The volunteers at Animal Aid USA take a trip to rural Georgia every four weeks, to rescue stray and abandoned dogs and give them a home. To date they have rescued 40,000 dogs from unimaginable conditions. This story appeared in the spring 2023 issue of JerseyMan, you can read the magazine version here.
It’s A Dog’s Life
Our canine friends teach us one of the most important lessons of life: it’s too short for anything less than unconditional love, compassion and forgiveness, all the time.
Karen Talbot, Rachel Monaghan and the volunteers at Animal Aid USA have taken that lesson to heart. Their mission is to return the favor of unconditional love, to as many dogs as possible.
As anyone who participates in their rescue caravans can tell you, it’s a big challenge. Talbot herself says it’s not for everyone. “It’s grueling on that road.”
Animal Aid USA gathers volunteers, vehicles, water bowls, blankets, crates, and whatever else is needed, for a trip to rural Georgia from Williamstown every 28 days. They then gather abandoned dogs from local shelters in the area, load the dogs into vehicles, and take a 16-hour overnight drive back to New Jersey, to place dogs with no-kill shelters to be adopted.
A 64-word paragraph can’t begin to capture the level of effort involved in the operation. Monaghan, a regular volunteer, describes the process:
“We leave at 6:00 at night and arrive in Georgia around 9:00 AM the next day,” she explains. “Once we get down there, we prepare our vans with water bowls and line all our crates. If we have litters of puppies in our vans, we’ll extra line the crates, because we have to usually change them while we’re driving.
“That’s usually on a Thursday. Friday is when we do all of our preparation. In the morning, we’ll clean kennels again, and then we prepare for transport. We usually have about 30 crates in each van, we put in puppy pads and towels or blankets in all the crates. Karen tags them all, so we know which dogs are gonna be in our van. We prepare extra water bowls, extra towels and stuff to clean up any messes that happen.”
“At around 4:00, we start the load, we’re out of there by 5:15. Everyone’s just going in every direction. It’s like all hands on deck.”
Talbot, who spends much of her life preparing for the trips, likens it to a Broadway production.
“All of the preparation and the dress rehearsals and everything that you have to do lead up to one moment, and that one moment is “It’s load-up time”. That’s when everything has to be done done done, because the first dog in is gonna be in there the longest, and it’s all about getting them all in the right crates, and making sure everybody fits.
“Once they’re all in, we do our giant prayer circle and we’re off.”
The crew of vehicles with its precious cargo, including the rig mostly driven by Talbot’s husband Dante, then drives through the night…the only time D.C. traffic on I-95 is avoidable…back to New Jersey, where dogs are unloaded and placed with Animal Aid USA’s adoption partners. The project is both exhilarating and exhausting.
“Then you get home and you crash,” Monaghan laughs.
So why rural Georgia, 16 hours away, every four weeks? Surely there are plenty of stray and abandoned animals in New Jersey?
Probably. But in Georgia and several other states, many rural counties don’t have the resources to care for stray dogs. Sadly, it isn’t often even for a lack of funding. There’s simply a different attitude towards dogs in the places where the caravan goes.
It was quite the culture shock for Talbot, as it would be for any animal lover.
“Animals are not viewed the way they are up here,” she says. “They’re not household pets, they’re not family members. They are yard dogs, they’re a nuisance.
“They don’t have the same empathy and compassion. The majority of people could care less about animals, and the minority of animal lovers are really fighting a bad war.”
She remembers witnessing how the situation reaches a tragically mind-numbing level for many people.
“When I first started going, I was so angry with them at first. Like, ‘Wait a second, you mean to tell me that you love animals, but you drove past a litter of puppies on the side of the road? What the hell kind of an animal lover are you?’
“But as I got to know these people, I realized they have 40 dogs at their house because they stopped 40 times, and now they can’t feed their families, now they don’t have food. They’re being threatened with eviction, they’re being threatened with divorce. They have to put blinders on, because sadly that’s where they live.”
Like all of the volunteers, after being a part of so many caravans, Monaghan has seen heart-wrenching stories of dog abandonment too.
“There was a case where, I guess the person went to jail, there were these Chihuahuas. The house had to be condemned. It was so disgusting, they were living in layers of poop and pee, it was just horrible. And again, the police, they didn’t want to deal with it.”
Monaghan laments that “All the shelters are pretty much kill shelters. None of them do public adoptions or rescue. If they’re not claimed by their owner, they usually get euthanized.”
Talbot describes the horrific conditions that dogs endure. “They’re not even shelters. They’re death holes. They’re a cinder block hut with a car port over top that they call a shelter. There’s no A/C, there’s no heat, some of them don’t get fed. They’re just there to hold until they’re killed.”
Hearing the stories can take an observer from “Why do people do all of this to rescue dogs?” to “How can anyone with a heart not do something?”
In Rachel Monaghan’s case, she wanted to do something to overcome her grief after losing her own dog unexpectedly. She learned about Animal Aid USA through a friend, and has been hooked ever since her first trip.
“I was planning on going to three trips that year,” she remembers, “and I ended up going on I think six. I just became a regular caravan member.
“The best part for me is seeing the transformation. Obviously it’s awful what they go through, but seeing the resilience of them, and how they just still continue to love and trust people.”
