DATE: Thursday, May 22, 1997                TAG: 9705220690


TYPE: Column 

SOURCE: Tom Robinson

DATELINE: NORFOLK                           LENGTH:   76 lines


The new host of TV's ``This Week In Baseball'' flips a baseball in his left hand as he looks into a camera and tapes signoffs for the show.

The ball goes up and the ball comes down in his soft grip - except for one time, when it glances off the man's fingers and lands on the ground at Harbor Park.


The man flashes a wan smile.

``You can tell I haven't done this in a while,'' Ozzie Smith says.

This is a slice of life after baseball for Smith, who patrolled shortstop for 19 major league seasons, the first four with the San Diego Padres, the rest with the St. Louis Cardinals.

He was perhaps the finest fielding shortstop in history, the legendary Wizard of Oz, a perennial All-Star and future Hall of Famer who performed without a net, behind no curtains, out there for all to see, happily back-flipping to his position on opening day, making the implausible play seem routine, dazzling us all.

Now, at 42, in his first season out of baseball, Smith leaps into the void left by the late and legendary broadcaster Mel Allen, who hosted ``This Week In Baseball'' for 20 years.

Wednesday is taping day for Smith, who was in town to help local Fox affiliate WTVZ promote the show at the Tides-Toledo game, so Smith spent a couple of late-afternoon hours on the field running through segment lead-ins. And running through them. And again and again, till producer Jim Scott was content.

Seemingly at ease, Smith's delivery was pretty good but his patience was exemplary. In between takes, he joked with former teammate Tom Lawless, a Tides coach, and signed baseballs for a few Tides and anyone else who wandered up.

Later, though, a mist of bittersweet lingered as Smith discussed his separation from the playing field, and the awkward final season, when he was used sparingly by new manager Tony La Russa, that still bothers him.

It isn't the way Smith would have liked to have said goodbye. But how many athletes, even the greats, get handed the perfect script?

``Eventually, I'll get back on the field'' as a coach, maybe even a manager, Smith says. ``It's been my life. My presence last year made a lot of people uncomfortable, for whatever reasons. I needed a year away from the field.''

When ``This Week In Baseball'' was offered, Smith, one of baseball's fine ambassadors, accepted as a way to keep in touch with the game. He mixes it in when he's not doing color commentary for Cardinals' telecasts, running his temporary employment agency or his restaurant in St. Louis, or spending time with his three children ages 15, 10 and 7.

``I was going through a divorce last year at the same time I was retiring,'' Smith says. ``I've been through some major changes.''

TV work isn't necessarily one of them. A veteran of the old ``Baseball Bunch'' kids show with Johnny Bench, Smith memorizes his lines, and if he messes up takes, it's more because of inflection on words than forgetfulness.

``Ozzie has been unbelievably easy to work with,'' says Scott, the producer. ``He does whatever he can to promote the show.''

A great show would be a half-hour compilation of Smith's finest plays, the ones he made on instinct, that made you forget the years of intense work that came first. The plays he has come to really appreciate only recently, now that there are no more to make.

``I was a ball hound, that's what I did,'' Smith says quietly, closing his eyes and putting himself back onto a field before a game, ground balls being hit, throwing to first base without looking, flipping the ball behind his back to second base, flowing freely, alive, electric, wonderful.

Sitting behind home plate at Harbor Park, Ozzie Smith gazes through netting at the grass and dirt.

``I'd love to be able to take infield,'' he says. ILLUSTRATION: [Color Photo]

HUY NGUYEN/The Virginian-Pilot

Ozzie Smith, the new host of ``This Week In Baseball,'' laughs with

Tides coach Tow Lawless during a break in filming at Harbor Park


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