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Letter from Key West: Back to bocce

bocce players at the courts in key west
Nancy Klingener
The Southernmost Bocce League offers waterfront sunsets and affordable entertainment for island locals.

I haven't played bocce in close to 30 years. But the Southernmost Bocce League will always be close to my heart — as one of the ways I got to know and fall in love with Key West.

I'm not the only one. I recently checked in on the league and talked to Susan Rineer, who has been playing since 1995.

"When we first came here, that's how we really met a lot of people. And it was crazy, you know — we met judges, we met homeless," she said. "It was just a good cross-section of the Keys," Rineer said.

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That was my experience, too — one of the first people I got to know here invited me to play on her team. And that way, I got to know a lot MORE people. It made me feel like a local.

Garth Holtkamp is president of the league.

"Look around. What don't you see people doing? Nobody's on their phone," he said. "What have we got, like 120, 130 people out here? Not one of 'em. Not one of 'em on their phone," Holtkamp said.

Bill Raspolich works for a cabinet maker. This is his first bocce season. He says he loves it for the camaraderie and the competition — and the view.

The seven courts are lined up side by side in a city park across the street from the Atlantic Ocean. You get gorgeous sunset colors and ocean breezes. People pay big bucks for this view — bocce players get it for twenty bucks a season.

Raspolich moved to Key West four years ago from Chicago.

"And if I ever move back there, I want to start a league up there for sure," he said. "It's so much fun."

Some teams are highly competitive. I spent a couple of years as secretary of the bocce league, and I think I got yelled at more in that role than I have in decades as a reporter. Other players? They just like hanging out — like Steve Shapiro, whose team was in last place on the last night of regular play this season. But they were still happy to be there.

His team is called The Plant Man, which he described as "my old business." I asked why he was still sponsoring it.

"I had the t-shirts," he said.

This is how bocce works. You throw out a little ball called a pallina (at least that's what they call it in Key West. Lots of official rules I looked up called it a pallino). Each team has four larger balls. You throw until yours is closest. Then the other team throws until theirs is closest. You score points by how many of your balls are closer to the pallina than any of the other team's balls. It's more like curling than bowling. The first team to get to 16 points wins.

And it's the perfect Key West game in a lot of ways. You don't have to put down your beer or your cigarette. Anyone can play, all ages and genders. It's a night of affordable entertainment in an insanely expensive place to live.

And once in a while, the lowest placed team can take a point off the highest placed team. Like the Plant Man team was doing the night I dropped by. I asked one of the players, Catherine Eisenmen, if they had a strategy.

"Have fun — the strategy is to have fun," she said, admiring a teammate's roll that looked like scoring a point.

Going back to the bocce courts after almost 30 years, I saw a couple of familiar faces. But it's been a generation since I played. I talked to one woman who was a little kid running around the park while her parents played back when I was in the league. Now she's a detective with the sheriff's office.

On an island where people come and go and where it's getting harder and harder to just live and work — it was reassuring to see the bocce league still looking essentially the same, with old-timers and new arrivals cheering their teammates and connecting with people they never would have met otherwise. Playing an Italian game on courts of sand next to the ocean not far from the Southernmost Point in the U.S.

Tracy Egbas was a contributing editor on this story.

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Nancy Klingener was WLRN's Florida Keys reporter until July 2022.
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