From the July 2013 issue of LAM:
By Dave McKenna
It takes more than balls to turn a backyard into a bocce haven. Just ask Alex Heard. He’ll tell you you’ll also need lots of planning, some wood, some sort of earthen surface, and elbow grease. Oodles and oodles of elbow grease, to be precise—at least if you go the DIY route, as Heard did on his Santa Fe, New Mexico, property back in 2006.
He’ll also tell you the end justifies the means.
“The bocce court unifies my yard, it’s great for socializing, and it makes me feel better instantly anytime I’m depressed,” Heard said upon completing his project, in an article he wrote about the effort for Slate. “It’s like a Japanese rock garden with colored balls.”
“That’s all still true,” Heard told me recently.
Heard lives in the South Capitol section of Santa Fe, a dense residential neighborhood made up of homes mostly built in the 1950s and located just south of the capitol building. Before building his own court, he’d played bocce only once, during a family function at a public park in Secaucus, New Jersey, more than a decade earlier.
He caught a happy kind of virus that day while beating what he remembers as “the local old folks” at their own game that afternoon.
Heard’s day job—the reason he moved to Santa Fe—is editorial director at Outside magazine. That’s a publication that appears to target a consciously avant-garde, extremely extreme demographic; in February, the Outside website had features headlined “North Dakota Snowkiting” and “What Are the Best Photochromic Ski Goggles?” Those articles seem suited for folks who might play bocce at the summit of Everest or 20,000 leagues under the sea, but not on, say, the old-school courts at a Secaucus community center. Or an editor’s backyard.
Bocce, after all, is a game whose invention gets credited all the way back to the early Romans. The primary object—trying to land big balls nearest a small ball—hasn’t changed over time and remains simple enough for an athletically challenged kid or a severely concussed football player to understand and achieve. In the olden days across the pond, coconuts that Italian traders had brought back from Africa served as game balls. As the pastime moved up from the hoi polloi and emperors and kings across Western Europe began partaking, spheres carved out of olive and other hardwoods were used. Participants say that the simplicity adds a Zen component to the pastime—or maybe it’s just that the game’s so simple that participants feel obligated to lend a Zen component to explain their participation. As the kids say: whatevs. The game’s survived and essentially remained the same for centuries.
Yet Heard’s vocation hasn’t dulled his romance with bocce. “That day [in Secaucus] I said, ‘I gotta do this again!’” Heard recalls. “I never forgot that. And when I moved [to Santa Fe], I looked at my backyard and just decided I should go for it.”
He bought a book by Bryan Mero called Budget Bocce Court to help him get started. First he had to decide how big a court he wanted and what surface he’d use. He estimates his backyard is 90 feet deep and 40 feet wide. If you ask the old-country contingent, a standard bocce court will be about 90 feet long and from about 8 to 13 feet wide. He decided that would take up too much of his yard. The orthodoxy also calls for a court surface made of an asphalt/soil melding. But the new generation of bocce players isn’t beholden to its forebears’ ways. There is no hardliner square footage requirement for the playing field. There’s no “wrong” surface material, either. So Heard mulled over all sorts of lengths and widths topped off by everything from the expensive and chic (crushed oyster shells) to the super cheap and unglamorous (plain old sand). Space and budget considerations led him to design a court of 50 feet by eight feet, with the same topping found on the center court at Roland Garros during the French Open tennis tourney: clay.
But after he’d made his landscaping decisions, he had to get to the actual landscaping. And Heard began doubting the wisdom of his undertaking as soon as he first put shovel to dirt. It turns out the Santa Fe terra firma is a whole lot more, well, firma than the backyards he used to dig up for kicks while growing up in Mississippi and Kansas.
“It was so much more work than I thought it would be,” he says. “To dig that dirt, I had to chip away and chip away and soak the yard with water just to make it pierceable. The whole time I heard the voice of my mother, because I was bad about starting backyard chores and not closing the loop: ‘Yeah, I’ll prune those bushes for you, Mom!’”
But for this chore, he closed the loop. And after a full summer of Saturdays spent laboring out back, and what he calls a fabulous lucky break in a local country club’s selling him the surface of its clay tennis courts for $150, his backyard eventually did become the boccecentric hangout he’d dreamed.
