Let’s roll!

Zen and the art of bocce ball, one of summer’s least extreme sports

Photo By Larry Dalton

He wandered from the direction of Rodeo Way, his four strong legs pushing him deeper into East Portal Park. Then the muscular bull terrier—which looked a little like Petey, the ring-eyed canine hero of Hal Roach’s Our Gang comedies—stepped clumsily onto the sandy surface of the park’s outer pair of bocce-ball courts. He cut to his right, jumped the low barrier separating the two courts and ambled diagonally toward the court’s far end. A slender woman wearing a “Rob Kerth for Mayor” T-shirt stood behind the foul line, waiting to bowl.

She bent down and patted his head.

He lifted his leg. A golden stream of liquid splashed off her shoe.

Flustered momentarily, the woman sought solace by complaining to three friends nearby, one of whom was smoking a cigar. “I can’t believe it. That dog just peed on my foot.”

The guy smoking the stogie was somewhat philosophical: “Maybe it’ll give you good luck,” he snarked.

Apparently, it did; her side won. And because there doesn’t seem to be any commentary in the rules and standards, published by the Confederazione Boccistica Internazionale, that dictates how play should proceed once an errant dog confuses a bocce-ball player with a fire hydrant, the matter was soon forgotten.

Someone sitting in the bleachers noticed me laughing and remarked, “Eh, these kids. You want to see the old-timers play? Come back next Tuesday night.”

East Portal Park has four bocce courts. Two were added last year, when burgeoning demand necessitated additional playing space. The new courts, slightly farther inside the park, lie adjacent to the older courts; each pair is surrounded by near-majestic telephone-pole-like colonnades, which support a corrugated tin roof that keeps the hot sun from bearing down on the powdered oyster shell and granite covering the courts. Each court is long—about 76 feet or so—and around 12 feet wide.

Edward Diamond shoots to kill at East Portal Park’s bocce court.

Photo By Jill Wagner

The idea is to toss a small, white ball called a pallino, about the size of a golf ball, past the center line of the court but not all the way to the other end. A coin toss establishes who does this. The pallino becomes the target, and the object of throwing or bowling the bocce balls—hard, red or green ceramic spheres around the size of ones used for playing softball—is to land your four balls closer to the pallino than your opponent’s closest ball. Each ball closer to the pallino than the other person’s (or team’s) closest ball scores a point, and 12 points wins a game.

It’s simple, but it’s not as simple as it looks. Finesse is required, as is the ability to think strategically. Because the pallino falls in a different spot every time, fixed strategies are out. And because the game relies on finesse rather than on brute force, the game requires a more meditative mind-set—kinda like the spaced-out focus you need to play billiards or snooker.

You know, those non-extreme sports. The ones you won’t see splattered across some cable TV channel, with a chunka-chunka electric-guitar riff underpinning the crucial post-game interview: “Like, I totally was shooting for the pallino today, but we got so extra crispy last night that, whoa, dude, I couldn’t, like, uh, heh-heh …”

That is to say that bocce is an old game; some say it dates back to prehistoric Egypt, and a few tinfoil-hat types may tell you it was given to ancients by the Annunaki, fish-like aliens from Sirius who appeared to Sumerians near Ur in the summer of 6704 B.C.E. Bocce was probably being played when the Greeks were figuring out what sports would make the cut at the Olympics. “Let’s see, athletes tossing discus—check! People with brooms sweeping across the ice in front of a toaster-sized object to move it—check! Old Italian guys rolling balls at a smaller ball—what? Get outta here.” Bocce, it is said, was played by Augustus Caesar. Later, it was banned in Venice in 1576, and the church told its priests that they’d be better off doing something more constructive, such as running bingo games.

In America, bocce has tended to show up in places populated by Italians, such as various parts of Northern California. In Sacramento, the place is East Portal Park, located a couple of blocks south of J Street in an East Sacramento neighborhood noted for being a longtime Italian-American enclave.

At around 6:30 on a Tuesday evening, members of the East Portal Bocce Club were convening, and the first of two hourly games was about to begin. On one court, two nattily attired men, slightly beyond retirement age and dressed nearly alike in brownish-gray slacks and copper-printed short-sleeve shirts, were starting to roll.

Anna Stratton, a club member, sat in the bleachers, watching the play. One of the men had a near-psychic connection with the ball; as he rolled it, he gave it a slight backspin that wasn’t apparent until its forward motion slowed. Then, the ball arced gently retrograde before coming to rest next to its target.

“He’ll zero in on the pallino,” Stratton said, motioning toward the player, “and then, he’ll take that ball, and he throws it with his head down. He never looks up and never looks at the target again.”

Stratton’s late father used to come to the park, and she described her participation as a way to continue his legacy. “I’m really into the family feeling we have here and keeping the old-timers coming back,” she said. “Most of them live nearby, and they can walk here.”

On the court, the vibe was relaxed and friendly. Players bantered casually, and the closest anyone came to a discordant note was when the balls looked a shade too close to eyeball, so tape measures were whipped out. A few dogs, on leashes, lurked nearby. And as the sun was beginning to set, a gentle Delta breeze came wafting in from the southwest. Occasionally, it got strong enough to give a rolling bocce ball an extra nudge. But mostly it provided the kind of touch that pushed a relaxed, warm-weather, Sacramento evening over the edge into perfection.