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1990 Milt Roth article



(from the vault)

Jai-alai A Highlight Of Career
Fronton President An Activist For State-regulated Gambling


December 24, 199
By Richard Burnett of The Sentinel Staff
Growing up in the Bronx, Milt Roth cultivated the art of survival. And he has been a survival artist ever since.

Roth, who last month became president and general manager of the Orlando Jai-Alai Fronton, learned the savvy of a gambler early as he navigated the wild currents of inner-city New York.

Brains, not brawn, became Roth's trademark. He was smaller than the other kids, so he had to know where to place his bets.

''There were a lot of gangs then, just like now, divided along ethnic lines,'' he said. ''You had to know how to protect yourself, how to get in the right group. I had my share of fights, but nothing really bad. I was in the right group.''

Being street smart was the key to staying alive, Roth said.

''Nobody would be afraid of me anyway,'' he said. ''I'm a short guy. Nobody's going to move to the other side of the street if they see me coming.''

Roth, 55, is decades away from those days, and, at 5-foot-6, he is not much taller. But the tenacious businessman has inspired fear in people almost twice his size, friends and co-workers said.
As a manager in Florida's parimutuel industry, Roth has caused some workers to wince when their paths crossed.

With a reputation for being brassy, he has stared down players in contract negotiations, upbraided employees in public and fired workers, sometimes ruthlessly, former employees say.

He also is known for his business acumen. He has a rich knowledge of all forms of parimutuels - state-regulated gambling on horse and dog racing, and jai-alai.

''Because of his experience, he always has an intelligent opinion, whatever the issue,'' said Steve Snyder, president of the Dania Jai-Alai Fronton near Fort Lauderdale. ''He's an industry activist, and everybody knows him. He's very alert and knows what's going on.''

Roth is quick to confront players, employees and just about anyone else if he thinks they are wrong, former employees said.

And when jai-alai players launched a strike in March 1988, Roth garnered his irresistible force to meet the immovable object.

''The strike was hell,'' Roth said, shaking his head. ''That kind of thing doesn't heal easily.''

Players, however, saw the strike as an outpouring of frustration with Roth and other jai-alai managers.

''I always had a pretty good relationship with Milt, especially compared to the way some of the other players felt,'' said Glenn L. Jones, a union leader and Daytona Beach jai-alai player. ''They felt like his approach was to control by fear. They felt intimidated by him.''

From Roth's viewpoint, the players ambushed management: There was no fair warning, he said. Suddenly there was a picket line and players harassed those who went to the games.

Players recall it differently. After years of what they called inadequate contracts, they took a vote and 92 percent favored union representation. Managers refused to recognize the union. Hence, the strike.

Roth didn't shy away from the conflict. At one point, he walked into a union meeting and told members point blank about plans to end jai-alai in Melbourne and convert the fronton into a dog track, which has since been done.

''Some of the players came out of that meeting and said it was a threat,'' he said. ''Then they filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. But it was no threat. I just told them the truth. That plan was on the boards before the strike.''

Two and a half years, tens of millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lost fans later, the longest strike in professional sports history ended with regrets on both sides.

''Both of us underestimated our mutual resolves,'' Roth said. ''The strike hurt everybody - the players, the owners, the public and, most of all, the game itself.''

Though he has never played the game, Roth said, he finds jai-alai - a high-speed contest of agility - thrilling. His erstwhile opponents - the union players - say he knows jai-alai talent like few others in the business.

They also concede that, beyond his austere management style, there is a human side to Roth.

Friends say Roth has many dimensions.

''If you're in an eyeball-to-eyeball situation with him in a disagreement, you might leave wanting to punch his lights out,'' said Sully Ferrito, a longtime Roth friend and owner of Bayshore Electric Co. in Daytona Beach. ''But you just come to understand, that's his way of protecting his nest.''

While head of Daytona Beach jai-alai, Roth was involved in civic events and charities, such as the American Cancer Society. As chairman of the Daytona/Halifax Area Chamber of Commerce's sports-organizing committee, Roth helped bring the Ladies Professional Golf Association headquarters to Daytona Beach from Houston.

''He has an exterior that is tough, but he is so susceptible to a soft story,'' Ferrito said.

A former disc jockey, Roth enjoys music, especially jazz. He likes dancing and dining out and has placed his share of bets on the horse races. Roth said he is a disciplined gambler who doesn't let it get out of hand.

Show business, however, was Roth's first love. He wanted to appear on New York stage and screen. But those dreams faded as the years passed.

Roth has worked as a soda jerk, a delivery boy, and as a courier at an advertising agency, where the owner soon had him designing brochures.

Roth studied business at the former City College of New York, but he could afford to go for only two years and did not graduate.

In 1954, as the Korean War was almost over, he joined the Army. Stationed in Hawaii, he became a disc jockey for a military radio station.

Radio caught Roth's fancy. After his discharge in 1956, he returned to New York, hoping to find a job in broadcasting.

''At that time, the big radio personalities in New York were real celebrities,'' he said, ''and I thought it would be a way to get into show biz.''

In 1959, Roth was offered a job as a disc jockey for station WMFJ in Daytona Beach and acquired the on-air name Larry King. Meanwhile, he announced part-time at the fronton.

He took the jai-alai job in Miami to work in a bigger market for more money, Roth said. In 1979, when he returned to manage the Daytona Beach fronton, Roth made many staff cuts to improve earnings. That did not make him popular, as he fired some long-time employees who were personal friends of the former manager.

Now, in Orlando, he is cutting back work hours for staff and has told players that the 50-man roster will be trimmed because business is down.

Roth also has installed a computerized inter-track betting system, which allows jai-alai fans to also bet on horse races in Miami.

He hopes the moves and renovations will make the Orlando fronton an increasingly popular attraction.

''I don't get paid to be liked,'' he said. ''I get paid to do a job.''


Orlando Sentinel article

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