SPRINGFIELD "Let's bring our families together worldwide over a simple game of boccie for world peace."
That's the motto of Rico Daniele, Springfield's one-man boccie band.
At his family store, Mom & Rico's Specialty Market, you can sit down and eat homemade roasted red peppers with sausage, broccoli rabe, and five-cheese macaroni cheese pie, or buy frozen pasta, homemade sauces, and lots of imported Italian goods to take home.
But Mom & Rico's is also home to what can only be described as Daniele's obsession, the world of boccie. You can buy boccie balls, a boccie scoreboard, and, with Daniele's preferred spelling, "Bocce: A Sport for Everyone," the self-published book he wrote on the game's history and rules, along with instructions for building your own boccie court. There are bumper stickers, cups, T-shirts, posters, soft drinks, and more, emblazoned with Daniele's boccie logo.
For the uninitiated, boccie is the Italian form of a game you see played in many European parks or side streets. The English have lawn bowling, the southern Slavs, a game called balinaje. In France, it's boules (or ptanque); in Italy, boccie. The rules vary a bit, but the object is the same. You throw or roll a small, heavy ball, and the goal is to get your ball closer to the target than your opponent's ball.
If he's not at the store, chances are Daniele is a few blocks away at Forest Park, teaching boccie to newcomers or rolling a few balls with friends.
Many parks have tennis or basketball courts, playgrounds, some even baseball diamonds. Forest Park was the first in the country to install public boccie courts, and boasts two regulation-size courts, 76 feet long by 10 feet wide.
Why Springfield and boccie? Because of a large Italian immigrant population that settled here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there is a long tradition of the game in this area. The Western Massachusetts Bocce League, formed in 1932, is the oldest league in the country.
Daniele says immigrants from a particular area or town would establish a club in their new home.
"There was no TV," he said. "They'd go to work, tend their garden, then go to the local club. You played cards, met your friends, played boccie."
His family came from the town of Bracigliano, in the province of Salerno, 50 years ago, when he was 4 years old. He remembers watching the boccie players from the Bracigliano club, long before he played himself.
"My father would take my hand and walk to the club a street over," Daniele recalled. "I'd sit on the bench, watching them. Between games, I'd go out and throw some boccie balls." When he was 9, he got his own set of balls as a present; at 20, he became the youngest player in the Western Massachusetts league.
He is still hooked.
"I play a lot of sports, but I don't know what it is about this game," he said. "If you play a game, you forget everything. You're concentrating. If you make a few good shots, you want to make some more. Whatever your problem was, it goes away. No more stress."
Daniele's enthusiasm for the sport has rubbed off on city officials. Patrick Sullivan, superintendent for the Springfield Parks Department, says the boccie courts were one of the first projects he undertook when he became superintendent. "What's neat about boccie is it's for all ages," says Sullivan. Daniele has "done a great job getting youth involved in the game."
If boccie is one of Daniele's passions, his other one is getting children to play. In his mind, boccie's not only a great outlet, but a way to bind people together in an increasingly fragmented social world. His boccie product catalog puts it right on the cover: "Rico Says: Let's get boccie courts in schools and playgrounds for the kids, parents, and grandparents. Let's bring our families together worldwide over a simple game of boccie for world peace."
"There's no guidance when kids go home," Daniele said. "I'd like to see a boccie program in the school system, have a game after school, for all nationalities. Then there's less fighting; people can come together a lot better."
World peace is a pretty long-term goal. Daniele has shorter-term goals as well.
"My dream is that you could go to school on a boccie scholarship," he said, "10 or 15 years from now."
Daniele also would like to manufacture his own boccie balls.
"They're all imported," he said. "I'd like to make them here someday. And have a Boccie Hall of Fame. There's not one in the whole world. We've got a Basketball Hall of Fame, why not boccie?"
In the meantime, he's spreading the boccie gospel beyond Springfield. He served in the late 1990s as head official for boccie at the Special Olympics World Summer Games. He and his family built a court in Old Lyme, Conn., where they have a house. And Daniele frequently shows up at Szot Park in Chicopee to give lessons at the courts there.
Daniele has played with former governor Paul Celluci and is trying to lure Senator John Kerry onto the courts for a game.
"John Kerry came to my store, and sent me a letter afterward saying thanks for what you're doing," he said. "But he hasn't gone out to play with me yet."
Daniele estimates he has put several hundred thousand dollars of his own money -- and innumerable hours -- into the sport. Now he's hoping others will join in.
"It just needs some good marketing," he insisted. "If I could get Tom Brady to throw some boccie balls, it'd take off."
Kathy Shorr is a freelance writer in Wellfleet.