Talbot says of the people giving their time to the caravan, “I’ve discovered that it’s not just them saving dogs. This movement has saved them. It’s saved their marriages, it’s stopped them from drinking, it’s made their life better at home. It’s their outlet to get away for a while to do something bigger than them.
“Nobody gets that until you come on a trip. Our motto at camp is ‘Our strangers leave as family’. And it happens to everybody. If you have a soul, it happens to you. It can’t not.”
In the face of a mentality that has existed for generations in this part of the world, Talbot and her team have taken on the most difficult of tasks: not just rescuing dogs…over 40,000 of them now…but also changing an established mindset that creates the need for their rescuing.
“You see it, in just the blank stares,” Talbot says. “People cannot believe that first of all, we would drive that far for a dog, and second of all, why?
“What we’ve learned is with our continuous journeys there, and the trust that we’ve built with these people. They know we’re not there to do anything except help. We want to change the next generation, we want to break this cycle, which we are.”
Talbot has seen that transformation in personal relationships, such as with a hardened animal control officer who now reaches out to Karen for help with dogs he finds.
“We laugh about it today,” she reflects. “When he first met me, he grunted at me, wouldn’t even make eye contact with me. I said look, I’m not here to point fingers, I’m here to help.
“A couple of years went by and he started to talk to me, he gave me his cell phone number. Then a couple of years later he was just like, ‘Hey, Karen, listen, I got so and so dog that just came in, you think y’all can take this one?’
“And this relationship blossomed. Plus some Tastykake cupcakes from up here helped too,” she adds with a chuckle.
Karen Talbot doesn’t spotlight her own role in rescuing dogs, even though it’s considerable. To her, it’s simply her life’s work. She always emphasizes the word “we” when speaking of the efforts of everyone involved.
“I had an idea, and I had a vision, but a vision is just a vision unless an army comes together to actually make that vision become a reality. We’re all volunteer, it’s just a life-long mission of ours.”
By providing the education, awareness and resources, she says, “We are empowering the next generation to make change in their world for companion animals. You’ve got rescue groups all over. But are you changing the mindset while you’re doing it?
“We are, and I think that’s what I’m most proud of.”
An Animal Loving Bachelor
The rescue caravans at Animal Aid USA operated under different names in its early years, including MOMS (Making Of Miracle Stories) Rescue and Paws For A Cause, as Karen Talbot worked to raise awareness of dog rescues in rural Georgia.
Talbot fondly recalls the story of the huge contribution from Lorenzo Borghese, a name you may know…he was The Bachelor in the show’s ninth season. Borghese is an animal lover himself, and he wanted to help when he saw a documentary about the rescue operation.
As Talbot understood, his endorsement meant far more than a financial contribution he could have made.
“I was contacted by somebody who knew Lorenzo,” she remembers. “They wanted me to get introduced because (Talbot’s husband) Dante and I had started to take trips to Georgia. We went on our first trip in January of 2011, and on that trip, we had a borrowed van and we went down for 23 puppies.
“Once I met with Lorenzo, what I loved about him was there weren’t layers to get to him. He was the real deal, he reached out to me personally. I gave him a copy of the documentary which we had done.
“He knew that Dante and I were going back and forth to Georgia and funding everything on our own dollars and credit cards. Once he left our meeting he went home, watched this 25-minute documentary and was hooked.
“He said, ‘Are you looking for a check? Are you looking for money?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t want your money. I want something more important. I want a voice. People know who you are, they recognize you, they don’t know me.’”
Borghese suggested creating Animal Aid as an umbrella for MOMS Rescue, which he then lent his endorsement to. The “USA” was added when they learned that another “Animal Aid” already existed.
“That’s when Animal Aid was born, and so we incorporated Animal Aid is a non-profit. All the while, I still kept Making Of Miracle Stories, and Animal Aid just took off.”
Borghese adding his voice undoubtedly helped the effort. Talbot made a wise choice asking for it over a check…which she says would have been spent in a week and immediately forgotten.
On the Animal Aid USA website, you can watch a video of their being featured on “To The Rescue” docuseries, with host Tommy Habeeb narrating the full experience of the caravan going back and forth from Williamstown.
The video shows the Georgia compound where dogs are held until the caravan arrives, as well as the medical facility where vets handle spays, neuters, and heartworm treatments. Habeeb hears about the entire process from Talbot, who describes the logistics from dog food deliveries to the 38-foot transport rig that holds 64 crates.
Throughout the video, you see Georgia dogs in their natural state of being adorable, making the work that Talbot describes as grueling seem not only worth the effort, but not difficult at all. But Talbot shares that people are exhausted by the end of the project, wondering what they’ve signed on for, until the sun comes up during the ride home and they see the light at the end of the tunnel.
The caravans could easily be a reality show, you might think while watching. But Talbot is quick to shoot down pitching the idea of a reality show to a network, as this writer suggested.
“It’s a real reality show every 28 days down there,” she says. “But for me, living it on a daily basis and being in Georgia…Rachel’s amazing, it’s not a bad idea for her to set up a YouTube channel with a following, where we are real and raw.
“You’re not getting raw in reality TV. And you’re also controlled, and it’s scripted, and I am the furthest from being controlled or scripted.
“They don’t like that at all!” she says with a laugh.
The video is well worth a watch…go here to see it.
Put It On Your Bucket List
Karen Talbot and Rachel Monaghan were happy to invite this observer to join them for a caravan trip. It’s something to consider, even if you just like long overnight road trips and need a worthwhile reason.
