Bocce competitors step onto the field as equals

An annual tournament featuring one of Italy's favorite sports brings together people of all ages, skill levels and physical conditions.

August 28, 2005|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Dominic "Yama" DiFelice started playing bocce because at 25 cents a game, bowling was too expensive.

The 86-year-old Philadelphia native became one of the world's best bocce players, with so many championship titles and awards that one year he gave one of his trophies to every player at Baltimore's annual Wheelchair/Stand-up Bocce Tournament.

Yesterday, DiFelice, who served as the tournament judge, awarded the first-place title and a $120 prize to a team of bocce players that included a Towson University professor, a guitar instructor, a graphic artist with a form of dwarfism and a player in a wheelchair.

"Anyone can play, at any age," said DiFelice, who lives part time in Owings Mills. "I still play three or four times a week. I have to keep in shape."

DiFelice said the game is played in more than 15 countries, including Argentina and China.

"It should be an Olympic sport," he said.

Twenty-eight players competed at Patterson Park yesterday, ranging in age from 13 to 78 -- some with disabilities.

It was the first time that the annual tournament, sponsored by the city's Parks and Recreation Department, was held outside Little Italy, where bocce is nearly as popular as gelato in the summer.

"Once you've played it, you're hooked," said Ben Huff, a 25-year-old guitar teacher from Westminster who was on the first-place team.

The sport is sometimes described as a cross between billiards and bowling.

A tiny ball -- about the size of a lime called a pallino -- is thrown first. Then players throw grapefruit-sized bocce balls, trying to get as close as possible to the pallino.

Long wooden boards marked off three bocce courts on a baseball field so that six teams could play at once.

The afternoon clouds and occasional drizzle didn't stop the games -- or the fun.

"It's a great sport. It doesn't take too much physical strength, but it requires eye-hand coordination and a good sense of depth of field," said Todd Stringer, a 27-year-old graphic designer from Annapolis who has a form of dwarfism.

His team, which included his mother, has won the tournament the past three years.

"It's a competitive game that anyone can play," said Stringer.

Two years ago, a Little Italy bocce tournament organizer tried to keep Stringer and his teammates from playing against nondisabled players, apparently believing that the nondisabled players wouldn't want to beat a disabled player.

With pressure from city officials and local businesses and residents, Stringer and his teammates were allowed to play, and they won several rounds.

"I think these kind of events raise awareness about the abilities of disabled players," said Stringer's mother, Andrea Boucher, a physical-education professor at Towson University.

Yesterday's tournament organizer Mike Naugle says the "sport itself is an equalizer."

"It's a lifetime sport, too -- something you can do when you're young or older," said Naugle, who oversees the city Recreation and Parks' Therapeutic Recreation Division.

One team competing yesterday included players from the John Booth Senior Center in Highlandtown.

The youngest competitor was 13-year-old Katie Boyle from Overlea, who wore a pink "I want a pony" T-shirt. She said her aunt and uncle asked her to check out the tournament with them.

"It's my first time playing bocce," she said. "I think it's really fun. There are a lot of good people playing. It's friendly competition."

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