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A brouhaha over bocce is settled on the court

An uproar over whether two disabled players would be allowed to compete in the bocce tournament that each summer is the centerpiece of Little Italy's St. Gabriel Festival quieted early yesterday with the very first rolls of the game's palm-size balls.

The four-man team that included Gunter Lerche, who uses a wheelchair, and Todd Stringer, who was born with a form of dwarfism, was among the first on the narrow dusty bocce courts at 8 a.m.

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After about an hour of play, the team handily recorded a first-round win.

In the put-up or shut-up ethos of sport, Lerche and Stringer had put up just fine.

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The early crowd at the tournament gave a nod of respect and then largely turned its attention to the day's more pressing matters - the potential father-son match-ups in the tournament, the festival food stands hawking plates of fried dough and giant meatball sandwiches, the bocce foursome that onlookers dubbed the "ooh-la-la team" of athletic young men in matching, tight-fitting yellow shirts.

The shift in focus was welcomed by Lerche and Stringer, who never intended their entry in the tournament to cause a stir. It also pleased tournament organizers, who last week found themselves on the wrong side of City Hall, area businesses and neighborhood activists.

Tournament planners initially told Lerche and Stringer that they could not play because of their disabilities and sent back their $125 entry fee. The fight gained broader attention last week after a WBAL-TV camera crew recorded one organizer pointing a finger at Stringer, who is 3 feet 8 inches tall, and telling him he was "never going to play with the normal people."

Lerche had considered not competing as recently as Thursday evening after hearing biting remarks while he practiced at the city-owned courts in the 900 block of Stiles St.

"But then I got to thinking about it, and if I pulled out, they win," he said. "I didn't really want the media circus. I just wanted to play the game."

Lerche said some tensions remained yesterday between himself and tournament chairman Dino Basso, who had revoked Lerche and Stringer's entry but reversed his decision after pressure from the city's Recreation and Parks Department. Lerche said his team was made to feel unwelcome by Basso, who refereed each of their games yesterday.

"We showed that we can play with the big boys, but it would have been so much better if he hadn't insisted on proliferating this whole feud," Lerche said.

Basso said yesterday that the issue was finished, and refused to comment further on the controversy.

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"Did you see their first game?" Basso said with a shrug. "They did pretty good."

The Lerche-Stringer team went on to lose its second- and third-round games in the double-elimination tournament, which had 18 teams competing for a $900 first-place prize.

Players came from across the Baltimore region, Delaware and Philadelphia.

They all had heard about the flap over whether Lerche and Stringer could play, but few were very riled about the latest dispute in a neighborhood with frequent tangles over everything from political connections to brightness of the bocce court lights at night.

"I think it was just misunderstood," said Giovanni Lumaro, 58, of Rosedale, who was competing in the tournament with his 32-year-old son, Filippo. "Nobody had any problem for them to play."

"We all just want to play bocce. I have no idea why this tournament wouldn't allow them to play," said Brown Benson of Baltimore, who was on the same team as Lerche and Stringer yesterday.

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If anything, Benson said, bocce is particularly well-suited to people with disabilities - it doesn't require walking or running, just patience and skill, dexterity and a good sense of distance."

"That's one thing about this sport," Benson said. "It doesn't require a lot of athletic prowess."


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