Sports: Winter in Conlinland

Daily News columnist Bill Conlin has been writing about sports in this town for almost half a century. In the age of blogs and millionaire jocks, he’s angrier than ever

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.
Being marginalized, ignored and otherwise relegated to has-been — even though he’s still, at 75, this city’s best columnist — has Bill Conlin raging into the night at bloggers foolish enough to disagree with his sporting assessments, and e-mailing anyone who will listen about just how good he was and still is. (You might also get e-mailed a snapshot of a young, much thinner Bill on a surfboard.) So no, he hasn’t recovered from that last World Series he traveled back and forth across the country to write about in ’01; he hasn’t gotten over the way he and the other, lesser writers, were herded to a room with tiny TVs.

Irma pokes her head out from the house, tells him the Mets have lost to the Marlins. Conlin nods, pleased. He’ll keep ranting from home.

A HALF-CENTURY AGO, sportswriters didn’t even talk to ballplayers. They watched games, then told us what happened.

Interviewing players, prodding, poking, understanding them as people, and even using the emerging tools of literary journalism to create scenes to bring them to life as characters and stir up trouble — all that was a new toy just as Conlin was starting out in the mid-’60s. So was the idea of our national pastime as a grand metaphor for the most brutal business of life — and at that, Conlin was, and still is, a master:

“The Phillies and the Dodgers have played four games this spring,” Conlin once began a story, “and late-arriving fans have missed 11 first-inning runs by the Dodgers. That’s like spotting Frank Rizzo 50,000 votes in South Philly, like giving Seattle Slew a three-second start in the Preakness. Look at all the trouble there was when Neville Chamberlain spotted Hitler Austria and Czechoslovakia.”

As for the players themselves, Conlin saw his fair share of boys behaving badly during his career: plenty of late-night booze fests at the hotel bars, plenty of stuff that he’s (begrudgingly) tucked away about them. “I used to sit in front on the team plane and block everything out,” Conlin says. “I never allowed myself to go back there and see what was going on, even though I knew what it was.”

Oh, he did dip into the shallow end every once in a while, but only in unique (and obvious) circumstances. Somebody had to explain Steve Carlton. After Lefty went an otherworldly 27-10 in 1972, his first season with the Phils, he thudded back to earth quite rapidly in 1973, going 13-20. Conlin knew why. Or at least he thought he knew why: “In my opinion, he was too busy fooling around, drinking too much, and out of shape,” he says now. “I didn’t write that, but I definitely hinted at it.” Carlton noticed. Their relationship soured. This was extremely uncomfortable, exacerbated by the fact that Conlin’s wife Irma and Carlton’s wife at the time, Beverly, were friends. The Carlton kids and the Conlin kids spent a lot of winters running around together in Clearwater, where the Phillies train. Super-private Lefty felt Conlin had violated their friendship. “A writer should never permit that [type of relationship] to happen,” Conlin says. But in that era, every sportswriter had to decide how to draw that line.
There were plenty of others before and after Lefty whom Conlin let into his world, where, famous ballplayer or not, he’d find the Hemingway middle ground to keep everyone honest. Take off their dirty uniforms, and they’re still just men. And at six-foot-one and a weight that fluctuated from bulky to flabby in the 40-plus years of his career, he was bigger than most of them anyway. Conlin loves to yarn-spin: about that time he and Whitey Ashburn played a doubles tennis match against Pete Rose and Mike Schmidt “under the lights at the Shipwatch Yacht & Tennis Club” in ’79, or the time he and Phillies traveling secretary Eddie Ferenz “went a few no-decision rounds one night in Montreal during a Molson-induced argument.” Or he’ll tell you about his surfing prowess, with an e-mailed story about noted playboy and not-so-noteworthy pitcher Bo Belinsky down the Jersey Shore:

Bo had this reputation — self-generated — that he had been big-wave surfing in Hawaii a few off-seasons with some of the North Shore legends — Rabbit Kekai, Buffalo Keaulana, Flippy Hoffman. When he came to the Phillies in ’66, I had been surfing since 1952 and was a very good recreational surfer. I told Bo I had a bunch of guys at the Jersey Shore who would like to surf with him. So he came down to Margate on an open date in early June, wearing a Speedo! With a comb stuck in the waistband. My buddies were giggling. We drove up to Long Beach Island to Surf City and Harvey Cedars. There was a nice little swell running, and while Bo was not an experienced surfer, he was fearless and took some awful wipeouts. He was such a good guy, my buddies accepted him, and he bought lunch and beers for everybody at the Dutchman’s Brauhaus. The second time was on a coast trip in July. … I had become friendly with Hobie Alter, the surfboard (and later sailing) impresario. Hobie fixed us up with a couple of boards and loaned us Corky Carroll, who was the world champion at the time. …

Money — the amount the players started making — changed all that. “There’s just too much at stake,” Conlin laments, though not enough in his direction, which is why he got involved with ex-Phillie Lenny Dykstra’s athletes-only lifestyle magazine Players Club in 2008, a project Conlin freelanced for, consulted for and recruited for, sometimes pro bono. (If you skim through any of the back issues of Players Club, you’ll see a lot of familiar bylines who churned out 350-word athlete fluff pieces, including Bill Lyon and Ray Didinger.) Alas, Lenny’s fantasy world of investments and Jim Cramer-approved stock picks unraveled. “He is a scumbag and a fraud,” Conlin concludes about Dykstra.

