Different Strokes

Mik Mehas still has the swagger of a ballplayer. At 59, the one-time L.A. Dodger is mostly gray, with hair braided in a pigtail. He no longer wears pinstripes, but the Stars and Stripes are emblazoned all over his shirt, and a bit of embroidery on the butt of his Ty-Cobb-style knickers reads "Bad Boy MM." He doesn't wear spikes anymore, just some grungy New Balance trainers. And he's not chewing tobacco, but his jaw is set as if he were. Everything about this grizzled old jock says hard ball--except that bat in his hands. It's a mallet, and he's swinging it back and forth between his legs, taking aim until, with devastating accuracy, he slams a ball across the field. The crowd cheers. Mehas touches his crotch for luck and gets ready to wind up for another shot.

Thirty-five years after an eye injury ended his brief stint as a third baseman with the Dodgers (so brief that we can't find any reference to it on the Web), Mehas is back in the big leagues. But this ain't Dodger Stadium, or Shea or Yankee either. This is the Gezira Sporting Club in the middle of an island on the Nile in Cairo. And Mehas's sport today is called "golf croquet." He's competing this week in the world championships, which will be decided here on Thursday.

Arab mobs may be raging against the United States in other parts of the Middle East--even other parts of Cairo. Palestinians may be courting martyrdom against Israeli soldiers firing staccato bursts from American guns in Gaza. But around the closely cropped courts in this bastion of the Cairene elite, the flags of the United States and Palestine wave side by side, along with those of Australia, Egypt, Italy, even the Isle of Man.

The atmosphere seems so civilized that Mehas looks like a barbarian at the gate. But as with many other sports, croquet carries the burden of particularly intense nationalisms.

Irish player Evan Newell is happy to explain the rules to a reporter on the sidelines. It's pronounced "croaky," he insists, and was invented in Ireland in the early 19th century, not in France, as the spelling of the name might have you believe. By the 1840s, it was the rage in England, but its roots were always in Eire. "It was the great game at the big old country homes and you turned out in all your finery," says Newell, who looks pretty fine himself in his straw hat, white trousers and white lawn-bowling shoes.

Chris Bennett, the English coach of the South African team, calls croquet "the last of the great Victorian games, which England exported to all the colonies." Three of the players he's brought along are black employees of a Johannesburg country club. They'd never held a mallet in their hands before the end of the apartheid. "A microcosm of the new South Africa," says Bennett.

Colonial Condescension
The setting for this week's championship has a long and elegant heritage, but its history is not altogether happy. Founded in the 1880s as the Khedival Sporting Club, it was the epicenter of British colonial condescension for more than 60 years. The architecture dates back to the days of pashas and tarbushes, when British officers sipped their gin and tonics beneath the jacarandas and surveyed the debutantes out from England trolling for husbands.

Around today's croquet courts, one still finds a hint of the old gentility, even among those who suffered most from the unsettled conflicts the British colonials left behind.

Soha Akl, 67, has lived in Cairo since her family fled from Jerusalem in 1948 after the British mandate ended and the first Arab-Israeli war erupted. Her father lost and re-made his fortune, allowing her to play croquet at this club for the last 40 years. But Palestinians never forget where they came from, which is why she and three other players went out for these championships. "Palestine doesn't have croquet," she says, "but we try to hold up our flag to say--to say that we exist."

"Quick, Fast and Furious"
At this week's competition, however, gentility takes a back seat as the better players advance. Unlike American Rules Croquet, or Europe's Association Croquet--which seem to be as endless and as incomprehensible as cricket--this version is "quick, fast and furious," says Chris Bennett. There are two players on the court, each playing two balls that have to be hit in alternation. "Not difficult to learn," says Bennett, "but very difficult to play very well." Imagine 20-yard billiard shots hit with a sledge-hammer.

"The game is totally a freak," says former L.A. Dodger Mik Mehas after trouncing the last Irishman on the court Sunday morning. It's hard to be more American--more Californian--than Mehas. Through much of his post-baseball career, he worked on the fringes of the movie industry, producing independent films that he isn't inclined to name. In 1988, Mehas was living in Palm Springs, when he noticed a bunch of croquet mallets in the window of a local department store and publicity for a tournament with cash prizes. "I was amazed they were playing this game for money," he says.

By 1997, he was U.S. National Champion. Now, he's hoping this faster, leaner, meaner version of the sport will make it onto television. "Think of mini-cams on the top of the hoops," says Mehas.

With that in mind, he's willing to put up with the Egyptians's tactics for victory. Never mind that Egyptians are already the premier players of this particular game--and that the compeition's happening on their turf. The Egyptian government wants a victory. The Egyptian sports minister declared that he'd award a prize worth several thousand dollars to the winner of the tournament, but only if he or she were Egyptian.

Perhaps the veneer of gentility at the Gezira Club was always a lie, even and especially when this was a quiet colonial establishment. But the idea of elegant civilized games, played by people in all their finery, seems mightily appealing compared to the deadly sport of rocks, riots, and gunfire now being played out just east of Suez. Between the lust for national victories and cash prizes, the mini-cams and the customs counter, the last vestiges of that gentility are disappearing fast.