Horseshoe-thrower's skills are right on target

April 05, 2001|By Kevin Cowherd

ELBERT SHIFFLETT jumps out of his pickup with a shovel, roughs up the clay at one of the 16 horseshoe courts at Maryvale Park in Frederick, and begins throwing in the bright sunshine.

His first toss is a ringer. So is the next one and the next one and the one after that.

"Just have to warm up for a minute," he says, tossing a few more ringers.

I'm thinking: Warm up?! The man has just thrown eight of nine ringers. Each throw is a carbon copy of the one before it, too, the horseshoe making a precise 1 1/4 turn in mid-air before making a muffled clink! as it hits the peg.

Watching this exhibition, it is all I can do not to push Shifflett into my car, drive to the nearest bar and loudly declare: "Me and Elbert here, we'll take on any of you losers at horseshoes for a hundred bucks a man."

Elbert Shifflett, 54, is the nine-time Maryland state horseshoe pitching champion, and I have come to this green acre of Frederick County to discover what that is like.

It probably comes as no surprise to hear that Elbert Shifflett doesn't exactly travel with an entourage and is not dripping with gold jewelry. Horseshoe pitching being somewhat under the radar of the average sports fan, he is also in no danger of appearing on ESPN's "SportsCenter" highlights or holding a big cardboard check for $750,000 in front of the TV cameras after a tournament win.

To most of America, horseshoe pitching is this: fat guys in loud Bermuda shorts at the company picnic with a can of Miller Lite in one hand, flinging a mustard-smeared plastic horseshoe in the other.

The National Horseshoe Pitchers Association says there are 15 million horseshoe-pitching "enthusiasts" in this country. But if there are, they sure keep a low profile. I think I know more people who've had sex-change operations than I do horseshoe pitchers.

When George Bush the Elder was president, he had a horseshoe court built at the White House, thereby immediately becoming the most famous horseshoe pitcher in history. Don't ask me to name the second most-famous.

Elbert Shifflett would like to change all this. Except ... well, he knows he really can't.

The Frederick Horseshoe Club, for which he is tournament director, has close to 200 members, but that's an anomaly. In an age when we demand nonstop thrills and action from our sports, when we won't even watch a movie unless it contains 27 helicopter chases, horseshoe pitching is viewed by many as hopelessly dull and retro.

"Most people don't even know that horseshoes exists," Shifflett says sadly, throwing another of those assembly-line ringers. "There aren't enough young people taking up the sport. The kids coming home from school will walk through here and see me and say: `What're you doing?' They don't even know what this is."

But for Elbert Shifflett, horseshoe pitching is life itself, his passion. A central office technician for Verizon who lives in Damascus with his wife, Bonnie, he`s been pitching for 20 years now. He's ranked No. 7 in the world - the world, in this case, basically being the United States and Canada, where most of the sport's serious devotees reside.

Currently, he lists a ringer percentage of 78. In one tournament, he threw an astounding 35 ringers in a row. Two years ago, at a tournament in Nashville, Tenn., he threw 38 ringers in 40 pitches.

"They call it `the zone,' and it really is," says Shifflett of the incredible ringer streaks he's had. "You see nothing around you, only the peg. ... It's a feeling like you're never going to miss again."

This is how good Shifflett is: Some years ago, a sports guy from a Washington TV station came out to Frederick to do a piece on Shifflett. The guy thought it would be cute to stand astride the peg at one end of the court as Shifflett pitched.

I will leave it to your imagination as to where exactly a high, errant toss would have hit the sports guy. Mercifully, Shifflett threw four ringers.

Then the sports guy ratcheted up the cuteness quotient by bending down and putting his head next to the peg as Shifflett threw. Shifflett threw four more ringers.

"Him standing like that, it sort of made you concentrate more," Shifflett says simply.

You're never going to get rich pitching horseshoes, that's for sure. But Shifflett loves it so much that at the height of the horseshoe-pitching season, from May to September, he enters between 15 and 20 weekend tournaments.

If it's a big tournament - where he's generally treated as a celebrity - he could win 500 bucks and a trophy if he finishes in first place. Except Shifflett needs another trophy like he needs a boil on his forehead; his house is already crammed with more silver than a jewelry store.

In the winter, he pitches in a league in Pennsylvania, which means a two hour-drive before his night shift at Verizon. He also tries to cram in an hour or two of practice once a week - all because he loves a sport that has seen better days.

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