At any rate, the writing was on the wall, as it were, by the early ’90s, as to how players and mere sportswriters led different lives. Conlin remembers watching part-time second baseman Mariano Duncan hustle out of the locker room to jump into a hired limousine. If Mariano fucking Duncan was now behaving like Donald Trump, well, the world was a different place. Especially Conlin’s.
BILL CONLIN IS right, though. He is good.

Colleagues like Tony Kornheiser (of PTI, and formerly the Washington Post) and Bob Ryan (ESPN, the Boston Globe) are fans. Bill Lyon, the retired writer of record most Philadelphians turn to when one of our own needs to be lionized, says Conlin’s talent was sometimes overshadowed by his aggressive approach. “He definitely changed the way baseball was presented in a newspaper,” Lyon says. “And I always admired the way he never backed down from anybody.”

It’s always been easy to stop reading in admiration of Conlinisms that pop up in almost everything he writes. Old Connie Mack Stadium wasn’t merely run-down, but “an old woman dancing nude at the Medicare Senior Prom.” Or one midsummer night, the Phillies’ pitching staff wasn’t simply tired: “Expecting [Jim Kaat] to be razor-sharp on an evening when Ozark’s rotation was backed against the schedule was like expecting Casanova to be sharp after a vasectomy.”

Yet what really makes Conlin good is his unblinking confidence in his view of the sporting (and bigger) world. He not only pines for a bygone era when, for example, big-league pitchers weren’t coddled by getting pulled when a coach’s clicker hits a certain pitch count — in Conlin’s world, pitching deeper into games merely takes “more stamina,” a view that prompted a call at home from Governor Rendell thanking him for voicing it. But Conlin also puts our athletic troubles in rich perspective. In an era where a sportswriter’s career can be made by outing the latest big-name steroid user, he brought up the more damaging — and universal — issue of alcohol abuse. (“Don’t overlook baseball’s other substance-abuse story.”) He did so by (finally) outing Carlton as a man besotted by demons, as well as noting the more recent alcohol-induced troubles of many present and former major leaguers.

CONLIN’S HALLMARK IS that he never offers a tough opinion that isn’t right. “His first reaction is to be an absolute sonovabitch. He’s never wrong in his first reaction,” says Pat McLoone, his editor at the Daily News, who’s read or worked with Conlin for most of his life. Yet that attitude can also be, to say the least, problematic. Conlin’s a tireless e-mailer who has no problem toe-to-toeing with readers who disagree with him. Especially bloggers. He’s challenged those know-nothing “pamphleteers” to online pissing contests if they provoke him. “My career versus theirs,” he wrote of one. Sometimes he’ll send along pictures of his old Florida condo as a bizarre way of proving his success.

E-mail’s become a blessing and a curse for Conlin. He can vent; he can spew misguided, vituperative attacks on people without consequence. Or so he thought — until some of those attacks started showing up online, and then the whole thing backfired.

His e-mail fury became the talk of the blogosphere in 2007 when Conlin responded to one Phillies blogger who challenged his vote for Jimmy Rollins for MVP instead of Mets third baseman David Wright. Conlin shot him down in his usual dismissive fashion — then the exchange was published on the blog Crashburn Alley. One section of Conlin’s retort really stuck out: The only positive thing I can think of about Hitler’s time on earth — I’m sure he would have eliminated all bloggers … ” And, bang, Godwin’s law — the adage that as an Internet discussion grows longer, the chances of a Nazi comparison increase — came back to haunt him on Google. The Daily News scolded Conlin in-house, but not publicly.
Conlin has been exposed to a whole new generation of sports fans as a sad, bitter old man. He certainly doesn’t want to be that guy — and he’s tried to reform. “My e-mail responses are personal and only rarely mirror the intended vitriol in back-atcha form,” Conlin says (via e-mail). He says he’s learned to heed “the advice of my bosses and hit ‘delete.’” But he does want people to know how good he is, was, could have been, that his contributions were worthwhile — not just to baseball, but to a loftier, literary set. Conlin clearly feels slighted that he was never inducted into the baseball writers’ wing of the Hall of Fame (though he will enter Philadelphia’s Hall of Fame this fall). He was hurt that the producers of ESPN’s long-running Sports Reporters stopped calling him for appearances not long after host Dick Schaap died, even though Conlin’s oversized presence and loudmouth outbursts while cradling a coffee cup earned him national notoriety. “People used to stop me in airports and ask for autographs,” Conlin laments. But the bottom line is how he held the torch higher than anyone else; Conlin feels that as a writer — a pure blood-and-snot writer — he’s more nuanced, creative and inspired than the rest of the in-game typists. To prove his point, Conlin will forward you (unsolicited) the e-mails from McLoone with the fat man’s very own column at the top of Philly.com’s list of “Top 10 stories/columns.” “This is a better answer to why I haven’t retired,” he’ll tell you. Because he crafted art while other daily scribes hit the obvious notes and merely collected paychecks.

And that’s what makes a mere baseball moment with Bill Conlin — “Now Madson’s got this cutter, plus a change-up, plus the fast ball? And you know what other reliever has those types of pitches working for him all the time? Mariano Rivera” — on his back deck in Turnersville so much more. The foghorn toughness, the rants, the beautifully crafted twice-weekly columns, all of it is Bill Conlin, staring at me with those old red eyes, still demanding to be heard.

“If his health keeps up and he enjoys it, he won’t stop,” McLoone says. “Has he lost the fastball? I don’t think he has.”

Conlin doesn’t think so, either. Go ahead. E-mail him about it.