Meet the latest cherry pit-spitting family dynasty

Editor’s note: Cherry Pit Spitting will be part of ESPN8: The Ocho, airing on ESPN2 on Sunday, starting at midnight ET.

In the cherry pit-spitting game, 19-year-old Chloe Bartz is somewhere between a Serena Williams and a Sabrina Ionescu: focused, agile and with lungs for days.

To look at her, you wouldn’t imagine — and probably couldn’t imagine — her secret talent. Unless you toss her a bag of cherries.

In that case, stand back, watch out and prepare for liftoff.

The three-time International Cherry Pit Spitting women’s division champion is the progeny of Kevin Bartz, a two-time men’s division champion, and the granddaughter of Richard Bartz, the original pitter-paterfamilias.

Kevin Bartz remembers what it was like to watch Chloe throw her shoulders back, take a deep breath, curl her tongue and unfurl a tart dart 40 feet into the air.

Asked if there was a particular technique he passed down, he laughs. There is no technique to this, he said. Find your angle, lean back and spit.

If anything, he passed down his ultracompetitiveness.

“She’s never lost,” he says, proudly.

Theirs is a bond based on Bings, a relationship forged by Rainiers. Apples? Keep ’em. Grapes, who wants ’em? Theirs is a cherry jubilee.

“It’s 110 percent goofy, but it was always one of those things we did,” Chloe Bartz told ESPN.com. “We’d take cherries out to the backyard and I remember trying to hit the leaves off the deck, 20 feet away. I remember aiming for those leaves for so long.”

Oh, honey, I have a secret

In 1974, Herb Teichman hoped to drum up some interest not only in his particular fruit farm, but in southwest Michigan’s bountiful annual tart cherry harvest.

He had an idea: a pit-spitting competition that would draw farmers and tourists from throughout the area. Soon enough, Tree-Mendus Fruit Farm became a local institution, and the competition drew entrants from across the world.

Four years in, Richard Bartz — the son of nearby farmers, and quite the pit spitter himself — read about the event in the local paper. He decided to venture down, bringing the family, including his 10-year-old son, Kevin.

Their talent was obvious. Richard won the adult men’s division, and Kevin won the youth division.

“I grew up on a fruit farm, and one of my jobs with my brother was to haul cherries out of the orchard,” Richard said. “I used to stand on the back of the trailer and spit pits at my brother, who was driving the tractor. It was a test of both distance and accuracy.”

The family kept up with the tradition for a few years, but their attendance eventually dwindled, and it just became a thing the Bartzes did back when.

But Kevin wasn’t going to let this tradition go. Roughly a decade ago, and now with his own family, he decided to bring his family back to Tree-Mendus farm — to his wife’s obvious chagrin.

He hadn’t told her about this secret skill during their courtship.

“First of all, who has ever heard of such a thing?” Kim Bartz said. “We were married and had children and then it all came out. This isn’t how I wanted to spend [Fourth of July] weekend every year. But we’d go, and Tree-Mendus is such a fun place, and I bought into it. Then it became a yearly thing. … I just wouldn’t tell anybody where we were going.

“It was something that came and went every year and I was fine when it went.”

Until, that is, they realized young Chloe had blossomed into the best spitter of them all.

The precocious cherry pit spitter

Chloe became the Tiger Woods of the youth division, so much so that she caught the eye of television producers. When she was 11, she was whisked away to Hollywood to appear on Nickelodeon’s “Figure It Out,” becoming a local celebrity in the process.

“After fifth grade, there was no hiding it,” she said. “I had my 15 minutes of fame and I probably wore that out. We had a premiere party for it. In middle school it was the cool thing I could do, and I figured if it’s weird I might as well own it. Both of my parents are teachers at my high school, so I figured it couldn’t get any weirder than that.”

Chloe ascended to the adult women’s division when she was 12 and promptly won the title. She has won two more since, most recently last year, when her father won his second title with a mark of 54 feet, 3 inches.

“She is the spitting image of her father,” Kim said. “They are one and the same person. When she was little, she was just her dad’s shadow, and if anyone would be good at it, it would be Chloe. Once she got it, she didn’t even have to practice at it.”

After missing a few competitions during her high school career because of family vacations — as a high school football coach, Kevin Bartz has limited summer availability — Chloe was looking forward to defending her title this summer.

But it wasn’t meant to be.

Family dynasty will have to wait

A second-generation fruit farmer, Teichman died last January at the age of 88, leaving the farm to his son, Bill, and daughter-in-law, Monica. Bill and Monica had purchased much of the farm from Herb and his wife, Liz, years prior, keeping the pit-spitting tradition alive and bringing in folks from all over.

But last August, Bill was bit by a mosquito carrying Eastern equine encephalitis, a virus that causes brain swelling and myriad medical problems. Bill was admitted to a local hospital, but after his symptoms worsened, he was transferred to a neurology intensive care unit in nearby Grand Rapids. Another farmer who was struck with the disease died. Bill survived and returned home, but recovery has been a gradual progress, with Monica serving as his caretaker.

Bill had been running the farm with Monica taking care of the business end. That ended abruptly with Bill’s illness. There were conversations with the family about what to do with the farm; in the end, they decided to sell, in particular due to the rising costs of Bill’s treatment, for which a GoFundMe fundraiser has been established.

Irene Latack, Monica’s sister and the family’s spokesperson throughout the ordeal, said that most of the farm has already been sold. An auction was planned for this weekend for the remaining property — which includes the market and the pit-spitting area — but the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak has forced a postponement.

“With a farm, you can’t just say we’ll pick it up in five years,” Latack said. “Their entire life has changed. It’s always been the biggest event the farm has, and it is sad it’s going away. They were really excited ESPN came last year and filmed everything.”

Life after spitting cherry pits

Back home from her freshman year at Hope College — her father’s alma mater, of course — Chloe Bartz is coming to terms with the new normal. Her school year has been cut short, and she’s not sure about upcoming summer plans.

She knows of one event she’ll miss the most.

“[The cherry pit-spitting contest] is one of those things you put on the calendar and is a given,” she said. “To cross it off the calendar, I feel like it’s something I took for granted. I’m realizing there’s a lot of things I took for granted.”

So what will become of this budding dynasty?

Kevin will head back to the football field, where he’ll try to lead Edwardsburg High back to the mountaintop. He inherited the Eddies 25 years ago, after the program hadn’t won a game in 15 years. In 2018, he guided the team to a Michigan state championship, the program’s first.

The following summer, he took the top prize at the cherry pit-spitting competition, to the delight of his players. After missing the previous two contents while on family vacations, Bartz heard last year’s event would be aired on ESPN, “and I figured it would be cool to wear my school T-shirt,” he said. The event will re-air on ESPN2 at 3:30 p.m. ET on Sunday as part of The Ocho programming block.

Now that the 2020 competition is canceled, regret is creeping in.

Where are they supposed to spit now?

“I’m sad it’ll be over,” said Kevin, who also teaches biology at Edwardsburg. “We probably stuck with it because it was a her-and-I thing.”

Added Kim: “If your kids buy into it, you buy into it. Once you get over the embarrassment.”

For Chloe, her prodigious pit-spitting ability has never been something of which to be ashamed. She wore the badge with a sense of pride.

“You know those icebreaker games, where teachers ask you for one weird fact? I’ll always have my one weird fact,” she said. “You just have to say it with a straight face. Watching other people’s expressions is the best part.”

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