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Just playing the game

TUCKED IN among the stalls offering fried dough and sausage and peppers, T-shirts and comfort music, the city's Festival of St. Gabriel this year offered a lesson in inclusiveness - and fair play.

On the bocce courts in D'Alesandro Park on Sunday, a team including friends Gunter Lerche, who uses a wheelchair, and Todd Stringer, who is 3 feet 8 inches tall, handily won its first-round game, but lost the next two to finish out of the money. A fair showing, it likely wouldn't have been remarked upon except that it almost didn't happen.

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After they won a bocce tournament for disabled players for the second straight year, the friends decided to test themselves against the greater festival field. But organizers refused to enroll the team in the tournament, and one compounded the ignorance by telling the players they were "never going to play with the normal people."

Luckily for the players, the crude comment was caught by a TV news crew. Earlier comments, and bad attitude, during the team's practice games on the court had passed without as much publicity.

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This time, though, the outcry was swift - and properly directed at those spewing the insults. Neighborhood leaders and businesspeople were quick to say that such prejudice is not welcome in Little Italy. The city solicitor's office told the organizers that the actions violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, since the park is city property. And neighbors said such attitude shamefully violates the "do unto others" rule, truly improper for an event that's part of a religious and community festival.

The team was told it could play, and despite some second thoughts and leery of the brouhaha, it did.

Spectators, generally one or two deep against the court fence, watched and nodded at all the good play throughout the day. Many took breaks to scarf up some of the fresh ravioli at St. Leo's or to gaze at the statue of St. Gabriel, pinned with dollars in many denominations. It was just another beautiful day, the earlier un-Baltimore-like ugliness just froth to blow away.

The bocce tournament's organizers have a history of dustups with neighbors. This time, city officials say they are informally investigating, and promise to hang signs with "etiquette rules" by the courts.

One hopes the signs will remind folks that fairness, respect for one's opponents and graciousness in winning or losing - a.k.a. sportsmanship - is the best play of all.


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