Bocce scores big points on the Hill
by Jonathan D. Rubin
June 16, 2009
Just as 7 Up was called the “unsoda,” you might call bocce ball the “unsport.”
In bocce, attire and equipment are minimal. No skills, training or favorable physical attributes are required. And, for a playing field, all you need is grass. Perhaps because it’s so simple, bocce seems to be becoming the King of Lawn Sports in Washington.
Yup, that’s the one.
See it for yourself on Wednesdays in Garfield Park on 2nd and F streets SE, just a few blocks south of Capitol Hill. Last week, no fewer than 24 teams were slugging it out in the D.C. bocce playoffs. Despite all the activity, the game felt more like a backyard family reunion than a playoff series.
That’s part of the appeal.
“It’s not like golf … it doesn’t take a lot of concentration,” said Jo Martin, a bocce-er on the Nobody Puts Bocce in a Corner team.
Bocce “is a stress reliever, not a stress-maker,” said Michelle Dallafior. She plays on the Ticklebritches team when not working on the Energy and Environment subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee.
Dallafior said she grew up playing lawn sports like croquet and horseshoes. Her tip? “You’ve gotta read the green,” she said. Grass fields are notoriously uneven, and a small hill or a valley can turn a perfect throw into a dud.
The D.C. Bocce League started in 2004 as a fun hobby for five friends. That year they had 50 players. Today they have nearly 1,000 in their Capitol Hill and West End Leagues (the latter plays at Rose Park on 26th and P streets NW). A new summer league in Adams Morgan is slated to begin June 22.
They play games every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, rain or shine. After games, they go to a sponsor bar with food and beer specials (the Italian beer Peroni is an official sponsor).
It’s a lot like the D.C. kickball scene, only for a slightly more mature set.
But just slightly. After all, there is something both serene and silly about bocce. And that adds to its enjoyment.
“The more we drink, the better we bocce,” said a cheery Lauren Bovi of Arlington.
The rules of bocce are so simple that the game has been played more or less the same way for more than 2,000 years. Each team can have up to four active players per match and four heavy balls, each about four inches in diameter and made of resin, like a bowling ball.
To start, a player will toss a smaller ball, called a pallina or pallino, down an area five paces wide by 25 paces long. The goal is to throw the larger bocce balls as close to the pallina as you can. If your ball is the closest, your team will score points that round. For each of your balls that is closer to the pallina than the other team’s, you get a point, up to four points maximum per round. After scoring, you toss the pallina again. The first team that gets 16 points wins.
Bocce culture is slowly permeating Capitol Hill. A recent job posting for Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite’s (R-Fla.) office noted that “participation on the office bocce team is encouraged.”
Congressional staffers are common in the league; organizers estimate that a quarter of all the players work on the Hill. Their ranks can be sparse when a bill is being voted on — one night’s debate over H.R. 2410 (the Foreign Relations Authorization Act) thinned the ranks of many teams, some of which had only two people throwing.
At the playoffs, one player said there are three basic bocce tosses: bowling (just roll it), throwing (toss it up high so when it falls, it stays where it lands) and “throwling” — a low lob that is sort of a combination between the two.
But no one really discusses strategy before, during or after a game. You just play. Some people play with a cigarette in hand. Laughter and red Solo party cups are ubiquitous.
During a bocce match, the play is so relaxed that — unlike in almost any other sport — you are somehow always actively playing and not playing bocce.
“I think one person played with a baby carrier over their shoulder once,” said Sarah Curtis, the legislative director for Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-Ohio).
Some trace the history of bocce back to an Egyptian game with polished stones. Others say it was invented by the Romans. Through the centuries, bocce has been played around Europe and in the United States by statesmen and commoners alike. This spirit continues to this day — the D.C. bocce league has NASA staffers playing alongside teachers and social workers.
The Italian Embassy in Washington lacks a bocce league, although a spokesman acknowledged that bocce ball “is becoming increasingly popular in the United States.”
The group’s organizers credit the growth to word of mouth. “I’ve hardly done any PR, and absolutely no advertising,” said Sarah DeLucas, one of D.C. Bocce’s founders.
She said people scoff at bocce at first, but once they play, they’re hooked.
“One team plays, and the next year they split into three teams because all those people have told their friends,” she said.
“It’s casual competition,” player Brian O’Donnell said. “You get to be outside, you don’t have to sweat, and you get sweet T-shirts.”
A fundraiser on Capitol Hill, O’Donnell only works a block from the park. “It’s pretty convenient,” he said. His team, Nuis CocoBocces, is named after two Bocce buddies who moved to Cambodia and continue to play there. They share their Bocce triumphs on their blogs.
So is bocce the new kickball, a game famous as much for its enthusiastic players as for its raucous drinking games?
Not really, DeLucas said.
“There’s a time and a place for kickball,” she said. “You just got out of college [and] you have a crap job when you are just opening mail, so you play kickball.
“After a few years of that,” she said, “come play bocce.”
For more information, visit www.dcbocce.com .