Sipping Chianti gives way to flip cup at the bar as bocce finds a new, younger crowd.
By JON HUSSEY & TRAVIS PRATT
At Garfield Park on Capitol Hill, a crowd of 20-to-30-somethings gathers every Tuesday after work in the spring. All of the telltale signs of a Washington, D.C., recreational sport are evident — the red Solo cups, the colorful T-shirts, team names like “Balls of Furry.”
But this crowd isn’t here for kickball. In recent years, the party crowd of the District’s popular kickball leagues has given way to the slower pace of one of the world’s oldest sports.
D.C. Bocce League, started in 2004 by four friends looking for a more relaxing social game, has grown in popularity and attracted a crowd that has outgrown the rowdy, hook-up haze of kickball and flip cup.
“This is low stress for high-stress, high-activity, busy people,” said Rachael Preston, one of the four founders of D.C. Bocce League. “You meet people almost automatically. It is just a great social facilitator.”
In the last few years, bocce has grown so popular that Preston and her co-founders, Sarah DeLucas, Gautam Chowdhry and John Groth, have started Major League Bocce to expand their business to other cities. Yet, many are still making the transition into the more mature social sport.
“I still play kickball,” said Vanessa Schutz, who has played bocce for five years and has helped run the league for two years as a “black shirt.”
“I think kickball is a little more of a crazy bar crowd,” she said. “That’s not to say that bocce people don’t know how to enjoy themselves and have fun, but kickball definitely makes for a crazier next day of work.”
While kickball seems a natural fit for Washington’s young professionals determined to hold on to the memories of the playground games of their childhood, bocce has its roots in the playgrounds of Rome.
That connection to the sport’s history is what drew New Jersey-native Tim Naylor, whose team is sponsored by D.C. institution Ben’s Chili Bowl, to the sport of bocce.
“When I started playing bocce in New Jersey, the guys I played with drank Chianti and had gray hair,” Naylor said. “That’s not how the league has turned out in D.C. It is a really great mix of young people. But at the same time, if a group of four 60-year olds started a team together, I’m sure they would be welcomed.”
A Neighborhood Game
Just 40 miles away in Baltimore, Md., bocce clings to its Italian roots. Nestled behind Isabella’s deli and brick-oven pizza and Da Mimmo’s Italian Restaurant, the Little Italy bocce courts are the neighborhood attraction.
Staff from Da Mimmo’s step out on the back steps to catch a few minutes of the action during a break. Bottles of wine sit in coolers beside park benches, painted the colors of the Italian flag, as the seats fill with people of all ages and all races from around the neighborhood.
“We don’t have any senior center. We don’t have any children’s playgrounds,” said Giovanna “Gia” Blatterman, a Baltimore community activist who runs the Tuesday and Wednesday night bocce leagues. “So we focus on these courts as the one place for everyone to get together and socialize.”
Over the years, the bocce courts in Little Italy have changed. Completed in 1994, the courts have seen a demographic shift from the early crowds, which were dominated by older Italian men, many who grew up in Italy.
“We have a big cross-section of nationalities that are playing,” Fran Blatterman said. “It’s not just an Italian thing anymore. It used to be that it was just a men’s thing. But now you can see there are lots of women here. Now some of the colleges and schools are putting in bocce programs. It’s really something that’s catching on.”
But Thursday nights are still reserved for the best players — the old, Italian men. And the action gets heated.
“The guys on Thursday night, they take it seriously,” said Joe Butta, who plays on the courts every week.
“If you miss a shot, they’ll go like this,” Butta said, gesturing with his thumb and forefinger, leaving about an inch between the two. “They say, ‘You’re about that short.’ So they call your manhood into question.”
Butta knows a little bit about competition himself. He and his wife, Kitty, play on different bocce teams and regularly square off against each other.
Despite the competition, bocce’s popularity is growing thanks to its social nature. Whether it’s the young professionals in Washington, D.C., or families and friends in Little Italy in Baltimore, bocce is bringing communities together.
“Young and old can play. It doesn’t matter if you’re 8 or 80,” Butta said. “It’s the perfect game. You can eat and drink while you play and you only retire when you die.”