As Talbot says, the caravan has even saved marriages, and she cites her own as an example. Her husband Dante, who now drives and maintains the big rig of the caravan, had at one point tired of her devotion to the cause and requested a divorce.
“I immediately chose the dogs,” Talbot says.
“The following summer after the giant Georgia puppy caravan, we then had our documentary premiere in Philadelphia, and all the people that came on the caravan…the pilot, the rescue groups, everybody, was in attendance at the Trocadero.
“Dante was there because we were still friends, and he saw what I was doing from our bedroom on a computer, and he vowed to make it up to me the rest of my life if we got back together.”
The power of puppy faces. “It’s really funny because the reason we divorced was dogs, and once we re-married and got back together again, he’s worse than I am with dogs.”
Hopefully your marriage isn’t in need of helping dogs to save it, but if you’re interested in lending a hand and the life transformation that all of the volunteers speak about, you can reach out on the Animal Aid USA website and see if they need help with the caravans, which they usually do.
“Put it on a bucket list at least once in your life,” says Talbot.
I’ve always known that Cincinnati was the home of the first professional baseball team, but until I visited the Reds Hall of Fame and Museum, it always puzzled me how the Red Stockings could be the first baseball team…because how could there be just one team? Wouldn’t they need someone to play against? Did they just stand on the field practicing until another team filled out all of the legal forms? Maybe they signed the contract for their ballpark the day before the Phillies did or something?
I wouldn’t say it kept me up at night, I knew there had to be an explanation, but it was just one of those things that puzzled me a bit.
But now I get it…one less thing to waste brain power pondering.
The Reds Hall tells the story—that the Red Stockings were the first professional baseball team because they were the first team whose players were actually paid to play baseball. Other teams’ owners balked at the idea of ballplayers being professionals (some things never change), but the Red Stockings were willing to pay players. And by doing so, they attracted some of the best talent around. No doubt radio show hosts in other cities began demanding that their team owners start paying players.
This all-star team of professionals went on a tour in 1869 and won everywhere they went, finishing their first ever season unbeaten and actually drawing some crowds on the road. (I think hot dogs were $1.50 back then.) This was back in the days before gloves and catcher’s masks and the DH, proving that people will play baseball for money even if they’re risking life and limb.
Their second season was marked by dissolution and player bickering (that didn’t take long), despite that the team resumed its greatness, winning all but one game against the Brooklyn Atlantics, in an 11-inning affair. Eventually some players moved to Boston, as did the Red Stockings name—now the Red Sox, of course.
The team disbanded, and then a new Red Stockings team joined the newly formed National League in 1876. This team was banned from the National League for…get this…serving beer at ballgames. Nowadays a team might be banned from the league for not serving beer.
Finally in 1881 another Red Stockings team (they loved that name for some reason) joined the rival American Association, and in 1889 they moved to the National League, replacing the bootlegging Red Stockings team that had been booted. In the move, they changed their name to the Reds, probably to save on stitching costs.
So the current incarnation of the Cincinnati Reds that we all know today wasn’t exactly the first professional baseball team, but you could argue that Cincinnati simply hit a few bumps in the road to become America’s first iconic baseball town.
There is a great deal of history when it comes to Cincinnati baseball, and it’s as good a place as any for a team to feature a Hall of Fame and Museum that is a microcosm of baseball’s Hall in Cooperstown.
The Reds Hall of Fame is definitely worth the visit if you’re coming to Great American Ball Park, if only to learn how there could only be one “first professional baseball team”.
But of course, there’s a lot more to know about Great American. Especially if you’re visiting for the first time.
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JerseyMan asked me to cover a local cornhole event they arranged, and to work in a piece about the phenomenal growth of professional cornhole in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hope you enjoy it. You can also view the PDF of the article here.
Beyond The Parking Lot – Professional Cornhole
You can write for JerseyMan and attend Legacy Club events for ten years, and almost never see Ken Dunek animated enough to shout loudly and pump his fist.
Then again, you don’t see many people gain a lead against John Kitchin in a cornhole match, however short-lived that lead may be until Kitchin finds his bearings and starts effortlessly nailing throws. It’s understandable for even a reserved person to be thrilled at the achievement.
This anomaly was at the Infinity Club Cornhole Tournament, held this May at the PCS facility in Moorestown. The event raised nearly $4,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, and for survivor T.J. Smink’s bid for the Society’s Man or Woman of The Year.
Of course, many esteemed Legacy Club members were present. It’s an ideal opportunity to avenge a recent defeat on the golf course. No one tanks, of course, but a loss isn’t so bad…it’s an opportunity to grab a drink and catch up with fellow members.
One would think that, in a crowd of Eagles fans, who have to have considerable tailgating experience, there would be some players standing out in the crowd. But other than Smink’s team, who prevailed in the match, most of them were unexceptional shooters. Even by frequent tailgater standards.
The tournament was for fun and to help less fortunate people. PCS’s parking lot is obviously no billion dollar, luxury box-filled venue.
But professional cornhole has grown well beyond the parking lot.
Present at the gathering were Kitchin, a national cornhole pro who resides in West Deptford, and Joe Harsh, the American Cornhole League’s (ACL) Northeast Conference Director.
Yes, there is a nationwide professional cornhole league. As seen on TV.
