I am cradling this ball, this stone sent from 7,000 years in the past. I am rolling it 70 feet along crushed shellfish to a cluster of similarly shaped and colored spheres. With a slight breeze and bright, blue skies above, I am playing bocce on my Sequim neighbor's front lawn.
This is work?
It isn't hard to get Ralph Richie excited about his front lawn, considering the 25 yards worth of oyster shells that lie like a salt flat atop the grassy turf. But it's the game, not the tournament regulation-sized bocce court, that has Richie raving about the game and me trying my hardest to play and learn about it at the same time.
"I would love for people to know about this game," he says.
At first glance, bocce seems more open to interpretation than the Bible and the JFK assassination put together. Rules vary according to court size, scoring, on-the-court conduct and much more, from country to country, state to state, tournament to tournament and even neighbor to neighbor.
Richie is trying to give me a flavor for the real thing.
The game of bocce is centered around one target ball - most often called the "pallino" or "jack" - and players' own set of polished rolling stones called bocces.
Players take turns rolling their bocces underhanded at the pallino. The scoring is easier to understand if playing than to read, but the gist is this: closest to the pallino gets one point, plus any other ball that is closer than one's opponent. So, one playing with four bocces may score up to four points, if they are all closer to the pallino than one's opponent. The scoring is always a shutout to one player/team or another.
Traditional rules add a serving line, a running serve line, sidelines, a half-court line, a set number of points per game (typically 11, 12 or 13 points), plus on-court etiquette I'm trying to learn at a rapid pace.
Richie lets me know the things I learn here may not apply in the bocce game next week or next month, since rules often are determined by who owns the bocce set or court. But, he notes, the game's flexibility proves to be quite a draw.
"You can play anywhere - you don't have to have a court," he says. "This (court) plays in the winter ... and can play wet, too."
Bocce game tactics, among the many, can include blocking opponents, knocking opponents' bocces away, knocking the pallino into a more favorable spot and serving the pallino close to the halfway mark where bocces that fall short of the line cannot score.
The sport seems to bring out the best in several other sports: the carefully paced throws of bowling, the meticulous strategy of chess and billiards and the childhood spontaneity of marbles.
Best of all, anyone who can roll a ball can play it. That includes Richie's father, who still plays in tournaments in Ohio at age 85.
"It's one of the games you can play at any age," the younger Richie says. "If you can roll the ball on the court, you can do it. For the old folks, it's exercise."
Bocce shares ancestry with contests played by ancient Egyptians; graphic representations of figures tossing a ball or polished stone have been recorded as early as 5200 B.C. Artifacts show Greeks played the game by 800 B.C., then it truly evolved after the Romans picked up the game.
Some historians point out that bocce derives from the vulgate Latin bottia (meaning "boss"), although others assert it's the plural of the Italian word boccia, meaning "bowl."
In France, they play a version called "boules." In South America, they call it "bochas," in Venezuela they play "bolas criollas." In Serbia, the game is called "bo anje." In England, it's akin to the popular lawn bowling.
Games are traditionally played on long, narrow courts made of oyster shells but often are played upon any material players can find nearby, including decomposed granite, soil, limestone, stone dust and asphalt. Bocces are usually stone but can be made of metal, wood or plastic. Wooden boards at the ends or side keep the bocces from rolling away.
The sport has grown with the Italian immigrant movements, surviving a 16th-century ban from the Catholic Church for promoting gambling among clergymen.
As of 2006, there is just one bocce club geared for "volo" - a professional, competitive version of bocce - in the United States, while Italy boasts of more than 100 such clubs and has hosted championship tournaments since 1847.
But U.S. amateur tournaments abound, predominantly in Florida and California retirement communities and even in Washington state. Far from its
origins, bocce is played in the Evergreen state featuring 24, four-person teams in Seattle, Auburn and Bellingham. Washington's Special Olympics is making bocce an official sport as well.
Richie, an Italian through and through, learned the game in his hometown of Cleveland, then took that sporting passion to Hawaii, where he worked as a roofing and waterproofing specialist for 25 years. While in Hawaii, he and his wife joined a lawn bowling club to ease his bocce fix.
A Dungeness Valley resident for the past seven years or so, Richie put his bocce court in less than two years ago. Using materials found in and around Sequim - and needing something that would stay flat and drain quickly - he had the 76-foot-by-12-foot court placed in his front yard on his family's Bell Hill property, providing players a stunning view overlooking Happy Valley.
I'm more intrigued by the game than the admittedly impressive view or the fact two deer have wandered into the yard and are taking a break in the shade nearby.
Richie can see a sport like bocce flourishing in Sequim. A set of four bocce courts side-by-side, he says, could easily bring in dozens for a legitimate tournament and would be popular in this town, a decidedly retirement community.
"Somebody's going to do it here," Richie asserts. "It's just 'Who is going to do it' (first)?'"
Richie has joined his son, also named Ralph, and his son's friends to form a tournament team. Until Sequim has a set of courts, the Richie clan and company have to travel to find competition. Unless, of course, they can find some unproven reporter to toss a few.
On this sublime summer day, I take careful aim with my bocce and watch it veer left, veer right, slow meagerly short of its target, but most often blow past the pallino. I'm hoping some sort of atavistic trait emerges as Richie masterfully dissects my novice tosses. His courtside demeanor is paced, his aim is true, his rolls deliberate and unwavering.
My throws are like my columns: well meaning but often a bit too strong and off the mark. It takes me several tries to get close to the pallino, while he unerringly finds space between the target and my best bocce.
Richie gives me eight bocces to roll - just two for him - but after falling in the first game, he grabs a third ball. The second game is much closer; I still win, but with an eight-to-three bocce advantage I know it's merely a welcoming game, a polite exhibition for the rookie. I don't mind. I'm grateful for the sun, the sport, the friendly conversation and, best of all, a new sport to learn about.
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