By Nick Hansen
Photo by Nick Hansen
Sig Armitage of Canby practices his craft in his backyard. Armitage gets a ringer on 71 percent of his throws in tournaments. He is in elite company. Only two dozen have a ringer average above 50.
CANBY - There is a picture on Sig Armitage's kitchen wall that reads, "Keep it simple." That's the way the 75-year old state champion horseshoe thrower has remained at the top of his game after 60-plus years of throwing.
If Armitage played any other sport, he'd either have a lot more money or a cult following. He sticks to a rigorous practice schedule. He competes in more tournaments than almost any thrower in Minnesota. And, to put it bluntly, he's better than most of them.
The Canby native has a 71.81 ringer percentage this year, which means that over 71 percent of his throws in tournaments are ringers - the best throw a pitcher can have. Of the few hundred other registered throwers with the Minnesota Gopher State Horseshoe Pitchers Association (MGSHPA), only about two dozen have a ringer percentage above 50. Last year Armitage threw 1,102 ringers in 35 games in his home league. Last month, he finished 13th in the elders division at the National Horseshoes Pitching Association (NHPA) World Championships.
"Sig is the best I know at his age and where he pitches from," said Jason Buchert, the local league organizer.
"I think if I had the time to practice and commit to the sport I could be as good as him and hope to be one day," Buchert added.
Armitage learned the game on his farm in Canby when he was a kid.
"I started pitching when I was 14 or 15. My two brothers and I out at the farm and my dad. After we ate dinner we'd go out and throw. The stakes are still there under the two big cottonwood trees," he says while sitting in the shade of his garden shed after a recent early afternoon pitching session.
Armitage has throwing down to an art: Grip with four of your fingers at the bottom of the horseshoe with the thumb on the caulk. Step forward with your left foot, bring your hand back, and pitch the shoe so it flips at least once. If all goes right he'll hear the clank of the shoe hitting the stake.
It usually goes right.
He is serious when plays, but not unfriendly. He follows the etiquette of the game, shaking hands before the match and standing two feet behind the thrower when they are pitching. However, he doesn't talk. He knows why he is out there.
"We're not out there for exercise," he says while picking up a horseshoe with a golf club-hook contraption, so he doesn't have to bend down to pick up the shoes.
He's wearing denim shorts, glasses with self-tinting lenses, a brown hat with three horses on it and a dark blue T-shirt with the NHPA World Championships logo above the left breast pocket. He smiles a lot, is sociable, and will offer you a pop, but it "has to be diet."
Armitage has a simple routine to get better at pitching. He practices every day at 3:30 p.m. because that is when the shade is optimal on his backyard court. He throws 150 to 200 shoes when he practices; sometimes he won't stop until he gets 150 ringers. He plays in about 30 tournaments because he believes playing a lot of games will help him improve. He also gets straight to the point when you ask him about horseshoes.
What makes a good horseshoe player? "Concentration."
What tournament do you look forward to every year? "State."
What has kept you going? "Success."
Even though he loves to compete, he's not driven by the hardware, at least not most of it.
"I threw away maybe a hundred trophies," he says as he points at a shelf of awards in his basement court. There are still enough accolades to more than adequately fill two rooms.
He's hung photos of friends he has met pitching horseshoes and patches from the NHPA and the Minnesota Gopher State Pitching Association. One NHPA patch denotes that he got 90 percent ringers in one game. He keeps the scoresheet from his 2012 state championship in a frame. He went 5-0. However, it still doesn't matter a whole lot to him. "It's just stuff," he said.
Armitage couldn't survive on his winnings from horseshoe throwing. He won just $250 from his world championship trip. He retired from farming 25 years ago and now drives a school bus. However, it seems to regimented to be a hobby.
"It's like me asking him to go shopping," says his wife Joan at her kitchen table.
Like any athlete at the top of their game, Armitage has his worries.
"I can throw 16 ringers in a row, not too much a problem. It's that 17th and 18th ringer that you want to keep them going," he says at his kitchen table in between sips from a glass of Diet Orange Sunkist. That phenomenon goes by different names: the yips, choking, having a meltdown.
"I typed up choking in sports," he says. He came across the work of Dr. Patrick Cohn, a sports psychologist who works with professional athletes. He subscribed to Cohn's emails, but hasn't gone for paid treatment yet.
Armitage has never had a complete meltdown, but he's come close.
"I went to went to Beloit, Wisconsin, for the team world. I went to a quarter turn and a flip. I was shooting 60 percent. There I shot 44 percent for the whole tournament," he says. "I don't know what possessed me to try something different, but I did," he adds. He quickly went back to the straight flip.
It is a mental game for Armitage. "You gotta think about every little thing you do. You don't just get out and throw. I know all the things I have to do," he says.
"He has a whole list!" adds Joan.
The organized horseshoe throwing community is small, but active. According to the NHPA website, membership totals around 15,000 with about 6,200 members in the league program. There were 1,269 entrants in the World Championships this year. Minnesota boasts one of the largest horseshoe throwing communities in the United States with over 30 sanctioned clubs and more than 1,000 members, according to the MGSHPA website.
Even though Armitage has two courts to practice on, many tournament victories and an "understanding wife," he still doesn't have everything he wants.
"I would like to have people come and play," he says while looking wistfully at his court.
It's that simple.