Before 2020, the ACL had already landed some national television deals, and events could be seen on various sports networks. Then they got a boost…professional cornhole became one of the rare entities that benefited from an outbreak. With no baseball, football, basketball, hockey, etc., there was a fairly ginormous hole in sports broadcasting to fill.
So cornhole moved into seriously choice TV slots. Harsh notes that “We had eight to ten broadcasts on Saturdays, prime time with our Pro Division, and traveled all over the country.
“We’re really fortunate,” he adds. “Everything went well for us. And the exposure and the growth, it’s been really, really beneficial to the league.
“I’ve known John for a couple years now, and the fact that someone would ask John for an autograph, it’s the coolest thing.”
Kitchin has been known to drive to Cincinnati for the day to throw bags. At least, that became a thing for him when someone noticed he was a pretty good shot at tailgates.
“I played in the parking lot of Eagles and Phillies games, and a guy came to me and said, ‘Hey, we have a league for this.’ I kind of laughed at him. Here I am seven years later, and if I could play more I would.”
Indeed, Kitchin started playing in a league, and did well enough to compete in local tournaments. Then he became a pro. Then an ACL Pro.
He’s added some impressive achievements to his league bio…#1 Northeast Conference player in 2018, ACL Man of The Year in 2019, and a 2nd place finish in the 2020 USA Cornhole Club Championships – broadcast on NBC Sports – to name just a few. He’s so good that Bush’s Baked Beans and LG have put their logos on his jersey.
You can see why even Ken Dunek would celebrate well beyond his typical demeanor scoring a lead against him. Which, to Kitchin and Harsh, is part of the appeal…anyone can play, even against the pros.
“I play in leagues around here all the time,” Kitchin says. “I play pretty well, but there’s a lot of people who, when they play against me, they use that as a measuring stick. I don’t beat everybody, so I think that makes them even more interested…‘That guy’s been on TV!’”
“That’s the coolest part,” Harsh adds. “You can see him on TV on the weekend, and then Monday or Tuesday night you could literally play against him.”
Jeff McCarragher is a freelance sports broadcaster. His LinkedIn profile describes his most recent position as a “Play-by-Play Announcer for College Football & Basketball…and yes, Cornhole too.” His resume covering other sports is impressive, but by most any measure, McCarragher is the Voice of American Cornhole.
He landed the gig by simply being in the right place at the right time. Literally.
A South Carolina resident, he worked college football and basketball throughout the Carolinas. Tupelo Raycom, the company that brought him announcing work, had an office there. And they knew ESPN needed a cornhole announcer.
“When COVID hit, being a freelance play-by-play broadcaster was like being a waiter or server at a restaurant,” he remembers. “We were shut down immediately because all the sports just went away. When they got the contract on ESPN, they called me and said, ‘Hey, are you willing to travel if we put together cornhole through the summer?’
“I had done a little bit for them in the past, I’d done the national college cornhole championships that previous New Year’s. I said, absolutely, I’m comfortable traveling. And so away we went, ESPN signed a deal with the American Cornhole League.”
McCarragher’s enthusiasm for covering professional cornhole of all things is palpable. The players may not have toiled through college or minor leagues, but they definitely have well-developed skills.
“It’s a very simple sport, right? You just slide it up the board and put it in the hole. But just like any other sport, when you get to a very high level, you start to learn how technical it is. I had to learn a whole new vernacular, whether it’s replacement bags or grab bags, the way a player collects the bag.
“I relate it to being a really good major league pitcher. He’s got his fastball, his slider, his cutter, his change-up. The ones who play at the top level, they’ve got a little cut shot, they’ve got an airmail shot. They can make the bag curve one way or another, they can angle it and get the bag to kind of roll. Instead of different pitches, they have different technical shots that they can throw. It’s really pretty amazing.”
There’s considerable tension in big matches, too.
“It gets to be like golf,” he continues. “You’ve got a two-stroke lead, or maybe a one stroke lead, going into the 72nd hole on Sunday. I don’t care who you are. That final tee shot on the 18th? It has to be good. There’s so much pressure. Again, I get it, it’s cornhole. We’re not talking about the Masters. But it’s still competitive, the desire to win for these players.”
McCarragher is confident that the growth of professional cornhole will continue, even with the return of other spectator sports.
“Did COVID help give it added exposure? Absolutely. But I will tell you, they have been working behind the scenes with these little ESPN contracts now for several years. They were on ESPN a few times in 2018-2019. We had college national championships on New Year’s Eve going into 2020. The ratings were slowly going up and up. So this was already on the rise.
“Just by the sheer TV contracts that are coming in and new sponsors, I for sure would say that the ACL is still growing.”
“I think the success they had during COVID is going to allow them to continue. Will the viewership be the same? Perhaps not, but I think in this country there’s a niche for these types. Like, would you watch baseball, which is hours long, or you’re clicking through and, ‘Oh, cornhole, this is something I do in my backyard. My buddies and me bust our chops all the time, let me watch this. I think that’s what’s opened it up for those types of things.”
Joe Harsh has already experienced professional cornhole’s impact beyond TV.
“For me it’s not even the size of the events and the cool venues we’ve visited. It’s some of the charity work we’ve done, like for veterans groups. We did an interview with a guy, roadside bomb in Afghanistan. Long story short, he’s a double amputee, and he’s thanking me for everything I do, and it just absolutely blows my mind.
