Grace Rollolazo throws a bocce ball for the green team as others look on during a game at the Dorothy C. Benson Senior Multipurpose Complex in Sandy Springs.

The play ended up being just too close to call.

It was time to go to the tape.

The tape measure, that is.

Joe Rich pulled a carpenter’s retractable tape measure from his pocket and checked the distances. The red team’s ball had stopped 17 inches short of the mark. The green team’s ball had rolled to within 16 inches.

Green won.

“By an inch,” Rich said.

So call bocce “a game of inches,” at least the way it’s played by the folks at the Dorothy C. Benson Senior Multipurpose Complex at 6500 Vernon Woods Drive in Sandy Springs.

On Friday mornings, an inch can make a world of difference when the dozen or so regular players gather at the Fulton County senior center for a friendly round of the Italian bowling game.

“It’s a nice game,” said Grace Rollolazo, who’s 66 and is one of the newer players. “I look forward to Friday every week.”

So does Milton Gorman, who’s 79 and has been playing bocce “since the beginning” several years ago when the court was installed at the Benson Center. “It’s a good way to relax,” he said.

Rich, the 81-year-old serving as referee one recent Friday, said the Benson Center’s bocce game was a gift from the Italian-American Society of Atlanta. The game advertizes its Italian roots in the team colors reflected in the balls used in the game, he said, although the Benson Center’s bocce balls faded long ago to lighter hues. “They call them ‘green’ and ‘red,’ but they look blue and pink to me,” Rich said. “Green and red – they call it that because that’s the Italian colors.”

During the game, players throw colored balls roughly the size of softballs toward a white marker ball that is a bit bigger than a golf ball. The colored ball that ends up the closest to the marker wins a point. So do any others rolled by members of the same team that are closer to the mark than the other teams’ closest roll.

Cynthia Dersch gives her ball a little coaxing as Stan Michelson, seated, and Milt Gorman intently watch where it goes.

“This is not bowling,” said Albert Johnson, a 71-year-old who moved to Sandy Springs from Panama a few months ago and quickly joined the bocce games. “You cannot throw this ball like a bowling ball.”

Still, these bocce players can’t help trying a little bit of that special skill known to bowlers and pool players everywhere: body English. When some players wanted their throws to curve or slow down or speed up or break some other presumed law of physics, they yelled instructions to the ball or contorted their bodies and waved their hands to show it just where to go.

“Come on, curve!” Rollolazo shouted after one throw. The ball obstinately refused to listen; it continued to roll straight ahead.

“It doesn’t always do what you ask it to do,” noted Jan Gorman, Milton’s wife, who was sitting on a bench alongside the court and watching the game. Jan introduced herself simply: “I’m the cheerleader,” she said.

And on Friday mornings, it appears there’s often plenty to cheer about around the bocce court. These folks take their game seriously.

“One of the things I know about seniors is they’re so competitive,” Johnson said. “And the older they get, the more competitive they get.”

In other words, in a game of inches, keep a tape measure handy.

Joe Earle

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.