In which Murph considers the benefits of physical movement . . .

“Nobody should have that many talents,” Katie complained to the television this morning.

I looked up from the computer screen and stared at the program, where several men and women danced excitedly in a line while fiddling a hearty Irish jig. When the song ended, I smiled, noting the irony as my sister continued to shake her head with disbelief and eat her cereal – simultaneously no less, spilling a pool of milk and Corn Pops on the floor and some modest cursing from her mouth. My sister of all people should not be envious of anyone. Like most people – myself included – she sometimes fails to see herself completely, honestly. Not only has she performed and taught Irish dance, but she also plays the harp as well, a talent which unlike the fiddle does not improve with jump or jig. Some of us are even less endowed. My own dancing prowess less resembles Fred Asteire and more closely models Rodney Dangerfield. Athletics and I . . . well, we mix about as well as bleach and ammonia: when we collide someone – me – will pass out and die.

Yet everyone in my family possesses a strong fascination with sports of all kinds. Mom and Dad dated during softball games. When he was not golfing, Pat as a kid drained three-point shots as if the height and distance did not matter. Sean shaved his head (and perhaps other areas) to swim relays and drown his less buoyant teammates in water polo; he later traded in his Speedo for a wrestling singlet, foam mats, and sweaty men. Shannon broke his arm playing soccer and now receives (as well as deals out) regular concussions in rugby matches. Katie sprained, broke, and split her leg two or three times to score field hockey goals. Ryan not only wrestles, scrums, and swings a seven iron (albeit poorly) but was elected to the state championships as a defensive lineman.

Meanwhile after initial testing, my elementary school asked that I attend summer lessons before beginning first grade in order to improve my gross motor skills – translation: learn how to bounce a ball. Just last week after a rigorous study session, I received a nasty paper cut, which inexplicitly spread to a hang nail and a severe case of hives. While sleeping, I routinely run the risk of falling out of bed, bravely sacrificing my body to tile and cold for the sake of my nightly reading materials.

My sleeping companions.

Thus, well-acquainted with fail . . . er, falling, when it was suggested several years ago to form a Murphey family softball team, I was eager to experience the sensation of grass on teeth. Yet, unfortunately this decision nearly cost us our lives. You see, we signed into a local adult softball league, a mixed league which included both men and women and promised fun without the anger and bitterness of excessive competition. Though we enjoyed winning, no one could accuse us of taking the game too seriously. We bought a few bottles of cheap beer, recruited the kids as cheerleaders, ate unhealthy snacks, and spent most of the game laughing and cheering on each other. I played catcher, kneeling in the dirt praying that the bat did not connect with any part of my body and that I would not be asked to throw any farther than the pitcher’s mound. Throws to the infield usually required more skill and strength than I possessed, an awkward full-body push which usually left me on the ground and the ball just short of second base.

Pat and his wife, Tiff, actually met each other on that softball team through the benefit of a mutual friend. Tiff mentioned to us that what first attracted her attention to Pat was the way he used to hold up his pants while running to first base (pre-Tiff Pat actually was quite skinny). Apparently she sensed that he needed her.

Yet every so often we encountered a team bent on winning – at any cost. You may have encountered a few of these individuals in your own neighborhoods: the guys typified by bulging muscles, necks the size of small tree trunks, and short-cut hair like finely manicured lawns. The kind of guys constantly on the lookout for scouts, the rare opportunity to relive their high school years or satisfy the urge to bleed pitchers. Now do not mistake me, most of these Roy-Hobbsian acolytes are probably cordial members of society, ideal community leaders with Volvos and well-kept yards, proud fathers to boys with dog-names like Spike or Butch, who feast off Slim-Jims, Red Bull and nutrient supplements labeled with words like “Nitro” and “horse steroid.” Yet as the softball arcs through the air and falls across the plate, these men gradually change. That thick sphere of rubber, cork and twine transforms somehow into a bullet, the field into a firing range. Then scores, teams, and games no longer matter, only the potential targets.

Enter the Murphey family. The suckling pigs of this tale. Typically these crazed batters would first seek out the women: my Mom on the pitcher’s mound, my aunt on second base, my sister in the outfield. Apparently – not knowing our family very well – they mistook them for the weaker members of our herd, and fired shot after shot, line drives within inches of Mom’s head. The Woosh! of the ball passed once right over her shoulder blade. Another time, she ducked just in time as the ball sailed through the space where her frontal lobe had dwelt comfortably seconds before. The batter than pranced around the bases, laughing that we should learn to be more careful on the field.

“She should pitch a little bit farther on the inside,” Dad would say. “A little bit closer to the head of that . . .” (here he made some reference to the area near the batter’s colon). Mom would only walk off the mound, pick up her beer, and sit on the bench. She might complain a little, but only when out of earshot, unwilling to gratify the slugger with any unnecessary attention. The fact that no one else cared – nonexistent scouts and sports reporters included – amounted to retribution enough. The next time the slugger approached the plate, his line-drive found itself entombed in Mom’s glove. The game ended; no words were exchanged.

Nevertheless, I would love to report that these games ended in a battle royale, a fight to the death between bats, balls, and sand, yet this was not so. We ended the season and did not join the following year. We had faced several more sluggers, all eager for blood and high ERA’s (which were not even calculated); though none of us perished, our fun and excitement had withered away. In time we joined a bowling league, where the competitive spirit still thrives but at least we are in no danger . . . well, no intentional danger. When Ryan sidles down the lane with ball in tow, we duck and shrink behind the benches. You see, release is important in bowling, ultimately deciding the difference between a strike and a journey behind the snack bar to retrieve your ball from the pretzel machine. Thus, depending on the players all sports possess a modicum of danger. Most great joy after all is born of risk and challenge.

Therefore, I think that I will end this tale and grab me some apples and some video games. Risking electrocution, thumb-sprain, and choking seems like a good way to spend the remainder of this afternoon.

The true sport of kingsMy gym.

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