“I would do anything for someone like that because they’ve given so much, and they’re thanking us for what we do and the release that we give them. That’s my favorite thing to take away from all of this.”
Needless to say, McCarragher is eager to keep telling the story.
“I would love that guys would call and have me do a national college football championship. As young broadcasters coming up, we all hope to get that call. But even that being said, I still really would always hope I can continue doing cornhole.
“I will do this for as long as they’ll let me, because I love it.”
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T.J. Smink, who won the Infinity Club Cornhole Event with his partner Kyle Reider, had personal reasons for both winning and co-arranging of the event: he is a cancer survivor himself.
Smink is a Senior Account Executive for Premium Seating with the Philadelphia Union. But in 2020, the shutdown of sports was the least of his worries. In December of 2019, he was diagnosed with stage four Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
He decided to control two things that he could control: his hair and his attitude. He shaved off the hair he felt he was going to lose from treatments…but ultimately didn’t. And he kept upbeat, all the time.
“I made sure to keep a positive attitude, to look on the bright side of life. Having that mindset, being able to say I’m going to beat this s***, that was way more than half the battle.”
Legacy Club member Devin DiNofa, at the time campaigning to be the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Man or Woman of The Year, reached out to Smink.
“He’s an awesome dude,” Smink says. “He asked if I would be on his team to help raise money for others. Even then, he wanted to work with LLS to raise funds for me directly, LLS said we can’t go towards one specific person.
“Even then, I went back and told him, I’m killing this s***. We’re good, I appreciate it, but I would prefer it goes to someone who actually needs the funding.”
Today Smink, at DiNofa’s urging, is campaigning for the LLS Man or Woman of The Year himself. The Infinity Club Cornhole event was a part of that, to great success.
“Ash (Ashley Dunek) came up with the idea of working one of the Infinity Club events into a fundraiser. And we had a really big turnout. There were 32 teams and a lot of people that came just to hang out.
“Our team is going to get a research portfolio named after us. I’m excited to see where that research goes.”
And he and Kyle Reider topped it all with a cornhole tournament win.
“He’s a lot better than I am,” Smink says of his teammate, “but together, we normally win all of our friends’ get togethers and stuff.”
So You Want To Be A Professional Cornhole Player?
In a write-up about John Kitchin from Power Equipment Direct’s website, he is described as a professional cornhole player who “practices for roughly 32 hours per week, where he throws 2,000 to 3,000 bags.”
While that is probably technically true, Kitchin doesn’t exactly work in his garage, perfecting his follow through and stance and watching himself on video. He just plays a lot, which to him is the simple secret to improvement.
“When you figure in going to leagues and playing tournaments on the weekends, and then throwing it in my shop or something like that, the amount probably adds up. I play on the leagues on Tuesday nights and Wednesday nights, and Thursday nights usually where I try to get out too.
“If you want to become a better cornhole player,” Kitchin continues, “just get out and play, go find a local league. Even if it doubles as a night out, you know, go out and play. You’ve just got to get throws in, and if you can’t and you just throw in the backyard, go out and throw. You have to throw bags.
“So practice for a pro to me would be going out and playing in your own league and it’s all about getting throws in.”
Wait, no proper ways of holding the bag? No commentary on wrist movement? Nothing about how to warm up? Kitchin says that once you find a groove that works for you, the mental aspect is far more important. And that part can’t always be taught.
“I’m probably the worst pro to talk about this, because I’m a firm believer of under-thinking. People overthink. It’s whatever is most comfortable to you, you just have to tweak that. Throw eight bags, and I would want to see how you threw. And I would say, was that comfortable? If that’s comfortable for you, you can tweak it from there.”
That sounds simplistic, but he’s right. Cornhole players lose matches overthinking.
“I might throw 50 bags in a row in the hole, but what changes from the time that you just threw 50 bags in a row and then you line up next to me? What just changed? Nothing changed except for your mental, so you’re overthinking it. Now all of a sudden that same guy who’s just hit 50 bags in a row off to the side warming up, is now maybe two on two in. It’s the overthinking.”
“I try not to worry about all that.”
Why We Cheer – The Human Interest Stories
The ACL is fortunate to have Jeff McCarragher behind the microphone, because he does what the best broadcasters do…he tells backstories about the participants.
He shared a small few everyman stories of cornhole stars with JerseyMan.
“Steven Bernacet, he won the singles national that we just had in Wichita about a month ago. Outstanding cornhole pro, but in his senior year, he was a great high school football player, lineman. He was in a horrific car accident and broke his neck. He could have died.
“The doctors immediately told him he wouldn’t play contact sports ever again, obviously to a high school kid who’s played sports his whole life, it’s devastating to him and his family. Two years later, once he was able to rehab and get back to his new normal of life, he picked up cornhole, and has been playing cornhole ever since now.
“It’s been his outlet and his happiness and his source of competitiveness, to fill that desire and that need in his life. Cornhole has been literally life changing for him.
“One of the top female pros is a manager at a Taco Bell. You know, she plays cornhole on the side. Daymon Dennis, who’s the number one player in the world right now, worked at a cheese plant for 27 years.
“He used it to support his family and to keep food on the table. And now here he is, number one player in the world.”
“It’s like American Idol,” McCarragher says. “There’s a lot of people who can sing, but what captured the audience and the ratings for American Idol is all the backstories.”
