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Not just a ballgame

Bocce provides a social outlet and a cultural connection - not to mention a little exercise.

By BRANT JAMES, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 24, 2002


Tucked away in a small corner of Delta Woods Park, lost among the early-morning tennis players and power walkers, they play. They argue, they joke, they remember.

Sometimes slow of gait, with backs sore in the morning chill, these men and women are here every Monday.

The women pushing baby carriages give them a casual glance, perhaps another when they hear the ruckus emanating from the odd shuffleboard-like court they surround. And another when raised voices break into Sicilian or Italian.

Bocce is more than just a game to the folks in the Delta Woods Bocce Club in Spring Hill. It's an excuse to get out of the house, a social outlet, a bit of exercise (just a bit), and it's a connection to a heritage sometimes left in childhood.

"I enjoy myself here," said Joe Gambino, 77, a Sicilian who moved to Long Island and retired to Spring Hill. "It's just a different bunch of people."

Eleanor Szarzynski, 72, was leaning against a post, basking in another superb round one recent morning, when her boyfriend, 85-year-old Carl Braian, and a competitor had issue with the proximity of one ball and how it should be scored.

As Braian chided, "Umberto, Umberto" in a thick Croatian accent, his counterpart -- chirping in Sicilian -- produced a measuring tape. They determined Braian was right -- by a hair -- and readied for the next set of balls to be rolled.

"It brings them back to when they were young, it helps them keep their culture," Szarzynski said, laughing, "as you can tell when they argue. They go back to Italian or whatever."

Szarzynski and Braian drive from New Port Richey each Monday to enjoy this collection of friends. It's worth it every time for Braian, who has played since he fell in love with the game as a child.

Strictly speaking, he was the bocce equivalent of a pool shark.

"I made my first ball," Braian said. "Chopped it from wood. "Sometimes we'd play on the street. Every saloon has one or two places to play, and we would play for a glass of wine.

"Wine is expensive over there," he said, "so when I made my ball, I dug out a little hole and put a piece of lead in there in case I ever need to go around someone else's ball."

Bocce is a passion in the Mediterranean countries -- one that has served Braian since those days of playing for wine. Growing up in a time and place of turmoil, the game gave him friends and memories. Just like now.

"Here it is mostly people from south Italy," Braian said. "My birthplace was Croatia. Before it was Yugoslavia. Before it was Italy. When I was born, it was Austria.

"When I was a boy, it was, "Salute to Mussolini and keep your mouth shut.' "

The Delta Woods club is one of three in Spring Hill, sharing time and the four courts with the Sons of Italy and Spring Hill Bocce Club.

It's no surprise Spring Hill, with many retired Italian immigrants and their children, boasts a thriving bocce community.

Ron Gilgore, the kid at 69 and a retired personnel manager, never had heard of bocce when he moved to Spring Hill.

Now, however, he has been playing for six years and joined all three leagues, playing five days a week.

He admires another well-placed shot from Szarzynski and congratulates her, his East Tennessee drawl an odd layer atop the Italian and Croatian.

"I get a lot out of it," Gilgore said. "The best thing is, it gets me out of the house and gives me something to do."

And it gets you out of bed early.

"It's an out for them," Szarzynski said. "Between golfers and bocce players, we're the only ones up at 5 a.m. to come play.

"In the summer by 10, no one is here because it's too hot," she said.

The Delta Woods club used to number about 100 members, president Al Licresti said, but now has less than 50.

Attrition is constant in a senior group, and the walk from the parking lot to the court is too much for some of his handicapped members, Licresti said.

Ashur Marootian, 88, who moved to Spring Hill from New Jersey 18 years ago, makes it once a month or so, and likes to spend more time around the bocce court than with Licresti and the men playing pinochle, or the wives laughing over a game of Pay Me.

"For seniors, it's not that strenuous of a game," Szarzynski said. "For seniors, other games, they can't play it anymore."

Marootian readied for a shot when Umberto, feeling feisty, went for the tape measure again.

"The most fun part is the arguments," Kilgore said, laughing.

THE HISTORY

Bocce is the Italian version of lawn bowling.

The earliest known form of the sport was a game played in the Italian Alps, early in the Christian era, in which stones were tossed at a target stone -- not necessarily to hit it, but to land as close as possible to it.

This was a major amusement for Roman soldiers, who spread it through the empire. Balls eventually were substituted for the stones, and they usually were rolled rather than tossed.

Three distinct types of lawn bowling developed through the centuries.

In France, the game was known as boules, from the classical Latin word for ball. A different form of the sport became known in England as "lawn bowls." Bocce, also known as boccia, derived its name from the vulgar Latin word for ball, bottia.

Italian immigrants brought bocce to the United States. Its original centers of popularity were New York City and San Francisco because of their large Italian-American populations. But, as newer generations grew away from the sport, bocce declined and seemed in danger of extinction in this country.

The U.S. Bocce Federation says there are about one million players in the United States. Outside of California, major centers of popularity include Chicago, Las Vegas, Memphis, New Orleans, Phoenix, St. Louis, and, of course, Rome, N.Y.

-- SOURCE: HickokSports.com

THE COURT

Regulation courts are 91 feet by 13 feet, but they can be whatever size fits.

OBJECT OF GAME

It is played with eight large bocce balls and one small target ball called the pallino. The object is to roll the bocce ball closest to the pallino.

There are four balls per team. You can play with 1-4 persons on a team. Two teams are stationed at the same end of the court for each frame.

Games usually are played to 12 points.

START OF MATCH

It shall begin with the flip of a coin between the captains from each team. The winner of the flip may have the first toss of the pallino, or choose the color of the balls.

PLAYING THE GAME

The player who originally tosses the pallino throws the first bocce ball. Their ball is the closest to the pallino, so the other team throws their bocce balls until they are closest to the pallino.

Teams alternate like this until all bocce balls are played. If a bocce ball hits the backboard without hitting a bocce ball first, it is considered a dead ball and taken off the court until the next frame.

SCORING

The team with the bocce ball closest to the pallino makes one point for every ball that is closer to the pallino than their opponent.

Teams then play another frame from the opposite end until reaching game point.

-- SOURCE: http://www.boccebrew.com/BocceRules.htm

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