And as old as the game he loves surely is, Heard got into bocce at the cusp of a renaissance of the game’s popularity in the United States. Lots of folks have his same dream of a backyard bocce court, but not his pluck.
The pluck free are keeping guys like Richard Johnson busy these days.
“I’m getting lots of calls for bocce,” says Johnson, a contractor from San Antonio who’s been honing his court construction skills on the job for the past four years.
Johnson specializes in a 10-foot-by-50-foot backyard court surrounded by a limestone walkway and topped by crushed oyster shells he gets shipped in by Boccemon, a bocce building supplies outfit in Bellingham, Washington. The typical cost for his standard court is $20,000, and it takes him “about 20 days” to finish construction, he says, adding that he recently finished such a job in the Texas Hill Country for “an elite person,” which is Texas Hill Country-speak for “celebrity.” He wouldn’t divulge the elitist’s name.
The bocce boom isn’t found only in backyards. Bocce’s showing up in the darndest places these days. In 2010, for example, the U.S. Bocce Federation launched its first bocce cruise, a seven-night jaunt through the Caribbean called Bocce at Sea with a tournament for all the gamers on board. Pottery Barn came up with its own line of bocce accessories. (Customers who view PB’s $89 bocce ball via potterybarn.com are told that others who’d perused the item were also interested in the $399 Granger Nesting Tables and the French Wine Bottle Riddling Rack at $249.) Pinstripes, a regional restaurant chain based in Illinois, opened its doors in 2007 with the marquee slogan “Bowling, Bocce, Bistro.” Patrons who want to toss balls while they dine can move their meals over to a 60-foot-by-10-foot indoor bocce court for a surcharge of $5 to $10 per hour.
“We offer bocce with food and a glass of wine,” says Dale Schwartz, Pinstripes’s Harvard-educated founder and CEO. “And we find that you tend to play bocce better after drinking and eating.”
High schools all over the country have begun to offer bocce as a varsity sport that disabled students can letter in. In February, the state of Maryland held its third annual Unified Indoor Bocce State High School Invitational on the campus of the University of Maryland in College Park. The event featured 60-foot-by-12-foot courts laid out on a wooden gym floor and was cosponsored by the Special Olympics. The state tournament was founded as a direct result of the Maryland Fitness and Athletics Equity for Students with Disabilities law, a sort of Title IX for the disabled that requires school districts to come up with “jockular” opportunities for their physically disadvantaged populations. According to Special Olympics, more than 100 teams from 68 schools in eight Maryland counties now field bocce squads.
George Washington is said to have installed one of the United States’s first bocce courts in the late 18th century at his home at Mount Vernon, just outside the District of Columbia. The D.C. area remains at the forefront of the game’s domestic growth. In fact, while the Wall Street Journal dubbed the Chicago neighborhood of Highwood as America’s “bocce capital” in 2008, the nation’s capital now seems ready to vie for that title.
DC Bocce, a for-profit league that started in 2004, has more than 2,500 players per season and an average age of 29. Any season but winter, on any night of the week, you’ll find players in DC Bocce attire tossing balls on both regulation bocce courts and open plots of grassland in public parks all around the Beltway. And in the winter they switch to indoor courts in neighborhood bars.
“Bocce is a trend here, definitely,” says Sarah DeLucas, a founder of the group. “And we’re leading the charge of changing the stereotype of bocce as a game only played by old Italian men.”
According to the group, only about 50 percent of the coed league’s new members have ever played bocce before.
But, DC Bocce isn’t all about the game. Maybe not even mostly about the game. Much like the adult kickball leagues that took over the town in the 1990s, DC Bocce has thrived while de-emphasizing the athletic or exercise opportunities and hyperpromoting the social side of signing on—meaning, of course, drinking. Every DC Bocce division is sponsored by a bar, and from looking at the group’s website (where “$10 Pitchers of Peroni” or “$5 shots!” or some such is hawked every few digital column inches) it seems there aren’t enough happy hours in a day for bocce players to get all their drinks down.