Asking the question “Is PNC Park in Pittsburgh the best ballpark in baseball?” doesn’t offend too many people. At the stunningly beautiful home of the Pirates, you will often see signs around the ballpark proclaiming it to be “The Best Ballpark in America”. As far as I know, there’s no outrage about this from fans of other ballparks.
What if the Cubs put such signs around the outside of Wrigley Field? Might Red Sox fans sneer a little bit? And vice versa, if signs appeared around Fenway Park proclaiming it to be the best ballpark in the country, would that not get a reaction from Cubs fans? Just a thought.
As someone who has visited a few ballparks but not all of them, I can say that while the question of whether PNC Park is the “best ballpark in baseball” may be debatable, one wouldn’t have too much trouble making the case.
So What Makes PNC Park The Best Ballpark?
There’s a lot of obvious things to love about PNC. The view, for one.
From almost any section in the ballpark there is the stunning vista of the downtown Point area of Pittsburgh, linked to the ballpark itself by the Roberto Clemente Bridge painted in Pirates/Steelers/Penguins gold, crossing the Allegheny River.
And the approach to the ballpark from downtown is as classic baseball as it gets—a walk across the Clemente Bridge past vendors hawking snacks and apparel, with the open air and dark blue seats in full view while crossing the Allegheny River by foot. Few ballparks if any could match that.
Then there’s the ballpark itself—Kasota limestone on the outside; the statues of Bucs greats Clemente, Stargell, Wagner and Maz; the rotunda in left field with views of the ballpark and the city; and the intimacy of just 38,000 seats, painted dark blue in homage to Forbes Field.
And there are some not so obvious things too. There’s the matter of the price of tickets, which may not be a fair attribute to discuss given that the Bucs didn’t secure a winning season there until 2013.
But poor performance on the field didn’t stop the Cubs from charging a chunk of change to get into the ballpark for many years. From the most to least expensive seats, Pirates games are competitive in price with any team in baseball.
The architects of PNC Park did a tremendous job building intimacy into the place. The ballpark was not only built with a small amount of seats, it was done without raising the upper level to nosebleed height as it is in many new ballparks. The Pirates brag that the highest seat is only 88 feet from the field, and there’s no question that you’re still on top of the action even in the upper deck. This is something that no ballpark built since has achieved, at least none of the ones that I have visited.
Don’t pay PNC Park prices for Pirates gear and souvenirs!
Order your essential Pirates items before you go at Amazon.com, pay far less than you would at the ballpark, AND get free shipping on orders over $25…click here!
There’s food selections of all kinds, from the venerable Pittsburgh favorite Primanti Bros. to Chickie’s and Pete’s fries to the BRGR burger joint. You may not necessarily love the idea of a pulled pork sandwich with pierogies on it, but you can’t deny the Pittsburgh-ness of that. And there’s Iron City beer…nothing makes a ballpark like a bad local beer.
I’ve been to ballparks with better food and better access. But PNC is pretty easy to get to by car, and you have the option of using a bus, train or even a boat. Heck, you could ride a bicycle there along the Riverwalk and that would be pretty cool.
But to this observer that isn’t all that important. It’s not easy to get to Wrigley Field, but I don’t care once I see the ivy and ancient scoreboard. And when in Fenway Park, a Fenway Frank tastes as good as any gourmet meal anywhere else.
I have yet to see AT&T Park, Safeco Field, Target Field or Coors Field, all of which have been touted as the best in America. Of the ballparks I have visited, I’m partial to Camden Yards, Wrigley Field, Fenway Park—and without doubt, PNC Park in Pittsburgh. On almost every level, PNC is as good as or better than all of them.
So if you ask the writer of Ballpark E-Guides whether PNC Park is the Best Ballpark in Baseball, my answer is: if you think so, I won’t argue with you.
So you’ve got a Red Sox fan in your life, and you’re thinking about something that would make a super gift? As a ballpark guy, let me give you my best advice in gifts for Red Sox fans: give them something for their next game at Fenway.
Tickets obviously make a great gift, so here’s an excellent primer on how to find deals on Red Sox tickets for your loved one. But the Sox fan needs other equipment when visiting their favorite place on earth.
Stop paying ballpark prices for your Red Sox gear and souvenirs!
Full disclosure: Ballpark E-Guides is an Amazon affiliate, so if you use these links to make a purchase, this website earns a commission at no extra cost to you. So you’re not just buying a super gift for a Red Sox fan, you’re helping baseball fans everywhere!
So thanks. Now then, Red Sox fans know about sitting in a chilly ballpark…
Gifts For Red Sox Fans, Part 1: Staying Warm at Fenway
Bundle up kids…Fenway Park can be a very cold place, especially in April…and October! So be sure that you look into some of these accessories as possible gifts:
These footie slippers would look great on a lady Sox fan, and they’ll keep her feet comfortable and toasty on a cold game day.
There’s nothing like a knit cap to show your allegiance on a chilly evening at Fenway, and this particular edition is not only the nicest looking but also comes at the best price.
Amazon has a nice selection of hoodies and sweatshirts here…
(This one is my favorite, in case you’re thinking of getting one for me.)
And this sweater would be nice for the lady Sox fan in your life.
Scarves are underrated as necessary April/October baseball fan apparel at Fenway, and I think this decorated scarf makes a fantastic looking gift.
