If you’ve ever taken a drive in Belleville’s Branch Brook Park, around the cherry blossom trees, there’s a chance you’ve passed by the park’s bocce courts. And if that trip took place any day of the week between 2:30 p.m. and as late as 9 p.m. some days, chances are you’ve seen an diverse group of guys gathered at the courts, playing the game they love.
We’ve nicknamed them “The Bocce Boys.”
Some of the boys came to America from Italy. Others originally lived in Puerto Rico. Some have lived in Newark or Belleville their entire lives. Some are young. Others, not so young. Some still work. Others are retired.
It’s the diverse makeup of the group that makes them so fascinating. And yet, despite their diversity, it’s their love of bocce that unites them — and that forms an incredible bond, an impenetrable bond, that brings them to the courts seven days a week, 12 months of the year, rain or shine, in the cold or the warm temperatures.
We first met Mario Grasso, who came to America from Salerno, Italy, when he was 14. He organizes the daily games played at the park. He says the size of each of the two teams squaring off depends on how many people show up each day — some come every day, others, just a few times each week.
“If we have eight people, there’s gonna be four on each team,” Grasso said. “If there’s 12 people, there’s gonna be six on each team.”
Grasso says he and the rest of the boys play when the sun’s up — and when it gets dark — since there’s a covered court with lights, which is also good for inclement weather.
“We play under the moon sometimes,” Grasso said. “It doesn’t matter the weather. The guys, they just wear warmer clothes and jackets so they don’t get too cold playing, you know?”
Aside from playing informally in Belleville, the boys also travel to tournaments that are organized in Lyndhurst, Bergenfield, Rutherford and Verona.
“We play for trophies,” Grasso, retired from making women’s clothes in New York City, said.
While chatting about bocce, Grasso let us know he retired in 1996 — and wasn’t so happy with NAFTA.
“I was lucky I planned for getting older,” he said. “Other guys, they were going on vacations to Italy, Portugal, all over there, but me, I saved for the future. I was the smart one.”
After chatting with Grasso, we struck up a conversation with Harold Morales, a long-time resident of Newark, who spent his early years in Puerto Rico. Morales wore a white tank-top and a skull cap (or do-rag.) The extra warm October day caused him to sweat a lot as he waited patiently to get into the game.
“But that’s because I was just at the gym,” Morales said. “I like to go to the gym first before I come here. It helps me get out my frustrations.”
We wanted to know why Morales chose to play bocce, but before he answered that question, he gave us a little insight into his background.
“I dropped out of special ed when I was in high school 28 years ago,” Morales said. “I’ve been disabled for all those years. I had a social worker. I also have diabetes, anxiety, high blood pressure. So when I come here to play this game, it helps me to have a lot of fun. It keeps my mind off of the bad things that happen in my life. I can relax here and talk to the guys like Mario and Benny (who we’ll tell you about next.) They see me who I am. They never judge me.
“My whole life, people have judged me. But not the guys here. Here, I am just Harold.”
Harold, who at 49 is among the younger bocce boys, came to the mainland from Ponce, Puerto Rico, in 1979. He says he tries to get to the courts by 3 p.m. as many days as he can — but he can’t always since he likes to spend time with his “girl.”
“I love her a lot and she loves me,” Morales said. “I’m blessed to have her.”
The last bocce player we spoke with — there were about 16 there on Thursday, Oct. 12 when we visited — was Benny Baldino, who lives in Newark in affordable housing. Over his lifetime, he’s also lived in Belleville and Nutley — and it was in those two townships where he made his living before retirement 23 years ago.
He took to bocce because he was a “great pool player.”
“I loved pool. I knew pool, so I says ‘alright, I’ll give this a shot,’” Baldino said. “The games are alike with the balls. I like playing it (bocce) so much that I have my own set of (bocce) balls. But they don’t let us use our own in the tournaments, though, which annoys me. So whatever.”
Baldino claims to the be the inventor of the “Bocce Glove,” which keeps players who use them from overspinning the balls when they’re thrown.
“But I never got a patent for the gloves,” Baldino said. “I really should have gotten a patent on the gloves when I come up with them. I’d be loaded now if I had. But you can’t live in the past. I like to live in the moment.”
Does he ever.
“I’m 82, you know,” Baldino said. “I just got a good touch with this game. They say I’m the best player here, but I don’t believe them. For a guy over 80, I guess I do know what I am doing.”
Baldino, who has played bocce at the park for several years now, is a retired laborer. He says he put up aluminum siding on homes in Nutley, Belleville and Newark for many years.
“I was really good at what I did,” Baldino said. “I used to get my jobs from recommendations from other people. In my career, I never cheated nobody. It was easy work. Other people would cheat — but not me. I was always honest.”
And of course, that makes sense. And may very well be why the rest of the bocce boys love Baldino so much. And it’s why if you ever pass by the courts, you ought to stop by. The games may not be the most exciting to watch. Yet if you strike up a conversation with one of the bocce boys, you’re sure to learn something intriguing.
And, very likely, you’ll learn something you could never have predicted.