Bill Conlin hasn’t been a reporter for quite some time, and he’s thrilled about it. He’s a columnist now, so the idea of standing around a smelly locker room with a bunch of young kids begging players for empty page-filling quotes makes him squirm. He spent close to four decades lumbering all over the world to chronicle the most prestigious sporting events — Wimbledon, the Olympics, too many Super Bowls, etc. — but that thrill died a slow, obvious, waking death with him long ago. Take the last World Series he covered: 2001, Arizona Diamondbacks vs. the New York Yankees. A series already infused with human melodrama since it was post-9/11, it also happened to go seven intense games until a dippy single in the ninth gave the Diamondbacks the title. If you were a sports newspaperman who reveled in the plot lines that would enable you to show off the pure writerly side of the craft, it was gold. And Conlin, then 67 and still one of the best baseball writers, was there through all seven, east-to-west-coasting on nasty deadlines.
Unimpressed by the miles of narrative the 2001 World Series provided, he talks about that experience now like a newlywed whose honeymoon was ruined by a tsunami. Much of the out-of-town press wound up in a dingy room, forced to watch the games on small televisions, he says, and reporters had to jockey for position in front of those little TVs in order to scribble in their notebooks and capture the “color” of being at a live event. I’ve got a 65-inch TV at home, Conlin thought, squinting at the screen. And instead I’m watching a tiny TV, waiting for this ugly Yankee PR woman to hand me a stat sheet … He says it took him days to recover from that trip. In a way, he’s still recovering.
It was the end of the line for Conlin — not because of his age. Not because he was quitting. Certainly not because he was losing his edge. Conlin’s still as opinionated, irascible, and full of obscure Shakespeare and Civil War references as ever, as I find out one late-spring evening, talking baseball and life with him on his back deck in Turnersville, where he’s lived for 29 years with his wife, Irma. Inside, the Mets game gets beamed in from his Florida condo’s HAVA, and the Dodgers game to another computer. Conlin’s a hulking man — all white beard and great belly, especially in the blurry orange light of the setting sun, as he talks about Phillies relief pitcher Ryan Madson: “And you know what other reliever has those types of pitches working for him all the time? Mariano Rivera.” It’s a trifling baseball moment, comparing one player to another, but there’s no mistaking the authority of Conlin’s broken foghorn of a voice, making it sound much more exotic and important. Conlin’s old red eyes tighten and stare at me, just in case I’ve missed the point: Wisdom has been passed on.
The problem is, the game has changed — Conlin’s game, sportswriting. Four decades ago, when Conlin started covering the Phillies, we opened our newspapers to learn about sports, which meant writers were the shapers and keepers of that communal dreamscape, a heady job; plus, players liked getting mentioned in the papers. ESPN and the Internet changed that, in both immediacy and highlight drama. At the same time, sportswriters and players used to play tennis on off days, or drink together in hotel bars — unthinkable now — and the writer would sometimes pick up the tab, which is really unthinkable now. The culprit there, of course, is money; players started getting paid truckloads of it.