If you count all the fat guys trying out their new fitness club memberships and the women who stop by for an oops-excuse-me game before aerobics class, nearly 8 million people in this country play racquetball. Much of it is so ugly you wouldn't watch if a gun were held to your head.
There is a classic racquetball scene in the movie "Splash" in which John Candy, after lumbering wretchedly after a few shots, suddenly sits down on the court, cracks a beer and fires up a Marlboro. This is what the game can do to you.
But to see the artistry of the sport, to see it played at its highest level, go watch the Third Annual VCI Maryland Open Racquetball Championships, which will begin today at Merritt Athletic Club in Security.
Go watch reigning men's pro champ Cliff Swain of Braintree, Mass., crack drive serves of 160 mph, or 15th-ranked Dan Fowler of Silver Spring dive for shots like someone threw a stick of dynamite at his feet.
Go watch women's pro champ Michelle Gould of Boise, Idaho, stamp out these assembly-line forehands and backhands. Or watch Lynne Coburn of Owings Mills, the top-ranked local player (No. 5 on the women's pro tour) hit kill shots from somewhere out by the locker rooms.
Then go back to your health club and watch the two fat guys with the Bud Light T-shirts go at it on Court 4.
Jnly then have you truly glimpsed a vision of racquetball hell.
The thing to understand is that in terms of glamour and dollar-earning potential, pro racquetball is to a sport like pro basketball what nursery school is to Harvard.
At the Security tournament, the 64 men and women entrants will compete for a total purse of $30,000, which is about what someone like Shaquille O'Neal presses into the hand of a bellhop who takes his bags down to the lobby.
The top male player will take home $5,000, the top female player $2,000. In fact, if you want to watch a roomful of racquetball pros grow weepy-eyed and reach for the Kleenex, just mention that NBA rookie Glenn Robinson has been asking for a contract of $100 million over 13 years from the Milwaukee Bucks.
Or tell them that some .240-hitting shortstop just signed with the Yankees for $10 million, which is when many racquetball pros will actually stand and start banging their heads against the wall.
"People kid me about what we make all the time," says Ms. Coburn, 28, a five-year pro who makes her real living teaching health and phys ed at Ridgely Middle School in Lutherville. "They're always saying stuff like: 'Wrong sport, wrong sport.' "
And her reply? Does she silence these lunkheads with a moving soliloquy about her love for the game, how one must suffer for one's art, how money can't buy happiness and blah, blah, blah?
"No, what I say you couldn't put it in the paper."
Well. Although Ms. Coburn prefers not to talk about how much she's made on the tour, part of the reason racquetball pros play for peanuts is that the game gets virtually no TV exposure, which is what generates the big bucks in the high-profile professional sports.
Or if you do see racquetball on TV, it's usually on ESPN at 3 in the morning, right after the monster truck competition and before the bass fishing tips.
In truth, the game translates horribly on TV.
The ball travels at such high speeds that it can barely be picked up by the camera. And even though the courts have glass sides, the players seem confined and distanced from their fans.
The whole effect is like watching a couple of mimes in safety goggles pretending to hit a ball back and forth.
Try selling that concept to ABC Sports. Or the advertising folks at McDonald's.
Nevertheless, the game itself has a way of grabbing a person by the throat and not letting go, which is what happened to Lynne Coburn in her junior year at Woodlawn High School.
She was a tennis player back then. But along with her identical twin sister Robin, she took to hanging out at the newly built Merritt club in Security for the most compelling of reasons: Their boyfriends worked there.
The thing is, you can only watch your boyfriend string rackets or sort towels for so long before developing a severe case of narcolepsy.
So one day, instead of reaching for a pillow and quilt, Ms. Coburn picked up a racket and tried this new sport they were pushing at Merritt. She found herself hooked from the get-go.
"It was much faster-paced and had much more excitement" than tennis, she recalls. "And it was easier to find people to play."
In 1983, one of Merritt's racquetball instructors, Russ Jones, began noticing a member who seemed to have a peculiar affinity for the game.
Of course, despite the healthy cover-girl glow to her, there was also reason to suspect that this member was homeless, since she seemed to spend nearly all her time at the club.