Bocce takes root

The Baltimore Sun

Spectators lined both sides of a sunny bocce court in Harford County, cheering vigorously and keeping score as players aimed and rolled a ball toward a small target.

But it mattered little who won or lost.

Like most bocce competitions, this one had more to do with camaraderie, laughter and relaxed exercise than intense competition. Friendly impromptu matches occur daily at the McFaul Activity Center in the county seat, just as the man who brought bocce to Bel Air envisioned.

Angelo Grossi moved to the town from Philadelphia 10 years ago to be nearer his family. He soon joined the senior center and with what friends called his infectious enthusiasm, plunged into many programs, but he missed his favorite pastime. He trekked to Little Italy to watch bocce games and pushed for a court closer to home.

"It was Angelo's persistence and ideas that literally got the ball rolling" on the McFaul bocce project, said Terry Carmody, facilities manager for Harford County Parks and Recreation. "While it was under construction, he was always walking around with the rule book and court specs, just in case it was needed. This court was built to his specs."

Because of Grossi, bocce has taken root in the county. Ever since the McFaul court opened a few years ago, players have grown in numbers. Throughout the week, they will put a quick game together or compete in scheduled sets. And now, two more bocce courts are being planned at other activity centers.

Grossi, who died at age 90 on Christmas Day, shortly after a festive family gathering, immigrated to the United States from Italy as a teenager and spent most of his life in construction. He worked hard, raised a son and a daughter, and made time for bocce, his family said.

"It's an activity that is easy to learn and really social," said his son, Stephen Angelo Grossi. "It is a great game for all ages and abilities that everyone can enjoy."

The game, which traces its roots to ancient Rome, resembles bowling. But it is most often played outdoors on a flat, level surface, usually 60 feet long and 10 feet wide. Players divide into two teams, each of which tosses four balls. The balls that land closest to the target, known as a pallina, score points.

Friends, family and a few former competitors organized a bocce tournament recently as a memorial to Grossi and dedicated a plaque at the court in his honor. The inscription says, "His kind heart and love for the game of bocce will live on through all who play here."

The weather, the festive atmosphere and the convivial crowd made even the novices eager to play.

"I just started playing a few weeks ago and am surprised at how much fun it is," said Orville Peters, 80, of Bel Air. "It's great exercise, too."

After Jean Williams, 62, of Bel Air played her first set, she said she might become a regular at the game.

"Just because you are over 50 doesn't mean you go into a vegetative state," she said. "You have to get out there and play."

Bill and Nancy Nicodemus of Jarrettsville pulled rules of the game off the Internet and came to the center to practice for a tournament at their church.

"The only other time I saw this game was in The Godfather," he said.

Spectators encouraged the tournament players. The intensity built as the referee frequently resorted to a tape measure to determine which ball was closest to, but not touching, the target. Winning often came down to a fraction of an inch.

Although the younger Grossi prefers rock climbing to bocce ball tossing, he took a turn on the court with his wife, Debbie Bowers-Grossi. She won by two points.

"I guess the skill skipped a generation," he said.

Through most of his life, Angelo Grossi loved the challenge of a new project and loved being around people, his son said. His last project, the bocce court, might be his most enduring, his friends said.

"There are people who live life to the fullest and make others' lives fuller in doing so," said Carmody. "Angelo helped grow a love for a game that he loved right here in Bel Air."

The success of one bocce court has spawned others. A bocce court at the Havre de Grace center should be under construction by this summer, said Arden McClune, chief of capital planning for Harford's parks department. She said it would take about a month to build and several more weeks to reseed grass surrounding the court. Players should be using it by early fall, she said.

There also are plans for an $8 million Fallston activity center, scheduled to be built at Route 152 and Oakmont Road. The plans include a bocce court, McClune said. Construction bids are expected to go out this summer with a groundbreaking planned for the fall.

"The bocce court is definitely in the plans," McClune said. "It will be built near the lighted parking lot, so there will be some lighting available for players."

The Arc of Northern Chesapeake has fielded the High Rollers, a team of developmentally disabled adults, who take to the McFaul bocce court twice a week and will take on all challengers. The team recently won a medal in a Baltimore tournament.

"This is a great opportunity for people with different abilities to get together and have a lot of fun," said Karen Winkowski, administrator for the Harford County Office on Aging. "The thing this game teaches best is patience."

High Roller Jack Hurley, 63, called bocce "the best game in the world. It's the best exercise. I am good at it, and I have medals."

Winkowski said Grossi was exactly what a coach should be.

"I think he lived vicariously through those on the court," she said.

When Grossi was in his late 80s, he might not have been as fast on his feet as some competitors, but he pitched accurately enough to score, his son said. And he constantly encouraged others to get involved in the game, especially the High Rollers.

"Angelo was our biggest fan, our sideline coach and our inspiration," said Chassity Seymour, The Arc's recreation project coordinator. "He offered us pointers and encouraging words. We play in his spirit."

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