At three o'clock on this idyllic sunny April afternoon on the lawn of St. John's College in Annapolis, Md., Robert de Majistre of West Chester, Pa., Archon of Croquet and Imperial Wicket, is concerned about the way the game on Court 1 is going. "Pam Halkett," he says gravely, "is now five-ball dead. And that is really bad."
Imperial Wicket is not given to overstatement. He is a small, serious junior at St. John's, which is a small (enrollment 400), serious (at least academically) institution. Although he appears to have walked right out of the 1960s—he wears what is possibly the only dashiki left in this part of Maryland, and his hair is held in a ponytail by a sparkling blue clip—Imperial Wicket has a cerebral passion for croquet that earlier in the week had seemed to bode ill for the opposition.
"We have a natural advantage," he had said of the coming match, "and that is concentration. Sitting in a seminar for two hours, you learn how to concentrate. Also, the Middies are inclined to take the match seriously, which can work against them."
The croquet match he was speaking of surely has no parallel in intercollegiate sport. At stake was the Annapolis Cup, which is fought over annually by St. John's and its mighty neighbor, the U.S. Naval Academy. Annually, that is, since 1983. Before that, the last recorded athletic encounter between the two schools took place in the 1930s, when they faced each other in some lacrosse scrimmages. And the last St. John's win over Navy was a 5-0 baseball victory in 1913.
This lack of sporting neighborliness is not surprising. The two institutions, which are situated only a block away from each other, couldn't be less alike. The academy is, well, the Navy—structured, disciplined and well-drilled—and the Middies outnumber the Johnnies by more than 10 to 1. Founded in 1696, St. John's takes considerable pride in its approach to education, which requires its students to read a prescribed library of "great books" rather than major in a particular subject. St. John's, which has another campus in Santa Fe, N.Mex., may well be the last school in the U.S. in which all students must take classical Greek.
The original croquet challenge came from St. John's, and the willing but unpracticed Navy team was crushed three games to none. "You can keep your deep blue sea, we have our philosophy!" chanted the Johnnies. The 1984 match went the same way, although the Middies won a game. But in 1985 came a turnaround.
According to some, Navy had realized that the free-flowing champagne so hospitably provided by the Johnnies was a trap. According to others, though, the Johnnies had succumbed to overweening arrogance. That year's Imperial Wicket, Steven Werlin of Lexington, Mass., had declared, "I think croquet is entirely a mental game. I don't think it needs to be practiced. All you need for practice is to read great books and exercise your mind." Werlin's side—a.k.a. the Imperial Legion of Glory—fell 2-1, and he departed for Germany to study philosophy on a Fulbright Scholarship.
With a 2-1 victory in 1986, St. John's, which has hosted all the matches, pulled ahead 3-1 in the series. Before this year's showdown, de Majistre ("I think it must be some kind of Ellis Island name," he says) looked forward to widening the gap. Gleefully he said, "I know where everything is...patches where there is no grass, patches where there is too much grass, holes, little furrows...."
An outsider, though, might not have shared de Majistre's confidence when the teams appeared. The St. John's crew had dressed with studied eccentricity. It was a colorful, heterogeneous mix. The Middies were immaculate in Yachting Dress Baker uniforms—service dress blue jackets, white summer slacks, white shoes, black bow ties and sunglasses. Who, they were asked, was their Imperial Wicket?
"We don't feel the need to be quite that pompous," said Midshipman First Class Bill Weber of Decatur, Ga., who is headed for the Marine Corps. "I'm just cocaptain of this team."