It was a clear sign the Imperial Wicket croquet team captains at St. John's College were becoming a bit too despotic in their rule over the school's lawn-sport culture when the dean hauled one of them in for a testy meeting earlier this month.

The school is supposed to be noncompetitive, Dr. Eva Brann reminded senior Jonathan Andrews. The tiny, nontraditional college in Annapolis has no standardized tests, no teams in big sports leagues and nontraditional grades.

And yet these big-wickets-on-campus had become so mean-spirited in their competition to select their national champion croquet team that a would-be player had complained to the dean that people's feelings were getting hurt.

"I told them they had gone far enough," recalled Brann, 68. "I told them that if they want to use our equipment, if they want to use our lawn, they would just have to be more inclusive."

Although this ivory tower pretends to uphold its tradition of croquet as a way of preserving an ideal of Victorian good manners, beneath the white oxford shirts and cuffed chino pants boils a desperate war against a well-armed neighbor.

As was demonstrated in yesterday's 5-0 victory over the U.S. Naval Academy, croquet is the only way the bookworms can get back at the military powerhouse next door that gets all the attention, all the local souvenir shops, most of the street signs, and a bully's share of dates from local bars.

In a world of generic state universities playing brutish games in tasteless stretch pants, the annual Annapolis Cup match between St. John's and Navy is a fossil of old-fashioned one-upmanship.

With its Gatsby-esque costumes, polite handshakes, champagne glasses and quiet resentments, the match has been embraced by Annapolis residents as a symbol of the state's capital.

Like its hometown, the yearly game is pretentious, rule-bound, obsessed with history -- but also competitive despite the cordiality.

"The game has really become a wonderful part of the tradition of Annapolis," said City Administrator John L. Prehn, 72, a 1946 Academy graduate.

"But I also know there are a lot of Naval Academy graduates that just grind their teeth because St. John's is ahead in the series."

That St. John's could be beating the cross-town Goliath in anything -- even a finger-sandwich sport -- is something of a miracle.

The schools could not be more mismatched in size, academic philosophy or history.

St. John's has 400 students learning for learning's sake. It is a place of abstract intellectual virtues -- where "career" is a vulgarity and where students are directed to discuss among themselves the great works of Sophocles, Euripides, Faulkner and Nietzsche.

The Naval Academy drills 4,000 for war and the real world. It excels in the practical realms of engineering and the sciences, preparing future political and business leaders with push-ups, M-16 training, high-tech classes and white-glove inspections.

On the Navy campus, they have 3,500 rifles, 500 swords and 40 cannons. At St. John's, they have wooden mallets and plastic balls.

Midshipmen must wear crisp black or white dress uniforms and spit-shined shoes. Johnnies' only dress code is this: "You have to wear clothes," said St. John's spokeswoman Barbara Goyette.

"Order vs. chaos -- that's what this croquet match is really all about," said Navy team captain Justin Long, a 22-year-old firstie (senior) about to leave the croquet courts for the destroyer USS Cushing.

The tradition of the annual match began in 1983, when a group of Midshipmen ran aground on some ragtag Johnnies boozing at a St. John's hangout called the Little Campus Inn.

"They said, 'We can beat you at any sport you name,' " said this year's co-Imperial Wicket, Kit Linton, 22. "And some wise-guy Johnnie said, 'How about croquet?' "

The Johnnies trounced the Navy in that first match and triumphed in 12 of the next 15 annual games (including yesterday's massacre before 400 brie-nibbling fans on the St. John's lawn).

But the friction between the schools stretches back decades.

During the Great Depression, St. John's suffered financial problems. The Navy tried to take advantage of them with a proposal to buy the St. John's campus. St. John's fought off the takeover.

During the Vietnam War, the countercultural Johnnies taunted the buzz-cut sailors as they marched down College Avenue on the way to football games.

Midshipmen fired back with new marching songs every few years for those parades past the St. John's Great Hall on the way to games at the Navy-Marine Memorial Stadium.

Last fall, the chorus went like this: "I want to study Aristotle. I'm a left-wing kind of guy. I wear socks with my sandals. All my shirts are tie-die. I don't bring my books to class. I don't take no written test. I don't want a real degree. That's why I go to SJC."

In retaliation for these intolerable ditties, the Johnnies try to hit back where it counts.

During the annual croquet matches, they deploy a "designated temptress" with flowers in her hair and a non-Pentagon-issue white dress to flirt with the Mids, whose school is only 14 percent female.

About five years ago, the Johnnies tried to get the Navy's goat. While the Midshipmen were concentrating on the contours of the sod, their foes wheeled out a goat on a spit claiming it was the Navy's captured mascot -- Bill XXVII. They roasted the counterfeit Bill and ate him before their rivals' eyes.

But the Navy also uses psychological warfare. Every year before the croquet match, the Mids invite the Johnnies to "lunch" at the Academy's King Hall cafeteria.

The members of the St. John's team showed up outside King Hall on Thursday in their normal slacker style -- one with long hair, another in a goatee; baggy jeans, backpacks over shoulders, sneakers, cat's eye sunglasses cocked impishly atop the head.

Midshipmen by the hundreds marched out to greet them in black and white uniforms. They assumed military formation, lining up in front of the Johnnies. They drew their swords.

Then, after a significant pause, they turned and marched into the cafeteria to the thunder of the more than 50-member Midshipmen Drum and Bugle Corps.

The Johnnies followed into a 55,000-square-foot dining hall packed with Mids where everything -- even the milk cartons, ketchup bottles and juice containers -- was in Navy colors.

Navy's croquet team leader invited St. John's croquet player Todd Stregiel -- a short, mild-looking fellow with a scruffy beard -- onto a podium at the center of the monstrous chamber to say a few words.

"Thank you. I think I speak on behalf of " Stregiel started. But his words were drowned out by a roaring of hundreds of voices.

Stregiel tried again when the crowd quieted. "Thank you. I wanted to tell all of you "

"Roaaaaaarrrr!" Again and again, the diminutive Stregiel was broadsided by cheering and clapping.

Caught in the goat's pen, the brave knight of the wicket peeped out a defiant challenge: "It's not a matter of who wins or loses, because that's a FOREGONE CONCLUSION! But good luck. You'll need it."

When he stepped down, the Academy's chaplain -- even the Navy's holy man -- stepped onto the podium to add to the insults.

"Lord, let us pray," the Rev. Bill Devine intoned.

"Tell us. What is croquet?"

Pub Date: 4/27/97

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad