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Growing up in the New Jersey suburbs of New York City, Neal Conan was a baseball fanatic. “I couldn’t hit worth jack, and when they put me in at second base, it meant that I had absolutely no arm at all,” he says. “But I loved playing the game.” He’d listen to Yankees games on a kit radio he’d assembled himself; later, as a young reporter in the ’70s with New York’s WRVR-FM, he had the opportunity to cover the Yankees in the era of Bobby Murcer, Ron Blomberg, Sandy Alomar, and Walt “No Neck” Williams.
In 1977, Conan joined National Public Radio as a correspondent, and his meat-and-potatoes work didn’t include sports; he covered hard news, including such bloody conflicts as the Iran-Iraq war, the Persian Gulf War, and the strife in Northern Ireland. But in 1996, Conan had a moment of clarityor perhaps a midlife crisiswhile sitting alone in a hotel room in Chicago.
He was preparing for a shift hosting NPR’s coverage of that evening’s session of the Democratic National Convention. As he shuffled through his briefing papers, listening idly to a baseball game on the radio, something occurred
to him. “I realized that what I was doing was not that different in structure from [being a baseball announcer],”
says Conan, 52. “I would open with a set piece and exchange banter with my co-analysts. Then I would go over the lineups and the schedule for the evening, and describe the action as best I could. I had never thought of doing baseball announcing on the radio before, but I started tinkering with it.”
The dues he’d paidand the contacts he’d madein the radio industry amounted to squat in the baseball world, so, in 1997, he began volunteering part time as a “second voice” announcer for the Bowie Baysox, a Class AA Baltimore Orioles affiliate in the Maryland suburbs. While keeping his day job at NPR, Conan commuted from his Bethesda residence to Baysox home games for three seasons, usually by taxi or car pool. (Conan, a self-described “neurotic” behind the wheel, doesn’t drive.)
In 2000, another position opened up: broadcasting for a college station in northeastern Maryland that was the official broadcaster, such as it was, of the Aberdeen Arsenal of the Atlantic League (which, unlike most minor leagues, does not have affiliations with major-league farm systems). Conan jumped at the chance, taking a leave of absence from NPR and chronicling the experience in his recently published book, Play by Play: Baseball, Radio and Life in the Last Chance League.
The now-defunct Aberdeen team was located far enough from home that Conan had to leave his family for six months, riding the team bus around the Northeast and staying with the players in hotels. Working for such a tiny station also meant lugging and setting up his own equipment, as well as filling loads of airtime all by himselffor an audience that, for all he knew, numbered in the dozens.
The Atlantic League’s main purpose is to offer nearly washed-up minor-leaguers a final chance to make it as major leaguers. That mission lent the players’ experiences an undercurrent of poignancy and, sometimes, desperation. “I think a lot of the players were using the league as a halfway house, to ease themselves out of the game and convince themselves that maybe this was really it, so that they could get on with their life,” Conan says. “It was a very difficult transition for them. Most of them had been playing baseball full time since they were about 9 years old.”
Conan did return to NPR after the season ended”in no small part,” he says, “because my wife would have killed me if I hadn’t gone back to make some money again.” But despite his newfound prominence as host of Talk of the Nation, Conan insists that he, just like the players in Aberdeen, still hasn’t banished the baseball bug from his system. Asked whether he would take another baseball job if it came his way, Conan doesn’t hesitate for a second.
“Yesin a shot,” he says. Louis Jacobson