the King of the Hill competition in 1990. As part of a doubles team, he helped win the competition — besting Bolivar, Elorza and Roland, the best in the world at that time. Jai alai players are generally only known by a single name — Botsford was simply “Art” on programs.

The victory led to an appearance on the Sports Channel and an interview with then-sports host Mike Crispino.

“I remember like it was yesterday,” he said. “I also got $250 for prize money for that one game. It was so cool.”

Now his professional history joins other Shelton High grads who have achieved athletic success.

“I couldn’t be prouder to have the cesta displayed at the school,” Botsford said. “To give it to my friend John Niski, who actually gambled on me, too. It feels great. It really feels good to give back to the school. It feels good to have something up there.”

brian.gioiele@hearstmediact.com