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Santa Barbara Cornhole players gathered for a day of fun at Leadbetter Beach last weekend.

Paul Wellman

Santa Barbara Cornhole players gathered for a day of fun at Leadbetter Beach last weekend.


Cornhole and the Meaning of Life

Four Santa Barbara Teams Competing in Cash-Heavy Throw Down Tournament


It’s bowling outdoors without the ball and pins; it’s golf without the clubs; it most resembles horseshoes, with bean/corn bags tossed toward a hole on a slanted wood board.

It’s cornhole, a game of relaxation and friendly competition that can become seriously meaningful.

“Cornhole is taking over my life,” Ray Ray Martinez said, “and it is saving my life. It makes me feel good.”

Before hearing about Martinez’s journey to cornhole bliss, one asks, why the double Ray? “When I was grown up, the guys said, ‘You’re like 10 years old; you should be called Ray Ray,’” he said. “And it stuck.”

He looks plenty old now at 49. Cancer will do that to you. Martinez has been fighting it for four years. “I get chemo treatments every three weeks, and I take eight pills a day,” he said. “I’ve got no hair, no eyebrows. I hope to make it to 50.”

Martinez, a painting contractor in Carpinteria, started making cornhole boards before he ever played a game. “A friend asked me to make a board, and I haven’t stopped making them,” he said. “I’ve made 50 or 60 sets [two boards]. I’ve got an order for Jeff Bridges.”

His compromised health drew him to the game. “I was a big softball guy,” he said. “[Cornhole] seemed hard at first, but in one or two hours I started to get the hang of it. It’s not strenuous, and it doesn’t make me bleed.”

Now, Martinez said, “I throw bags every day. There’s a tournament somewhere every week. I get into cash games, make a little money.” He often hangs out with the Santa Paula Cornhole Baggers at Garman’s Irish Pub. They recently raised $2,000 to help Martinez meet expenses. “The love of this cornhole family is amazing,” he said.

Part of that amount was raised by an auction for an entry into Spencer Makenzie’s ninth annual Cornhole Throw Down, coming August 24-26 in Ventura. Billed as the largest cash cornhole tournament in the world, the Throw Down reached its limit of 224 teams weeks ago, making that entry valuable.

The competition is easy to follow. Two boards are placed 27 feet apart. From both sides, contestants from each team take turns pitching their bags ​— ​four each ​— ​and score three points for a bag in the hole and one point for a bag on the platform. The first team to accumulate 21 points or more is the winner.

Four teams from Santa Barbara and Carpinteria are entered in the Throw Down:

Team Kush (Ray Ray Martinez and Tyler Whitney): They led the Carpinteria High Warriors into the CIF football finals in 1986 — Whitney the record-setting quarterback and Martinez his favorite receiver — and they are paired up again in cornhole. The team is named after a variety of cannabis. “Smoking doesn’t cure me, but it helps me deal with the side effects of cancer,” said Martinez, who raises two daughters with his wife, Janelle, his high school sweetheart. “I’m a fully functioning stoner. When I work on boards, I have to make straight cuts.”

J-Dawgs (Justin Lamar and Joaquin Valle): A younger Carpinteria team, these 33-year-olds have been friends since the 3rd grade. They did well in last year’s Throw Down. “We got a good draw and finished 20th or something in the A bracket,” said Lamar, a plumber. The teams play in pools the first day of competition, and the upper half goes into the A bracket, which has the best payouts, and the rest go into the B bracket. With skilled bag throwers from across the country entering the competition, it’s hard to finish in the money. Valle, an electrician, said throwing a bag gives him some of the same feeling as a golf shot does: “The trajectory, the alignment, the purity of the release. You have to adjust … whether to execute a flop throw or throw it low and hard.”

Milli Vanilli (Robert Cabello and Fabian Ortiz): Cabello, 47, is a founder of Santa Barbara Cornhole, which unites area players through a Facebook site. They play regularly at M.Special Brewing in Goleta and the Eagles Lodge in Santa Barbara, and for fun on weekends they might get together on a grassy patch at Leadbetter Beach. “If you’re not playing well, have a couple beers; you might play better,” said the former Santa Barbara Dons football player. Cabello started cornhole at a backyard barbecue a few years ago. “Once you learn it, there’s strategy,” he said. Ortiz, 31, is a personal trainer. “He’s more relaxed than I am,” Cabello said. His name provided the complement for the team’s name — Rob and Fab being the erstwhile Milli Vanilli musicians.

Team Has No Name (Matt Luna and Josh Fiero): UCSB brought the pair to Santa Barbara, and they have been able to stay, Luna as a software consultant and Fiero as an engineer at Raytheon. They’ve made new friends through cornhole. “It’s relaxing to hang out,” said Luna, 32. “The weather’s always great, and you can play anywhere, on somebody’s driveway or on the beach.” They will be competing in their fourth Throw Down. “The competition gets tougher every year,” Luna said.

The Throw Down will take place at Spencer Makenzie’s Fish Co., located at 806 East Thompson Boulevard in Ventura. The weekend will kick off with entertainment the night of Friday, August 24. For information, visit spencermakenzies.com.

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