Roll With It

Posted on March 10, 2017

How a new generation of players is continuing the boccie tradition.

Benjamin Schwartz (second from right) and his boccie buddies
Benjamin Schwartz (second from right) and his boccie buddies Photography by Jason Sinn

FOR THE LAST NINE YEARS OR SO, Benjamin Schwartz has shown up at Sacramento’s East Portal Park faithfully each week during boccie season to join his three teammates for a league game against another team of four. Schwartz, who owns a bespoke footwear company and lives within walking distance of the park, joined East Portal Bocce Club shortly after moving to the neighborhood and represents a new generation of boccie players.

“I always thought that less popular recreational things like boccie were kinda cool,” explains Schwartz, 32. “I saw that there was a club at the park, so I walked over one day and ran into someone I had worked with years before. I wasn’t really sure what to expect because I hadn’t played before, but everybody was pretty welcoming.”

The objective of boccie is simple enough: Score points by rolling as many of your balls as close to the smaller target ball, called a pallino, as possible. It’s the kind of game that takes 10 minutes to learn but a lifetime to perfect. Schwartz and his teammates have a strong record: “We’ve been to the playoffs several times,” he says. But he contends that the sport is about more than winning.

“We play to win, but at the same time we’re pretty nonchalant about it,” says Schwartz, whose team name is Joanie Loves Bocce. “We usually bring some snacks and a bottle of wine and everybody hangs out. We have teams that we really love playing against, and they’ll bring a couple of different beers. It is a lot of fun and everybody is friendly.”

Well, almost everybody. “There were a couple of seasons when they didn’t play the final championship match because the teams got in a fight,” says Schwartz. (And you thought boccie was boring.)

When East Portal Bocce Club was founded in the 1940s, only Italian men were allowed to join. In the early ’90s, membership was opened to all. Today, a large portion of the members are female and many are not Italian, although there is still a small contingent of old-timers.

“There’s only a handful of men in the club who are originally from Italy, and they’re all pretty elderly,” says Schwartz, who was so taken by their culture and personalities that he started making a documentary about them that was never completed.

Although he’s pleased that club membership is no longer exclusionary, Schwartz admits he has occasionally felt like an interloper. “There are times when you question whether you’re invading some sacred thing,” he says. But he keeps coming back, and the boccie tradition continues.

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