They didn’t anticipate needing a passport.
Bocce took the husband and wife team to tournaments in Chicago, St. Louis, Canada, China and South Africa. “We’re both sports-oriented,” Manny said. “We found a sport we could enjoy at the same time.”
The game has its origins in Italy, but its short learning curve and accessibility to all ages has made it popular in the East Bay. Recreational leagues are active in Brentwood, Oakley and Antioch, and local bocce federations attract competitive players. Former NFL coaches John Madden and Steve Mariucci host a popular charity bocce event in Livermore every spring.
Similar to the game of horseshoes, players from two teams roll balls in a rectangular pit in an attempt to get closest to a smaller white ball, called a pallino. Each team has four bocce balls, roughly the size of a softball but weighing about three pounds each. Points are tallied by rolling, or “lagging” the ball closer to the pallino than the balls of the other team, in the same vein as curling. For each ball that stops closer to the target than the opposition’s, a point is scored. The first team to 12 points wins the game.
“Anybody can play,” said Denny Kinsel, an Antioch resident and 25-year bocce veteran. “Some people come and bring their lunch and their wine and make a fun thing about it.”
After starting off by playing casually in the mid-’70s for the Antioch Bocce Federation, the Romos crossed paths with people from the Martinez Bocce Federation, where the roughly 1,500 members take the game more seriously. From there, they began playing in competitive tournaments.
Lydia has played bocce in China, while Manny represented the United States Bocce Federation in 2000 at an international tournament in South Africa. Manny teamed up with a player from Florida, another from Chicago and one from St. Louis to participate in a tournament that included squads from 21 countries.
Kinsel’s grandson, 2001 Deer Valley High graduate Jarrod Garner, represented the U.S. National team in the early part of the decade, competing in places such as Bosnia and Montreal.
The sport is also accessible and easy to learn for newcomers who just want to have some fun. After hearing input from residents, the City of Oakley started a recreational bocce league this year, and open slots filled quickly. The crowd that gathers Tuesday and Thursday evenings at Creekside Park is more social and casual, with many newbies in the mix. Players bring coolers filled with refreshments, learning the rules as they go.
“Just the camaraderie and to play out with your friends in the summertime, it’s always beautiful,” said Oakley resident Heather Newton, a member of the Hookrats team. “It’s a little confusing, but it was easy to pick up.”
Juan Chavez, a landscape maintenance worker for Oakley, volunteered to moderate the league, not expecting much of a turnout. He was hoping for maybe six or eight teams to join, but to his surprise, 119 players comprising 16 teams signed up. A newcomer to the sport, Chavez was forced to learn the rules at top speed.
Brentwood runs a bocce league for seniors, one that Recreation Supervisor Mac Kaiser said has been popular in its roughly seven-year history. Those leagues, which attract 12 teams of about eight people each, play matches on Thursday mornings in the fall and the spring.
“Everyone sees it, they like it and they join,” Kaiser said. “It’s a very social setting out there. They have a great time.”