Once boccie balls hit, dickering's the sport


Wooden balls collide -- clack-clack -- a sound that reverberates through the park. The next collision is of words -- uttered almost always in Italian.

"Andiamo, andiamo," someone yells, urging a green ball to "keep going, keep going," until it inches up to a smaller ball sitting in a dirt rectangle at Burdick Park in Northeast Baltimore.

It is a scene that has been played in one form or another for thousands of years, ever since the ancient Egyptians invented what has become the game of boccie -- an endeavor somewhere between lawn bowling and marbles -- whose leisurely rituals belie the fierce competitiveness and intricate strategy of its players.

"Di Boccie -- to make a partnership and steal away points, that is the game," explains 92-year-old Frederick "Fifi" Mattucci, the grand old man of Baltimore boccie and the most familiar voice at the Burdick Park boccie courts.

As Signor Fifi tells it, arguing is as much a part of boccie as scoring a point. So is the skill involved in "making a partnership" -- or choosing the two sides of four players each -- as well as the rich vocabulary and body English needed to coax an errant ball on to its intended path.

And as important as any player's wrist action are the impromptu picnics of lentil soup, bread, sausage, fresh fruits and homemade wine that are laid out under the trees before the small ball known as the palino is thrown and the game begins.

The palino is the focus of boccie , which in cities like Baltimore is played almost exclusively by elderly Italian men who are not bashful about offering advice to each other and who are old enough to tolerate an indelicate phrase or two without blushing.

The game goes like this: One of four balls (red or green in color) available to each team is thrown with the object of stopping closest to the palino. The trick is to end the game with your ball closest. If a player's ball gets there too soon, his opponent will surely try to knock it away.

It is the task of determining whose balls are closest to the palino that often necessitates use of a tape measure and, inevitably, the endless arguments that many insist are the real reason these men play boccie in the first place. In addition, it has been whispered, a modest wager often rides on the outcome of one of these arguments.

"It takes less trouble to elect a president of the United States than to score a game," says one sideline enthusiast.

Enthusiasm for boccie in Baltimore has come and gone only to come again, and so have the locations of the boccie courts.

At one time there were courts at Mount Claire in Carroll Park. In 1959 there was a court constructed on the Veterans Hospital grounds at Loch Raven Boulevard and The Alameda. As recently as four years ago the group at Burdick Park played at a court on Sinclair Lane.

Little Italy has its most recent court located on Stiles Street, complete with lights so the games can go late into the night. And then there is Geaton "Sonny" DeCesaris, who has just completed a boccie court in the yard of his home in Lothian.

"I wanted to build this court to keep the wonderful memories and my father's heritage," said Mr. DeCesaris. "The enjoyment of the game is the relaxation and being with family and friends."

At Mr. DeCesaris' Monday night games, the losers buy dinner.

In Baltimore, Signor Fifi is the guardian of the boccie court at Burdick Park. After all, he supervised the city workers who built the court four years ago.

"I came each day to make sure it was right," he boasts. Sadly, he tells how his arthritis keeps him from playing on the very court he helped create. But the pain and stiffness does not keep him from sitting at courtside, telling stories and jokes.

As many as 30 players turn up at Burdick Park on a given Sunday to play boccie. Many of the players want the city to build another court so the wait between games won't be so long.

One of the mainstays of the boccie group, Virgilia Guglielmi, spends many hours a week keeping the court in good repair. "One time we arrived to find the children had used the court as a skateboard track," he said. Some of the boards that surround the 90-foot court had been broken and there were crater-like holes throughout the dirt court.

A fence would most likely help deter the children, but few want to fence out potential players. So Burdick Park boccie enthusiasts are inviting children to learn the game and to recognize the difference between a boccie court and a skateboard track.

"I have noticed the boccie court has not been torn up as much recently," Mr. Guglielmi said.

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