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 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.