THE EMAIL that promised "a potentially explosive story" showed up in the inbox of arguably America's most controversial sports journalist, Deadspin.com editor A.J. Daulerio, late Monday afternoon.

The source of the tip was also the subject of the story - former Daily News sports columnist Bill Conlin - and yesterday Daulerio revealed what he said were 20 hours of anguished emails and phone calls with the legendary baseball writer while his career unraveled in scandal.

Conlin, 77, left the Daily News Tuesday, just hours before the Inquirer published allegations that he had molested four children, including his niece, during the 1970s.

Since then, Conlin has spoken only through his attorney, George Bochetto, and so the conversations with Daulerio - who published his account and excerpts from the emails on Deadspin.com yesterday - are the only glimpse into his current state of mind. There's no bombshell, but the Daulerio conversations touched on an array of issues, including:

* The allegations. Daulerio wrote that Conlin had, in a phone conversation, "laid out for me a muddled timeline involving his niece and a decades-old family vendetta that Conlin believed had precipitated the story."

Daulerio added that Conlin said "he wasn't very 'grandfatherly' " to children visiting his homes in Florida and the Jersey shore and that "gruffness would be his defense."

* State of mind. Daulerio writes that he was concerned that Conlin might be suicidal after the columnist emailed: "I'm at my condo at Shipwatch in Largo, hanging out with the fishes I might opt to sleep with if this sees the light of day."

* Backstory. Conlin "half-heartedly insinuated that the piece was running because of the ongoing turf war between the Inquirer and Daily News," according to Daulerio, and expressed concern about how the fallout from the story would affect his son and his grandchildren who "would be taunted at school."

Conlin, who received the prestigious J.G. Taylor Spink Award this summer at the Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, N.Y., told Daulerio in an email: "I am a lot bigger to the Daily News than [Jerry] Sandusky ever was to Penn State."

Daulerio reported that Conlin initially had discussed using Deadspin.com as a forum for defending himself, but that Bochetto later urged the website not to publish anything about the allegations. Deadspin.com did post an item yesterday - nearly three hours before the Inquirer published its story - saying that Conlin had left the Daily News.

The decision to publish the Conlin emails yesterday was unconventional but arguably par for the course for Daulerio, who also writes a column for the Daily News' SportsWeek.

Last year he admitted paying a source $12,000 in cash to obtain the pictures that broke open the Brett Favre "sexting" scandal.

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