On a weekend that should be festive, Little Italy is enduring the fallout from an ugly incident that has outraged city officials, embarrassed community leaders and revived old rivalries in a neighborhood known for tempestuous disputes.
It began innocently enough. Two sports-loving friends - Gunter Lerche, who uses a wheelchair, and Todd Stringer, who is 3 feet 8 inches tall - won a bocce tournament for handicapped players and decided to enter a public tournament scheduled for tomorrow. The event, held on a city-owned bocce court in the 900 block of Stiles St., is a centerpiece of Little Italy's annual St. Gabriel Festival, a traditional end-of-summer weekend of feasting and good will.
But the good will evaporated after tournament organizers told Lerche and Stringer they could not play, and sent back their $125 entry fee. While television cameras rolled Tuesday night, one organizer pointed a finger at Stringer and told him he was "never going to play with the normal people."
Those words sparked a civil rights imbroglio reminiscent of an earlier era, complete with city officials noting a federal anti-discrimination law and opening an investigation; business people complaining of bad publicity; and neighborhood activists crying "shame!"
"This was something that had to happen," said Roberto Marsili, president of the Little Italy Community Association. "It was brewing for a long time."
Marsili - who, like practically every other neighborhood leader, has a tangled history of disputes with the tournament organizers - said his phone has been ringing off the hook with complaints from residents and business people.
The organizers' actions "are an insult to decency and an embarrassment to the entire community," Marsili said.
At midweek, the city solicitor's office informed tournament organizers that their actions violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Now, tournament Chairman Dino Basso and his friend Joseph Scalia, president of the Little Italy Bocce Rollers Association, have told Stringer and Lerche that they can play tomorrow. But the welcome is hardly warm.
"They can't compete with us. They shouldn't play with us," said Basso, 65, a retired contractor from Arbutus. "I just think they're trying to make a statement. But this is America. They can do whatever they want, and they get a little more leeway than other people."
Lerche, 61, said he and Stringer never planned to become crusaders. "The only thing I wanted to do was play," said Lerche, a retired Montgomery County school counselor, "and now it's opened up this can of worms."
Lerche was paralyzed in a 1985 motorcycle accident. Stringer was born with a form of dwarfism. The two have been playing sports together for 15 years. They snow ski, water ski, play tennis and table tennis. Two years ago, they tried bocce.
"We suddenly realized, 'Wow, we could excel at this,'" said Lerche.
On Aug. 10, after winning the handicapped players' tournament for the second year in a row, they entered the St. Gabriel's tourney. When Basso found out about the entry, he decided to revoke the team's registration, and Scalia agreed.
"The tournament is not for handicapped. It's for normal people, because that's the way it has been all the time. Traditional," Scalia explained. "When we have the Special Olympics we don't mix with them, and they don't mix with us. I don't think they should impose on normal people."
Stringer and Lerche complained to the city's Recreation and Parks Department, and decided to publicize the incident. On Tuesday evening, they met a WBAL camera crew at the bocce court, "not to have a confrontation but just to show that we could play," Lerche said.
But there was a confrontation, shown on the news Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.
"It was unbelievable. Unbelievable," said Roslyn Johnson, associate director of recreation and parks. She called Stringer "to apologize for someone else's ignorance," she said.
Under pressure from the parks department and the city solicitor's office, Basso agreed to expand the tournament from 16 teams to 18, letting Stringer and Lerche play.
But that hasn't ended the matter. Marsili's group has asked the city to ban Scalia from the bocce court and to cancel all tournaments there.
"I'm 72. I don't want to get hurt, and I don't want to hurt nobody," said Marsili, who is running for a District 1 City Council seat. "But somebody's got to take a stand against this guy."
City officials say they won't cancel the tournament. Instead, they'll conduct "an informal investigation to find out what the community wants," said recreation and parks spokesman Robert Greene. They'll also post a list of "etiquette rules" for the bocce court, and will seek a site for a second court in the neighborhood, he said.
Johnson said the city "can ban anyone from using the court if they're discriminating or doing anything illegal," but no decision has been made on whether or not to ban anyone.
Lerche and Stringer say the dispute has inspired them to improve their bocce game.
"We used to play only once a year," Stringer said, but now "we've been playing three or four times a week."