And a nice pair of gloves would go great with the scarf. (Are you starting to enjoy the image of your favorite Sox fan decked out like this?) This pair is Amazon’s choice and the price is great.
Finally, if you can manage to bring this fleece blanket into the ballpark on an April evening, you’ll be very glad.
Gifts For Red Sox Fans, Part 2: Essential Game Day Apparel
You’ll need a cap at a Red Sox game of course, and they’re much cheaper on Amazon than they’ll be at the ballpark (and that may even include the outside vendors). Here is their selection, including a cool green St. Patty’s Day cap.
As far as caps go, I prefer the red cap to the dark blue one, and this is likely a better deal than you’ll find inside the ballpark.
As I’ve stated on the Cubs fan gift post, there’s a much better selection of jerseys in the MLBShop.com store (maybe I should become an affiliate), but if you can find something on Amazon, it will probably be cheaper.
And what goes better with Red Sox earrings than a decorated bow? This one is surprisingly affordable…and you’re working it now, buddy.
You can find some really cool tees here (I even checked the free shipping box for you)…
But this one is amazing looking, and I say this as someone who’s not a big tie-dye or Grateful Dead fan.
Then there’s the Citgo logo tee, the reason for which is obvious to any Fenway dweller.
And of course, your tiny young new Red Sox fan needs to show his colors early.
As far as fandom and showing allegiance, do you want to be one of those really weird fans that stands out even in a Red Sox-apparel adorned crowd? Then this suit is for you…go for it! (I’m not sure I would give it as a gift though.)
Gifts For Red Sox Fans, Part 3: Necessary Fenway Accessories
If the Red Sox fan in your life is going to Fenway and is planning to sit in the bleachers, listen up…they are going to need sunglasses! Take it from this Fenway Park expert…
Here’s a very cool pair of Red Sox branded sun frames for those bright bleacher afternoons.
Other essential Fenway visitor items include cooler bags, because as you may know, you can bring your own food and non-alcoholic drinks into Fenway. (Read more about that here.)
Seriously, share this knowledge when you hand the Red Sox fan in your life their Red Sox cooler bag.
You can easily fit your sandwich from the Sausage Connection into this thing…
And this cooler bag will just as easily store your sodas and bottled waters (and it’s cheaper).
Obstructed views aren’t the only problem with Fenway’s Grandstand seats. They’re also small and hard to sit on. A Red Sox seat cushion makes a great gift for anyone who likes the Grandstand seating.
If you’re out in the bleachers, or in the Green Monster seats, you’ll want to be prepared if the rains come. Check out this ultra-cool umbrella.
If you’re paying the considerable price for a beer at Fenway, keep it cold. This.
Gifts For Red Sox Fans, Part 4: Car Décor, Books, and the Best Yankee Hater Gift of All
If the Red Sox fan in your life is driving to the game, at least help him or her decorate the car accordingly, with championship accessories…here’s a particularly nice license plate holder, and here’s a car flag…two excellent and affordable stocking stuffers!
OK, maybe it’s not Fenway necessary gear, but while your lucky gift recipient is waiting for the baseball season, they will need some Red Sox reading material.
I confess to not having read all of these, but they are recommended in posts that I’ve read…
This is a best seller from the very popular Jerry Remy, currently a Red Sox broadcaster. I would check somehow and make sure your Red Sox fan doesn’t have it…you can’t go wrong with a Jerry Remy book for a Sox fan.
Stewart O’Nan is a terrific writer, and I don’t need to tell you who Stephen King is. They decided to chronicle an entire season of Red Sox baseball together. In 2004. Again, check and make sure your fan doesn’t already own this one…
Here’s another subject that’s always a winner with Red Sox fans.
Finally, I had to include this book just for the title. It’s almost worth the price for a Red Sox fan just to have it on display in your home.
And while I don’t know if you can buy it anymore, what Red Sox fan wouldn’t want to use this?
There you go my friend…some fantastic and useful gifts for Red Sox fans, especially for their next trip to see the Sox at baseball’s most historic and storied ballpark.
Speaking of, be sure to get the Red Sox fan in your life to check out some great Fenway Park tips…have them start here!
If you’re struggling to choose gifts for Yankees fans in your life, I’m here to help.
Well, at least with the part about what fans need visiting Yankee Stadium. Tickets make a great gift obviously, and I’ve written a short primer here about finding deals on Yankees tickets.
But fans need other stuff too. Check out the very cool gift ideas for Yankees fans below…especially the truly awesome Hawaiian shirt!
Stop paying ballpark prices for your Yankees gear and souvenirs!
So you know, I’m including Amazon links here, and Amazon is an affiliate of mine. If you make a purchase using one of these links, this website earns a commission, at no extra cost to you. (Thanks for your support!)
So here we go…
Gifts For Yankees Fans, Part 1: Staying Warm in October
As every baseball fan knows, the Yankees play in October a lot, and cooler weather does hit the Big Apple. Make sure that your Yankees fan gift recipient is prepared for playoff events at the Stadium.
If you’re going formal, say, attending a game in a suite, you’ll stand out in this fine sweater…
Here is a pretty nice Yankees scarf, at a pretty nice price. Or try this one…(Amazon’s choice!)
I love these sneaker slippers, which have been featured on Shark Tank. (They have Cubs and Red Sox editions of these too)…
And these footie slippers would look great on a lady Yankees fan.
