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

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.