Thursday, December 26, 2002

Where 'close' counts

At Queensgate horseshoe club, ringers and camaraderie go together

By John Johnston / The Cincinnati Enquirer

This is the 12th and final installment in a monthly series about "third places" - those places other than work and home where people go for fun and fellowship.

Matt Guy stands still as a statue, his pale blue eyes focused on an iron stake 40 feet away. Then with a smooth, underhand motion, he flings a horseshoe in a graceful arc.

Clang! A ringer.

He concentrates again. Clang! Another ringer.

Outside, a cold rain threatens to turn icy. But Mr. Guy has warmed up nicely, as have more than 30 other Tuesday night regulars at the OK Horseshoe Club in Queensgate, the only indoor horseshoe courts in the city offering league play.

Members drive from Bellevue, Warsaw, Mack, Vevay and points across the Tristate to a large brick warehouse on Dalton Street. Once inside, they climb steep metal stairs to the club entrance, where a sign is posted: "Through this door, close counts."

It's true that close counts in a game of horseshoes. Close might also describe the friendships and bonds among those who gather here.

"I enjoy pitching with my dad," says 31-year-old Mr. Guy of Alexandria, a superintendent for Butternut Bread. "Just going out once a week with my dad."

His father and horseshoe partner, Art Guy, stands at the other end of one of the club's eight courts.

The Guys are losing this game, 14-1. But things can change quickly, especially when Matt Guy is pitching.

Clang! That's the sound of a horseshoe meeting an iron stake. Thunk. That's the sound of a horseshoe missing its mark and sinking into soft, wet clay. When Matt Guy pitches, you hear more clangs than thunks. So it's no surprise when the Guys come back to win the game, 25-15.

Art Guy, who is 54 and retired from Butternut Bread, wears a smile almost as wide as the open end of a horseshoe. "I've loved the game all my life," he says.

He had played for years but didn't know indoor leagues existed locally until a friend told him about OK Horseshoe Club. (The OK stands for Ohio and Kentucky.) The members-only club opens after Labor Day and closes in mid-April.

Art Guy has four children, but only Matt - nicknamed "Pee Wee" as a youngster because he was small for his age - had a hankering to pitch horseshoes. Says Art: "When he could get 'em 40 feet, I said, 'You got a great 'shoe working. Bring it. I'll take you over to the club with me.' "

That was 15 years ago.

Matt Guy grew to normal size (5-foot-10). Now, members say, he's the club's best pitcher. He throws ringers more than 70 percent of the time. The married father of two was ranked 17th in the country this week by the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association of America.

He competes nationwide, but Tuesdays he can always be found at the OK club.

"It's kinda like 'Cheers,' " he says. "You want to go where everybody knows your name."

The Guys are one of three father-son teams who pitch on Tuesday nights.

"They talked us into coming here," says Jim Blackaby Sr., 60, who pitches with his son, Jim Jr., 27. The Blackabys and the Guys are neighbors in Alexandria.

Once they got to the club, the Blackabys didn't have to be talked into becoming members.

"I like the people," Jim Jr. says. "There's some good guys here."

The club counts nearly 200 dues-paying members, including about 14 women, says treasurer Len Voelker of Bridgetown. At present, there are no openings for new members, he says.

Each night brings a different crowd, says Tom Fortner, who tends bar Monday through Friday.

"Thursday night's the crazy group," he says. "They're here just to have a great time. They ain't worried about winning. These guys here tonight, they're serious pitchers. They come here to win."

Also to drink beer and eat hot dogs, metts and the homemade relish made by Mr. Fortner's wife.

Mr. Fortner plays on Mondays. "Ain't no good, but I like to pitch. I just throw 'em back to my partner so he don't have to walk and get 'em."

He's been around long enough to remember when the club was housed in Dayton, Ky. It moved to its Cincinnati warehouse location about 26 years ago.

Members fashioned a bar area that has the feel of a basement clubhouse. A concrete floor, painted gray. TV in the corner. Pool and Ping Pong tables. Cornhole game boards. Walls that display photos of past club presidents; and plaques recognizing members of the Kentucky Horseshoe Pitchers Hall of Fame, including Harry Henn, who won two state championships in the 1930s.

His sons, Cliff and Bill Henn, are pitching this night. Cliff, 75, of Highland Heights, and Bill, 78, of Bellevue, are both hall of famers, too.

Bill, a seven-time Kentucky state champ, earned all but two of his titles in the '70s. "Now I can't hit the side of a barn," he says.

Not true. He pitches a wobbly horseshoe, but still gets his share of ringers. Clang!

Cliff Henn's partner, Harold Roberts of Alexandria, knows what brings them back time and again.

"You won't find a bunch of nicer guys than there are in horseshoes," he says. "Win or lose, everybody seems to have that camaraderie."

There's a closeness, you might say. In horseshoes, that's what counts.


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