Merrymaking in the ‘Nati

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The Championship Winners flank either side of the affable play-by-lay announcer. NSNC Photo

As I sat down to write this account, a profound thought struck me: It’s much easier to go from writer to talker than from talker to writer. I’ve been both. I’ve had fun at both. But never, until now, have I ever attempted to shift from play-by-play announcer to sportswriter. But here goes…

Named for George Washington’s Roman protégé, with a nod to that ancient empire’s capital the city of Cincinnati has long been called the City of Seven Hills. Indeed, for a hundred or so of the nation’s finest columnists, the undulating topography of Cincinnati’s inclined streets no doubt left an ache in the shins that echoed for several days.

Nonetheless, it was in this Queen City of the West that they gathered. At once to dine at the Mecklenburg Gardens – a dinner that lasted well past its “sell-by” date – and to cavort with the giraffes during happy hour at the Cincinnati Zoo.

For many, though, the highlight of the event wasn’t Jerry Springer apologizing for ruining the culture, or even George Clooney’s equally famous dad Nick regaling the crowd with stories of Walter Cronkite and ruffage. For attendees, and at least a handful of the hotel staff, the pinnacle of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists Annual Conference was the First-Ever Columnists Corn Hole Championship Tournament. Imagine my honor when the group invited me to offer the exciting play-by-play for this spectacle.

If you’re not familiar with tailgating, or if you think such pre-game rituals entail only measuring one’s ability to body smash folding tables, Corn Hole remains a popular parking lot pastime. The game features two tilted boards positioned roughly ten yards apart. The objective: Throw a bean bag into the hole of the board. Short of that, at least get the bean bag to stay on the board.

Corn Hole requires a steady eye, a worthy arm, and a mirthful attitude. Not in that order. One needs the steady eye to measure, aim, and calculate the trajectory of a hapless bean bag. You’d think the worthy arm is used to launch the bean bag. You’d think wrong. For anyone who has witnessed an actual game of Corn Hole, the worthy arm isn’t the one throwing the bean bag. It’s the one holding the beverage with such agility that the act of tossing the happy sack fails to cause spillage. There are no points for this, but all Corn Hole players worth their salt will tell you the harm spillage causes to one’s reputation far exceeds the reward of any points.

Now, on to the merrymaking, because isn’t that what it’s all about? The tournament started as a punchline to a now forgotten joke during one of the convention committee’s planning meetings. The group quickly embraced the joy of Corn Hole and the tournament was born.

Here’s the first rule for having fun: Don’t plan. OK, you need a little planning. But don’t be afraid to break those plans. For example, we did need to plan on getting enough equipment for 8 teams. We took care of this. We also needed to plan on getting a suitably large (and preferably outdoor) location. The hotel took care of this, offering the pristine paved patio next to the fresh fountain of flowing water.

The experience the previous evening at the zoo proved too jarring for some. Trying to navigate the winding tree-covered paths during the night-time thunderstorm left many pondering which headline would best serve to top the story of their soon to be lightning-induced demise. The fear of sudden storms still with us, we moved from the outdoor venue to a large and minimally traveled atrium under the protection of cover from any meteorological phenomenon.

The best part about the tournament proved to be the fact no one was exactly aware of the rules. This left the mild-mannered play-by-play announcer to violate the first rule in reporting a story: never become a part of the story. The moment the enthusiastic contestants asked me to add “umpire” to my task list, I went from objective chronicler to embedded participant.

And by umpire I don’t mean just making up rules on the fly (yes, I did that, too). I meant playing lunch room monitor. Apparently, I was the only adult in the room with recognized authority. How else would you explain why it was up to me to tell them to stop throwing the bean bags at each other (“You’ll put someone’s eye out!”).

Once we took a head count, we realized we were one team short and one mysterious attendee had signed up for two teams. When the dust and confusion settled, we had seven teams with seven equally dusty and confusing names: “Mother Shuckers,” “Not Even Cornhole Can Fix This Mess,” “Corn on the Cob,” “The Corn Stars,” “Children of the Cornhole,” “Cornholiness,” and “Ach de Lieber.” Somehow, Dave Lieber, Watchdog columnist for the Dallas Morning News, ended up on a different team than the one named after him. What was that thing about “breaking those plans”?

Speaking of breaking plans, the odd number of teams foiled our eight-team bracket plan. We needed to determine who would qualify for a first-round bye. Once again, they looked to the play-by-play guy to solve this dilemma. I couldn’t think of a good Cincinnati trivia question, but I did know Cleveland has the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Not to be coy, but I’ll reveal what I came up with in Jeopardy fashion by giving you the answer, not the question: Sonny Dae and His Knights, 1954.

With the Mother Shuckers answering the trivia question correctly to earn the first-round bye, we were all set to begin the games. Until…

Apparently one set of bean bags had University of Kentucky insignia. This offended certain members of Not Even a Cornhole Can Fix this Mess. Fortunately, we had extra bean bags and, after a delayed start, they took on Corn on the Cob in the well-lit three-story expanse beneath the stair well. Corn on the Cob prevailed in a close-fought game. They advanced to the semi-finals against the Mother Shuckers, who, as often happens to teams coming off a playoff bye, yielded to now well-tuned “Cob.”

In the other bracket, the Corn Stars made quick work of the Children of the Cornhole (who did win the “Best Name” award) while Cornholiness edged out the Lieber-less Ach de Lieber. On a roll, the Corn Stars then proceeded to send Cornholiness to its maker, earning the Cornstars a slot in the finals.

Here’s the thing about the finals. It was a Cornhole game to end all Cornhole games. Two superpowers vying for a pinnacle they had not even dreamed of only months before. For the Corn Stars, we had freelance writer Tami Kamin Meyer (Columbus, OH), “Grammar Guy” columnist Curtis Honeycutt (Indianapolis, IN), and humor columnists Dave Astor (Montclair, NJ) and Sam Bennett (Pittsburgh, PA). Competing against them for the Corn on the Cob were Napa Valley Register columnist Mark Epstein (St. Helena, CA), free-lancer Amanda Beam (Louisville, KY), lifestyle columnist Diane Tarantini (Morgantown, WV) and her husband Tony.

You might guess “Grammar Guy” Curtis would have been the intimidating factor. Not only could he hole the corn with consistency, but, well, he is the “Grammar Guy” among writers. Tami, though, had an ace up her sleeve. She’s a lawyer. And if that’s not intimidating, nothing is.

The real X-factor was Tony. As you would expect from someone who distributed beer for a living, Tony was the ringer. He kept the Cob in the game with his stunning last-minute tosses. But the relentless consistency from the Curtis and Tami duo proved too much. In the end, not even the eagle eye and strong arm (you know what that’s for) of Tony could keep the Corns Stars from earning the top prize.

The real prize was the comradery, fun, and silliness of the event. And that’s the lesson of this. Every once in a while, no matter how hard you’re working, you need to recharge the ol’ brain cells. That’s the value of merrymaking.

So go out, accomplish, and be sure to have fun.

Comments

  1. You captured the magic of columnists cornholing. I tossed and I lost, but dang we had a great team name. The Mother Shuckers.

  2. Chris Carosa says:

    ’tis true!

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