This Week in Baseball began its 21st season last week, and from the moment the show's new host, Ozzie Smith, somersaulted across the opening graphic, viewers knew they were seeing a changed program. "We felt it wouldn't have been fair to ask a pro announcer to replace Mel Allen," says producer Geoff Belinfante, referring to the Hall of Fame broadcaster who had been This Week's host from its inception until his death, at 83, last June. "We're trying something different. We're not asking Ozzie to be a journalist, because he's not."
Instead, the show takes advantage of what Ozzie is: an energetic, charismatic 42-year-old, just retired from a great career as a shortstop. Smith's popularity with today's players helped yield the show's first feature. His chummy interview with sourpuss Albert Belle provided such surreal sights as Belle smiling, talking about his family and announcing that baseball "is fun." At segment's end, Smith gripped Belle's hand and said, "Good luck."
"All right," responded Belle with an angelic grin, "and good luck to you, too."
Smith also hopes to use his athleticism to bring fans inside the game. In an upcoming feature he'll take grounders with Seattle Mariners shortstop Alex Rodriguez and later this year he may make his first visit to Fenway Park and play some balls off the Green Monster.
Allen handled all of This Week's announcing duties, but Smith gets help. Warner Fusselle, Allen's longtime backup, does voice-overs, and in each show former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda does an Andy Rooney-style segment, seated at a desk. This Week has never been hard-hitting, but Lasorda needs more edge than he showed last week, when his insights included, "Baseball is the greatest game in the world."
Even in an age of incessant highlights, This Week—which retains such staples as replays of the week's top fielding plays and "TWIB Notes," a thematic review of the week—has a place. It's leisurely and free of analysis, which means no one makes the sort of vacuous statements favored by Harold Reynolds on ESPN's Baseball Tonight. And though Allen's soothing cadence will be missed, to spend a half hour with Ozzie Smith is to be in good hands.