They don’t play on a court. The play the park; up hills, down hills, under benches, and over the wood chips around the trees. They play anywhere, with the rule that you have to respect the flowers and other people in the park. They play bocce ball by the standard rules with a few modifications.
Every Thursday night a group of friends gather in a park near Lake Harriet. Each Thursday anywhere from 6 to16 people show up. This may not seem unusual, except that this group has met in the same spot for more than twenty years.
They first started playing bocce ball sometime around 1975 when a friend with Italian heritage introduced them to the game. At the time several of the players were neighbors, they started playing in their backyard or wherever they could. It wasn’t until 1988 that they began playing on Thursdays in the park.
Robert Ewing has been playing bocce ball with the group since its inception. Ewing is serious about his bocce ball; several times throughout the season the conversation of bocce ball as an Olympic sport comes up.
“Everyone knows it’s more exciting than curling,” Ewing said.
According to Debra Moore, a long time member of the group, Robert Ewing was instrumental in establishing Thursday bocce ball. “For the first several years he would call each of us every Thursday to remind and encourage us to come down and play,” she said. Even today, if someone wants to play bocce ball on a day other than Thursday they usually get Robert to start the calls.
Every game ends with handshakes and a heartfelt “good game” all around. Then it’s back to the lawn chairs for a break before another round kicks off. The players don’t officially keep records of wins and losses (although some players keep private tallies). Even though they have played holding umbrellas in the rain and some games have lasted into the dark, forcing players to use flashlights and even the light from cell phones to see the balls, the group denies being “serious” or “dedicated” bocce ball players.
That may be so, but they are serious and dedicated friends. Many of these friendships go back 30 years or more. Two of the men that play, Robert Ewing and Tim Ryan, have been friends since the first grade. Ryan says he finds it hard to believe that it has been 50 years since he and Ewing met. Some of the original players have introduced their spouses, kids, and even pets to the game.
For the group of friends the games are also a good time to talk about current events, check on how everyone and their kids are doing, and to make plans to go hear music, play golf, Domino’s and Acquire.
The bocce ball group also holds a tournament around the summer solstice known as the Tournament of Roses. Typically more than twenty people will show up for the “big event.” To qualify for the Tournament of Roses you have to play in at least one Thursday game (although this rule isn’t really enforced). Prizes, usually hand made by one of the players, are awarded to the winning team.
For the last 15 years many of these same friends have also been getting together for a September bocce camping weekend. A friend also hosts an annual Memorial Day weekend camping and bocce ball tournament in Wisconsin.
The group of friends has become a mainstay for some park goers. One man that the players have gotten to know because he has been walking his dogs through the park for about 15 years, says he knows “spring has sprung” when he sees the bocce players.
This year spring sprung on April 9 when the bocce season opened and will last until October.