Goals for my first-ever horseshoe pitching competition were modest, to say the least.
1. Do not maim any of the regular pitchers with a wayward shoe.
2. Do not pull any muscles, as I'm in the midst of the local golf tournament season.
3. Attempt not to embarrass myself.
It was in that spirit that I ventured to Lawrence Park, in the middle of the Rock River between Sterling and Rock Falls, on Thursday, July 17, as a guest pitcher in the Twin City Horseshoe League. A hearty group of about 10 gathers each Thursday, starting in the middle of May and ending in late August, for a night of pitching shoes, telling stories, and enjoying each other's company.
"As you get older, it's good to have a hobby of some type," league president Neil Reynolds said. "This gets us out of the house for a night. I've been blessed with six grandchildren, and they keep me busy, but this is something different. It's just about having fun."
Four games are played each night. Each game consists of 25 innings, in which 50 shoes are pitched. A ringer is worth three points, while a shoe landing within 6 inches of a stake is worth one point.
The stakes are 40 feet apart. Pitchers 70 years of age or older can throw from 30 feet, while those 12 or younger can go from 20 feet. Women may throw from 30 feet, but there were no ladies present on this night.
Scores are logged in by league secretary Tim Fisher, who determines what each player's handicap is. That allows the weakest pitchers in the league, somebody like me, for instance, to have a fair shot against somebody like Bob Schaver, who won state championships in 2000 and 2001, and is in the Horseshoe Pitching Hall of Fame.
Schaver, however, was not present on this night.
"I was going to have you go against Bob, but it's his birthday today," Fisher informed me during my initiation period.
Handicap is determined by taking a person's average, subtracting that number from 125, and then taking 90 percent of that number.
My first game was against Fisher, one of a host of players with a horseshoe pit in his backyard. It showed.
Fisher was able to flip the horseshoe just so, and it had a fighting chance to be a ringer a good chunk of the time. Several times he had double ringers, something he just took in stride, but I saw as a major cause for celebration.
"Just like anything," Fisher later said, "some nights you've got it, and some nights you don't."
Me, I just flipped the shoes up there the best that I could. Sometimes it hit the stake, sometimes it hit the cement around the pit, but most of the time it landed harmlessly in a sticky clay/mud mixture short of the stake.
Fisher accumulated 71 points, I had 46, and he assured me that was good for a novice thrower.
The next match was against Reynolds, and we had an interesting conversation the whole time. For instance, he talked about a guest from Florida a few weeks back, who was in town visiting. Turns out he was quite the pitcher.
"He beat me," Reynolds said, "and I'm sure he did that to a lot of guys. He was kind of like a traveling salesman. He came in, did his thing, and then left town."
My third game was against Brody Fisher, Tim's 12-year-old son. I was a bit taken aback by the junior high student at first, as he sported a barbed wire tattoo circling his right biceps. Thankfully, it was a fake.
Turns out he's a typical pre-teen who aspires to play football for the Morrison Mustangs, and roots for the Chicago Blackhawks and Green Bay Packers. He also throws a mean horseshoe, with a couple of double ringers against me.
The last game was against Roger Doering, who, upon learning I liked to play golf, told me he'd only played the sport once in his life. That was in a charity outing sponsored by former Chicago White Sox slugger Ron Kittle. A wayward shot by Doering just about knocked somebody out, and that was the end of his golfing days.
Of my four opponents, Doering had the high total of 73 points. I thought that was fabulous, until he informed me had scored 100 the game before he took me on.
With my average of 40 and a handicap of 77, I ended up defeating Tim Fisher 123-120; losing to Reynolds 120-112; losing to Brody Fisher 129-116; and defeating Doering 117-116.
"It's a little-known thing," Reynolds informed me, "that first-time pitchers get tossed into the Rock River."
Thankfully, he was kidding.
Approximately 2½ hours of fun and fellowship was had for the weekly fee of $2. Some token prize money is handed out at the end of the season, and the weekly dues also go to pay for an end of the season banquet.
Seven of the regulars hail from Morrison, while the other four are from Sterling/Rock Falls. When long-time league member Jim Gridley died in the fall of 2012, others stepped up to keep the league going.
Most league members arrive no later than 6 p.m., to prepare the courts for that night's play. Tim Fisher hauls many of the materials needed for a given night in the back of his pickup.
"This really is a great league," Fisher said. "We're competitive, but the biggest thing is to just have fun and enjoy pitching some horseshoes."
Twin City Horseshoe League
When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Lawrence Park, Sterling