Going with a change-up

Announcer: To fulfill a dream, Neal Conan is giving up a national audience to broadcast the exploits of minor league baseball players.

June 16, 2000|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

NEWARK, N.J. - In the radio world, Neal Conan had it all: a show on National Public Radio, 15 million listeners and the chance to cover wars and international summits.

Now, as the play-by-play announcer for the Aberdeen Arsenal - a new minor league baseball team based in Harford County - he spends his days in such hot spots as Bridgeport, Conn., rides buses all night and longer, and eats too many muffins from hotel breakfast bars.

What some will do for the love of baseball.

Conan, 50, has taken a six-month leave of absence from NPR, trading in 23 years on its news staff, his own weekly show and national renown, for 140 one-man broadcasts on Harford Community Radio, WHFC 91.1 FM - a station with one full-time employee and a signal that barely reaches Baltimore County.

FOR THE RECORD - An article Friday about a minor-league baseball announcer incorrectly stated that the eight minor-league teams that make up the Atlantic League are affiliated with major-league baseball clubs. They are not.
The Sun regrets the error.

He's losing tens of thousands of dollars in salary, he says. He's even temporarily moved out of his family's house in Bethesda, away from his wife and children, to room with a family in Aberdeen.

In its first year, the Arsenal plays in the low-profile Atlantic League, where players make $2,000 a month and work other jobs in the off-season. Broadcasting Arsenal games takes Conan to such venues as 6,000-seat Riverfront Stadium in Newark.

"Here comes Fowler, here comes the throw to the plate," Conan shouts into his microphone during a recent fist-pumping broadcast from there. "It's way off line!"

Outfielder Maleke Fowler scores, and the Arsenal, a team partly owned by Baltimore Oriole Cal Ripken's family, takes the lead over the New Jersey team, the Newark Bears. Conan is thrilled about the score - and even more thrilled about spending another night fulfilling a closely held dream.

This is a man who grew up a diehard Yankees fan, a man who, when it comes to remembering the truest of emotional rushes, speaks not of being held hostage by Iraq's Republican Guard (which he was in 1991) but of nailing a fastball with the sweetest part of his bat for a home run while in high school. Last Wednesday's game in Newark gave Conan a similar thrill. It came down to the final at-bat. But more on that later.

Go back four years, when his dream was born in a Chicago hotel room.

Conan is getting ready to head down to the floor of the Democratic National Convention, where he is host of NPR's live coverage. He's listening to a Chicago Cubs game. It hits him: Covering a game is little different from covering the presidential nominating process.

"Give the line-ups, what you're expecting, then exchange banter with an analyst," Conan says. "I had never thought about it before."

So, in between NPR assignments, Conan begins sitting in the stands at Bowie Baysox games, recording his play-by-play into a portable tape recorder. Fans around him think his antics a bit weird, but these are sacrifices of an apprentice. He gives his tapes to the Baysox. "They said, `Not bad, obviously you need a lot of work,'" Conan recalls.

But the Baysox give him a chance, and Conan - at no expense to the team - fills in on the air occasionally. He travels with the team and announces portions of 40 games in 1998, trading off innings with the team's chief play-by-play man. The next year, he does 30 games, with an NPR assignment to the Black Sea getting in the way of more.

This year, the Arsenal begin their inaugural season and need a voice. Conan's chance to have his own team and his own radio booth was realized.

"I was professionally frustrated. I was a little burnt out," Conan says of his NPR career. "I had worked at the same place for 23 years. I had done pretty much the same thing for 30 years. This opportunity came along. I'd have been crazy not to take it."

Conan's wife, Liane Hansen, who is host of NPR's "Weekend Edition Sunday," says it took some adjustment living apart after 18 years of marriage. When the team had its one day off over a 27-day span, the couple met for Chinese food in Manhattan, before the newly reborn announcer raced back to Newark.

"The tough part came with the sewer backup within four days after he left, and the broken toilet, and the broken printer," Hansen says, only half-joking. "After 20 years with someone, you miss having him around. But he had this fantasy in his head. He's very happy. That means more than anything."

So Conan is announcing the bottom of the third inning in Newark. The Arsenal hold a comfortable 4-0 lead, but disaster strikes. Aberdeen infielder David Steed can't handle a ground ball. Conan becomes animated.

"He bats it, and miffs it, and kicks it and has to pick it up and look at it - he was playing patty-cake with it," he says.

With two Bears on base, Newark's slugger, Ozzie Canseco - the brother of Major Leaguer Jose Canseco and a former big-league player himself - comes to the plate. He promptly whacks the ball to left field.

"It's sailing, sailing, sailing ... if its fair, it's gone. ... Goooodbye!" screams Conan into his headset. "Suddenly, it's 4 to 3."

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