Volume 12, Issue 17 ~ April 22-28, 2004
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Diversion & Excursion

At the Annual Naval Academy-St. John’s Croquet Match,
There’s More to Keep Your Eye on Than the Ball
by Louise Vest

An entire year’s bragging rights rests on the afternoon’s play, yet few eyes remain focused on the game. In fact, it’s easy for eyes to leave the croquet ball.

As tea time is more about the tradition than the tea, the annual croquet match between the United States Naval Academy and St. John’s College is as much about paying homage to gentrified civility as it is about knocking a ball around a lawn.

There are several dimensions to the annual match: game, players, spectators and food.

As some watch the wicket attacked by an Academy player’s just-tapped ball, spectators’ eyes are drawn to that player’s steward. Wearing black tie and immaculate dinner jacket, with a towel folded neatly over his arm, he stands at his assigned player’s side, a glass of water ready should a bead of perspiration form on his master’s forehead.

Another facet of the grand spectacle on the verdant grounds of St. John’s are match watchers who become characters on the day’s stage by playing dress-up and donning 1920s’ attire.

That era became a theme because in the 1920s croquet made a comeback as a popular diversion for the wealthy Long Island-set. Now blooming between the jean-clad are women in wide-brimmed hats and long dresses and men in dapper, linen suits, their pockets sprouting watch chains.

So adorned, they adopt an attitude of composed serenity, with few giving the croquet match a passing glance as they munch on asparagus tips, sip wine and in general, do Daisy and Gatsby proud.

Crooked Sticks
At last year’s match, an Academy band played the Star-Spangled Banner. Then, the Johnnie’s choral group sang a ballad to the tune of the Navy Hymn, ending with a plea for divine intervention: “Defeat the Middies at croquet, Amen.”

The match, which has been held for over two decades, has seen St. John’s Johnnies prevail most years. Their croquet team tries to project a relaxed, nonchalant attitude by sporting tux T-shirts and a look which runs from casual to just-crawled-out-of-bed-and-staggered-onto-the-field.

For St. John’s, a school that offers a unique Great Books curriculum, having a team playing an unusual sport like croquet is apropos. And they do take it seriously, especially their match against the Academy.

For the Mids, however, with the Academy’s large and varied sports program, practicing for a croquet match against the philosophers at St. John’s was never a high priority — until recently.

Said one midshipmen, “They told me that in the past, if the Middies practiced at all, it was only the night before the match.” But that bravado has been replaced after some ego-deflating losses.

Clad in spiffy white-on-white, the Naval Academy players also display a laid-back attitude, but it’s a bit more subtle than the Johnnies’. Stitched in small, tidy print upon their sweaters is the statement: “We’re not here for very long, we’re here for a good time.”

“Most matches are 80 minutes, but this is a grudge match and it’s open-ended,” explained an official keeping track of the brinkmanship. In this game, there are nine wickets and the mallets are larger than those in the at-home version of croquet.

While croquet began in 14th century Scotland and was adopted by England, throughout its history it’s had only a few spikes of intense popularity. It was a French doctor, in the 1830s, who named the sport croquet meaning crooked stick.

It’s a moniker appropriate at the match. With the volume of libation during the game, to many, those mallets probably looked quite crooked indeed.

There Are Rules?
“The croquet match is an excuse for going,” said Captain Rick Rubel. They joined other spectators last year setting up tables around the perimeter, tables showered with delectables. The other contest is about one gourmand trying to outdo another.

No hot dog or baked bean dared sidle up to Rubel’s group. On a candelabra-adorned table, the tablecloth was white, the caviar black, the brie plentiful and the champagne chilled.

“The match is a lot of fun, and I love the fact that there are parallel parties going on, with Academy people and St. John’s, but we’re still all there together,” said Rubel, who teaches ethics at the Naval Academy. “St. John’s is very gracious for opening up their lawn for the event.”

Last year, the Johnnies captured the Annapolis Cup, and St. John’s Athletic Director Leo Pickens isn’t going to tweak success: “Our strategy this year will be the same,” he said.

Donna Jones, of Pasadena, looked over the ground and pronounced “Watching all of this is fun.” Despite some masterful strokes in the ‘03 game, Jones was not impressed by the play.

When one croquet ball devilishly skirted another wicket, she laughed. “It’s a good thing this isn’t just about the game,” she said, “ because I played better croquet than this when I was seven years old.”

But for one Midshipman, leaning against an ancient tree scrutinizing the game, the Mids and Johnnies could have been hitting chicken croquets with golf clubs and he would have thought it correct croquet protocol. “I’m trying to figure out the rules,” he said. “I’m from North Carolina, and I didn’t hear about croquet until I came to the Academy.”

A few spectators watch the game intensely, while others enjoy ignoring the match. It’s one sporting event whose success depends on players, spectators and those who’ve only heard rumors of a croquet match being played, somewhere on the grounds.

See this year’s match at 1pm Sat. April 24 (rain date Sun. April 25). Find details in 8 Days a Week.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.
Last updated April 22, 2004 @ 1:20am.