But amid all the talk of imbibing and the actual imbibing, DC Bocce has made some very impressive bocce-related advances in a town where nothing good gets done without red tape and regulatory headaches. In 2005, the group oversaw the installation of permanent bocce courts at Garfield Park, a heavily used public space near Capitol Hill that was created in 1791.
“Bocce courts were supposed to be part of Garfield Park years ago when the park was redesigned,” says DeLucas, “but those plans were scrapped by the city. We raised the money and agreed to take on the financial and planning responsibility to get them installed.”
The Garfield courts, which fit in wonderfully in what is one of D.C.’s most beautiful parks, are currently the only public bocce courts in town. DC Bocce has more recently gotten approval from the city and local businesses to install a pair of 50-foot-by-10-foot courts on private land in an emerging neighborhood in the northeast quadrant of the city. Because sufficient drainage already existed on the site, the project will cost only $5,000. “We went to [local business leaders] and said that bocce would be a very positive use of the space,” says DeLucas. The courts were in service by last month.
DC Bocce’s boom has apparently been noticed by private and public sector entities, near and far. Schwartz, the Pinstripes CEO, says the chain will open its first nonmidwestern location in D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood “by the end of the year.” An independent food/drink/bocce establishment called Vendetta opened in May in the H Street Corridor, the city’s hottest new nightlife neighborhood and a place where Pabst Blue Ribbon tallboys are drunk cheaply and with hipster irony. DC Bocce has already made a deal to run some of its leagues at Vendetta.
And across the river in Arlington, Virginia, the county government is currently installing two 13.5-foot-by-70-foot courts with a stone dust topping in a small park adjacent to the Ballston Metro Station. Those courts stand as the county’s first publicly funded bocce construction ever.
“We’ve been very mindful of the demographics and population changes in our urban corridors,” says Scott McPartlin, Arlington’s senior park and open space planner. “And we’ve been looking for recreational opportunities that are appropriate in smaller urban spaces, but also activities that serve the populations that are there, while being mindful of existing recreational trends.”
What McPartlin’s saying: Bocce is trendy in his county. He adds that one survey found that 800 folks from DC Bocce were using the county’s Mosaic Park each week—and that park didn’t even have a bocce court.
Hence the quick installation of two real bocce courts. But, again, the construction project isn’t all about the game.
“If 800 people are using a park two nights a week for bocce,” McPartlin says, “and then they head to the sponsored restaurants, Arlington establishments right near the park, well, I can’t directly speak to revenues, but I intuitively say there’s gotta be an economic benefit [for the county].”
Another way to tell bocce’s trending: A backlash against the game is in full swing. During an uptick in participation in the late 16th century, the Catholic Church barred priests from playing after deciding it was a gateway pastime to gambling. Slightly less severe condemnations of bocce have been issued around the D.C. area of late. When Prince of Petworth, a blog with a tapas- and craft-beer-lovin’ audience, reported that the DC Bocce League was expanding into the Adams Morgan neighborhood, everybody’s favorite Internet commenter, Anonymous, chimed in: “Another pastime ruined.”
And a proposal to install additional bocce courts in Arlington last year incited the sort of not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) onslaught once reserved just for skateboard parks or Wal-Mart construction.
The project called for a single 60-foot-by-12-foot bocce court to be wedged into a public greenspace adjacent to Bluemont Park, one of the county’s older parks. Unlike the Ballston bocce courts, this installation was called “permanent,” meaning all sorts of public commenting requirements kicked in. It was quashed amid reports of residential fears that it would “promote noise and drinking,” cause “parking, traffic, noise, [and] litter” problems, and—egads!—“attract outsiders and, perhaps, organized play by local bocce leagues.” One leader of the NIMBY flock went so far as to predict local residents would suffer “significant dust/grime issues” if a cinder bocce court actually came to be. The president of the Bluemont Civic Association resigned over the rancor, saying he was tired of being “personally attacked, accused, and yelled at” over a game.
None of that boccecentric rancor harshes Heard’s mellow when he’s in his backyard. Almost seven years after he built the bocce court, Heard still gushes about its place in his home life.
“My backyard would be totally boring without it,” he says. “I haven’t talked anybody out of building a bocce court.”
Dave McKenna is a writer based in Washington, D.C.