Conine's father quite a hitter, too

Handball: Ex-lineman and Olympic wrestler Jerry Conine comes to town to pound handball foes as his Orioles son does hanging curves and racquetball foes.

June 26, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Jerry Conine opens his hand to expose a yellow mass of lines dissecting scar tissue. His powerful left hand is surgically repaired. He says there is no pain.

They are the hardened hands of a man who wrestled for the United States in the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo after lettering three seasons as a two-way lineman at Washington State. They are the hands of someone who later took up handball and became one of the sport's most recognized figures. He remains so while competing in the super-senior division of the USHA National Handball Championships this week at the Merritt

Club in Woodlawn.

His son, Orioles first baseman/designated hitter Jeff Conine, respectfully refers to his father as "a stud" -- a guy who would order the family car to the roadside so he could jog the last couple of miles home after dining out. The kind of guy who, a few months shy of 60, still hops on a treadmill for at least 45 minutes three times a week.

"Handball takes perseverance," says Jerry Conine, a Washington native now living in Riverside, Calif. "It's not a sport where you receive instant gratification. The first realization you have is that it hurts like hell."

He took up the sport in 1970 and placed second in open doubles at the 1976 national championships, at age 36. Last year, his doubles team lost in the quarterfinals of the 55-and-over division to the eventual champions. He is renowned enough that "Married With Children" actor Ed O'Neill, a hard-core handball enthusiast, recently stopped Conine to verify his identity. O'Neill had seen Conine more than 20 years ago when he still had long sideburns, darker hair and, of course, less calloused hands.

Just as the father is not defined by his profession, a trade show installer, the son is not limited to his. Jeff remains a competitive racquetball player. More than an avocation, the sport helped change his life.

On Jan. 2, 1980, 13-year-old Jeff Conine stood 5 feet 2 and weighed 190 pounds.

"I wasn't chubby; I was fat," he says.

Six months later, after dieting and immersing himself in racquetball, Conine had sprouted six inches and lost 25 pounds. Jeff, who at 13 endured a condition known as chondromalatia -- the grating of the femur, or thigh bone, against the inside of his kneecap -- became expert at playing angles and hitting a variety of shots during his six-month rehabilitation. By the time he was 15, Conine was playing in open tournaments, beating men who had competed for years.

"I couldn't do anything except practice," Conine says. "So I'd go to the court and hit balls for hours. My game really took off after that."

Conine grew up in southern California with a poster in his bedroom of racquetball champion Marty Hogan instead of baseball players. He later competed against Hogan, considered the sport's Babe Ruth, and lost in a tiebreaker.

The acquaintance grew into a partnership as Conine teamed with his boyhood idol to win the 25-and-over national doubles title in 1994.

The younger Conine still plays several times a week during the off-season. His serve has been clocked at 165 miles per hour, beating a Roger Clemens fastball by 70 miles per hour.

So, the inevitable question: handball vs. racquetball?

"Not even close," Jerry Conine says. "Handball is much tougher."

"No question," the son concedes. "Handball is a brutal game. You never realize it until you've tried it. There's a saying among handball players: If God had intended for you to be a racquetball player, He would have strung your fingers."

The son sometimes plays his father's game. Known as Conan the Barbarian while with the Florida Marlins, Jeff says that to play handball he has wrapped his fingers, taped quarters to his palms as shock absorbers and worn two sets of gloves to endure the grind. Even so, the younger Conine bruised the middle finger of one hand so severely one off-season that he carried around the pain for a month.

"It's an extremely disciplined game," Jerry Conine says. "Most people take it up for a few weeks then move on to something else."

Jerry Conine never budged. He's 10 pounds below his Olympic weight when he placed sixth as a light heavyweight in Tokyo.

"Obviously I didn't see him wrestle or play football, but the work ethic he's maintained to remain a competitive handball player is incredible," Jeff says. "He's totally dedicated to it. He's an absolute animal. My wife told me she wishes I still look like him when I'm 60."

Pub Date: 6/26/99

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