One of the greatest things about the job I do is the inspiring people I get to meet along the way.
Jerry Stark was one of those people.
Stark – all 6-foot-plus, 200-pounds-plus of him – made an impression on me from the start. The man who looked like he should be a linebacker, was a champion Croquet player and loving every minute of it. Our encounter was brief but he remains among one of my most favourite interviews. He was a man doing what he loved with great success even when everything about him suggested it wouldn’t be his game.The story I wrote for the Toronto Star went on to win an award from the United States Croquet Association.
A few days ago I received a note from Meadowood Resort announcing Jerry’s passing. He was a fun guy and I’m sorry I won’t have a chance to play with him again. My condolences go out to his family.
Here’s the story as it appeared in The Toronto Star on Sat May 13 2006.
Rest in Peace Jerry.
Man in white is a big hit on croquet court
St. Helena, Calif.—Before I met Jerry Stark at the Meadowood Napa Valley, I called ahead to tell him I was coming. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to pick him out of a group on the lawn at the hotel and club.
That was dumb.
As Stark makes his way towards me, there is no missing him. At about 6 feet and more than 200 pounds, he looks like a football player. There’s also that telltale orange handlebar moustache and the fact that he’s dressed in white from head to toe. Doesn’t exactly blend in with a crowd. But to be fair, it also isn’t what you expect when you’re told that you’re going to meet with the resort’s croquet professional.
Yup. That’s right. Forget your idea of dainty ladies and cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off , Stark, a national hall of famer, is what croquet looks like today. And when you speak to him he makes it clear that you’re more likely to be find him manning his barbecue than participating in any afternoon tea. Now 50, Stark has been playing croquet professionally for more than 20 years. That was shortly after some friends confirmed that the croquet tournament they were inviting him to had a beer truck and a campsite.Count him in.
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t appreciate the history and ethics of the game. Quite the contrary. He makes it clear, as he’s teaching me how to play on one of the 4 1/2 lawn, six-wicket setups at Meadowood (and beating me while playing with only one hand, I might add ) that there is a civility to the game that he really enjoys.
“I found out that the game has high morals and ethics,” he tells me. “If you and I are playing, we’re the referees of the game. You want to beat the other person while they are doing their best. The morals in life overall aren’t very high anymore, but in croquet they still are.”
It’s why despite playing a novice who wouldn’t know better, he takes time to explain why he has to shoot from only a mallet-head inside the line after hitting his ball out of bounds and why there are no do-overs.He’s polite and professional and funny, but even while we’re playing what would seem to be an easygoing game, it is clear that he wants to win.
It’s what he’s used to.
Stark is the reigning American national croquet champion. He has won 10 world championships and has been a member of the U.S. national team a dozen times. You don’t get there by letting journalists beat you for fun.When Meadowood held the first ever croquet tournament with prize money in the country in 1988, Stark came out to play. Paired with an Irishman for the doubles tournament, he placed third. He joined the professional staff at Meadowood Napa Valley about a year later.Stark is currently listed amongst the top four purse totals in America. That means thousands of dollars a year in prize money. Nothing to sneeze at, but not exactly golf money.
“Money is not the reason people play croquet,” says Stark, laughing. “It’s about falling in love with the game. Believe me, I wish I was as good at golf as I am at croquet.”
He is also not playing for the fame.
“The audience is mostly other croquet players,” he admits. “People will come to watch croquet, get there late and ask their neighbour, `When are they going to start to play?’ Meanwhile, we will be in the middle of a very serious game.” While you don’t need a great deal of strength to play the game (the mallet weighs only 1.3 kg), you do need to be fairly precise. The wickets at Meadowood are about .635 cm bigger than the ball you’re trying to put through it. On the tournament circuit, Stark is dealing with .08 cm between his ball and the wicket posts Tournament croquet is a complicated game, but at Meadowood where Stark teaches a style he refers to as “golf croquet,” the learning is easy and the game is popular.
“What’s fun about croquet is that while not everyone can play golf or tennis at the same time, everyone can play croquet,” he says. As many as 32 people can be out on the lawns and involved in a game at the same time, making it a popular choice for large social gatherings such as corporate retreats and weddings. Stark can teach you the basics in about 20 minutes.”I’ve had people come right from saying `I do,’ to the croquet lawn,” he says, “The bride in her dress, the priest in his robes.”It occurs to me, as we play under the hot Californian sun, that there is another way croquet is better.”
So, is it true that you can drink wine and play croquet at the same time?” I ask. It’s a fair question. We are in Napa Valley after all where there are very few things that can’t be done with a glass in hand. “You can,” he says and the twinkle in his eye tells me he thinks my game isn’t strong enough to be thinking about anything but the mallet and the ball, “but it’s easier if you set it down and use two hands.”