The Yankees fan in your life will need this knit cap if they’re headed to the Stadium for October baseball…it’s on the pricier side, but what the heck, it’s a gift. Actually this one is pretty nice too, and a little cheaper.
Stocking Stuffer Alert! Here is a pretty nice pair of gloves for a Yankee fan, because you thought of it!
Gifts For Yankees Fans, Part 2: Essential Stadium Items.
There are some tools you need when you visit Yankee Stadium…not just caps and tees and gear.
As I’ve noted here, you can bring your own food into Yankee Stadium…this is a perfect way to take advantage of that Stadium loophole and save mucho cash at the game!
If you’re going to pay ballpark prices for bottled beer, at least keep it cold with a sleeve. Try this fine set…
I’ve stated in my astoundingly helpful Yankee Stadium parking post that the Stadium isn’t very conducive to tailgating…but Yankees fans travel, right? So get this for your traveling Yankee fan’s next trip to Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago or Tropicana Field in Tampa Bay…
If your beloved Yankees fan is a Bleacher Creature, they’ll need an umbrella for rain delays, and this one is large and colorful.
Stocking Stuffer Alert! And of course, you’ll need a pen to keep score.
Gifts For Yankees Fans, Part 3: Gear + Accessories.
The Yankees fan in your life needs to blend in with a sea of navy and white in the Stadium, and any extras are a bonus. Check this stuff out for gift ideas…
This outstanding Yankees Hawaiian shirt is on the pricey side, but if you’re willing to shell out a few bucks, it makes a killer gift for those warm summer afternoons at the Stadium.
If you’re looking for something for your Yankees fan dad, this tee is perfect.
Here’s a cool tee for Aaron Judge fans…
And Mariano Rivera fans will love this eye-catching tee.
Bringing a little one to the game? Would anything look more adorable on your little new Yankees fan gift recipient than these sneakers?
Here’s Amazon’s choice, an essential MLB ‘47 Yankees cap. Great price too.
But here’s a fine selection of other hats, including some nice white and pink ones. (I even checked off the free shipping box for you!)
Stocking Stuffer Alert! For the lady Yankees fan in your life, check out this selection of earrings! There’s so many great ones I can’t choose a favorite.
Gifts For Yankees Fans, Part 4: Car Items + Other Stuff.
It’s not all about going to the Stadium…Yankees fans love good baseball reading, and reveling in rooting for the most successful team in sports.
Here’s the classic reason why people hate the Yankees.
Stocking Stuffer Alert! Yankees fans, of course, love to talk rings…and this ring makes a great accessory, especially at this unbelievable price.
For some off-season Yankees reading, here’s a great tome from my late friend Harvey Frommer. Perfect coffee table size.
Some trivia knowledge never hurts to start a conversation in the Stadium…
Even though this book is very dated, I’m adding it because I loved it myself so much…Sparky Lyle is a very funny guy and this fantasy novel is one of my all-time favorite baseball books.
Finally, you can’t bring this to a ballgame, but it makes an outstanding mancave addition.
There you go fans, some great gift ideas for the Yankees fans in your life. Be sure to send them to this blog for more great Yankee Stadium advice!
(Note: this article contains affiliate links. If you use an affiliate link to make a purchase, Ballpark E-Guides earns a commission, at no extra cost to you. Thanks for your support!)
With the Tribe at or near the top of the AL Central often these days, cheap Indians tickets can be harder to come by. But you still have some ways to save a few bucks on tickets – here are three courtesy of Ballpark E-Guides. If you want to choose from the cheaper seats, check this out.
You can also order a cheap ticket and move to the upstairs section of the Corner bar, and move to the fire pit between innings. And who knows, it might not be that cold that night. I’ve gone to April games in Cleveland that weren’t too bad.
Book your ideal Indians game parking spot ahead of time…with my friends at ParkWhiz!Cheap Indians Tickets, Tip #2) Take The Volunteer Challenge. The Indians sometimes offer tickets and other rewards to philanthropic sorts; you can sometimes score tickets by donating cans of food or a used glove.
If you give your time through the team’s Volunteer Challenge, you can reap some rewards when you build up a number of volunteer hours, including game tickets. Who says good deeds aren’t appreciated? Not the Indians!
You can find opportunities like this in the Community section of the Indians’ website.
Don’t pay ballpark prices for Tribe gear and souvenirs!
Order your essential Indians items before you go at Amazon.com, pay far less than you would at the ballpark, AND get free shipping on orders over $25…click here!
The only exception is the District Ticket, which is only available online. Bonus tip: the Indians sometimes waive ticket fees and will tell you so in their e-mail ticket alerts; that’s the time to snag those District Tickets.
Cheap Indians Tickets, Tip #4) Bonus Tip: Try SeatGeek. SeatGeek is my favorite third party outlet for Indians tickets, and I’m not just saying that because they’re an affiliate. SeatGeek searches from a number of ticket outlets, and I frequently find better deals there than on StubHub.
There you go; three ways (+1!) for you to land some possibly cheaper tickets to see the 2016 AL Champion Cleveland Indians. Stay tuned, I’ll post more.
Want to know more about Progressive Field? Sign up here for my completely free Progressive Field e-mail newsletter series, and score some seriously valuable info about tickets, seating, transportation and food…see you at the Yard!
I had to move this post, sorry! You can check it out on my exclusively ballpark themed blog here!!