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Softball legend Smith makes history in TV booth

Two-time gold medalist is first female analyst for nationally-televised game

Michele Smith made history on Sunday afternoon when she sat beside play-by-play man Ernie Johnson and analyst John Smoltz in the TBS booth for the Dodgers-Braves game at Turner Field, becoming the first female analyst for a nationally televised Major League Baseball game.

Even though baseball is not her primary diamond sport, the two-time U.S. Olympic softball gold medalist is probably as qualified as anyone for such a significant breakthrough. On this 40th anniversary of Title IX, Smith is exemplary of what happened after Congress declared in 1972:

"No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance ..."

On June 21, 1972, a little girl named Michele Smith turned 5 years old. Two days after she blew out the candles on her cake in Califon, N.J., where she grew up surrounded by Yankees and Mets fans, President Richard Nixon signed the Education Amendments of 1972 into law, including Title IX. That year, she began playing softball and unknowingly became an unstoppable pioneer.

Smith, who also serves as an ESPN softball analyst, went to Oklahoma State and was inducted into the ASA Softball Hall of Fame in 2006. She has played professionally in the Japanese Professional Softball League since 1992 and is an eight-time Japanese Pro League Champion and MVP. She became a source of pride for Americans, who watched her lead the U.S. to glory in Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney in 2000, and now she is about to put on a headset to tell you about a key game in the National League pennant race.

"I think the big thing is it's a great opportunity for me, for a softball athlete, to cross over and call an MLB game," Smith said. "Also, just as being a female broadcaster, I'm very proud of the fact that I think I'm probably the first female broadcaster to be in the booth to call an MLB game with two, obviously, talented broadcasters in Smoltz -- who is one of the most talented players to ever play -- and E.J. -- who I can't say enough about, as far as his broadcasting skills. Just to be in their league is an honor, but to be a female crossing over in the diamond sports is great.

"It opens up the possibility that this is the 40th anniversary of Title IX, and how that ruling has changed women's sports. If you look back at the last couple of Olympics, and, obviously, '96 in Atlanta, women's team sports were just outstanding. We just saw it again this year. Women have more opportunities on the field to make a difference on their lives. We don't always have the opportunity to go on and have those professional dreams, though. Olympics are often the peak of women's careers.

"We saw that in London, it's inspiring," she said. "These women who competed there are basically a generation of female athletes who have come from moms who have also been in Title IX -- especially in team sports. Those of us who were in that era, 1996 Olympians, our moms really didn't get the benefit of Title IX. They were pre-Title IX women. Now we find a generation of women whose moms competed, and we see the difference it makes in a young girl's life, to be able to compete in sports and have that camaraderie."

In 1993, Gayle Gardner became the first woman to do televised play-by-play of a baseball game when she called the action of a game between the Rockies and Reds. Since 2005, Suzyn Waldman has been a WCBS radio color commentator for Yankees games. But no one ever had provided color commentary throughout a nationally telecast MLB game.

"MLB realizes that as well -- the female fan is extremely important to professional sports," Smith said. "When the moms say, 'Hey, let's go to a ballgame,' the dads aren't going to disagree."

From Charles to Chipper
Tim Kiely, vice president and executive producer of Turner Sports, said Smith is eminently qualified for this assignment. Not only does it pair two of the greatest pitchers of their generation alongside Johnson, he said, it will resonate with those who strive for equality in life.

"My daughter is a softball pitcher and is learning the lifelong lessons of competition many women did not get to experience prior to Title IX," Kiely said. "Michele is the embodiment of that movement. We're thrilled to have her sit next to a Hall of Fame caliber pitcher John Smoltz and to be able to talk about the pressures of pitching at the highest levels of competition."

Kiely figured that Smith already had established a presence with Turner Sports. Flash back to the last NBA Western Conference Finals between the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder. Smith was in Oklahoma City calling the women's College World Series for ESPN, and she was at the same hotel as Charles Barkley and the rest of the TNT crew that was televising that NBA series. What followed was a comical video and another step for Smith into the wider public eye.

"Holly Rowe, sideline reporter for ESPN, knew a lot of NBA guys," Smith said. "She was giving Charles a hard time, saying, 'She could strike you out.' He said, 'No woman can strike me out.' We started heckling each other back and forth, ribbing each other. The challenge was on. TK [Kiely] said, 'Oh, I gotta shoot this.' ESPN said they had to shoot this, too. All these cameras were around. I threw to Charles, it was fun. E.J., I had known him from the '96 Olympics in some other events. He knew what Charles was in for. E.J. was like, 'I gotta see this, too.' It was quite hilarious. Six pitches, a foul tip, or mostly didn't swing, then at very end, I lobbed him a grapefruit and he obliterated it."

TBS has a weekly Sunday MLB telecast, and then it will be the exclusive broadcaster for the new Wild Card Game in each league, in addition to its annual exclusivity for the Division Series round and then one of the League Championship Series (American League this October).

"It's interesting to see if people like the new Wild Card round," Smith said. "Baseball is so purist. Softball, we're always changing. It will be interesting to see how fans react to the Wild Card. I think it's great. Any time you give teams a shot, especially, those playing well late, it's a great thing. Look at the 2011 Cardinals. It's great for the sport and the local cities and the market."

Smith said she was especially eager to share her historic moment with the historic final season of Chipper Jones. Jones helped the Braves win their last World Series in 1995, and then was back in the Fall Classic in 1996, the year Smith helped a nation to gold in the same city.

"To be able to be calling a game in his last season is an honor," Smith said. "He was just starting to come into his own back in '96, and I've watched him throughout his career and it's just exciting. I predicted that the Yankees would be in the World Series this year, and who knows, it could be a rematch of that '96 World Series with Atlanta."

Opening doors
Califon is a borough of 1,076 in Hunterdon County, N.J. It was originally supposed to be called "California," but the welcome sign was too small to fit that, so they adjusted on the fly.

"For me, I grew up in the Northwestern area of New Jersey, and I would come home and the Mets and Yankees were always on TV," she said. "I was and am a huge baseball fan. I went on to have a successful career, then I was able to meet the Bucky Dents and Gary Carters of the world, athletes I grew up watching, who now had daughters playing softball, asking me questions.

"Bobby Cox, after seeing me in the 1996 Olympics, said, 'Show my daughter how to throw the riseball.' I wanted to talk about baseball, and he wanted me to show her that. It was very surreal."

"Even when I do charity events, a lot of guys want me to throw. It's great to see that crossover in the diamond sports. For me, this is absolutely a great opportunity. This game this weekend, both teams are really starting to come on, as we get into September with the playoffs, it's just exciting to be calling a game where both these teams are making a push. Especially with what happened last year, with Atlanta stubbing their toe and falling short, and the Dodgers not making the postseason. It will be a huge honor for me."

On July 21, 1986, the summer that the Mets were working on their most recent World Series title, Smith was sleeping in her father's truck as he was driving her home from an oral surgeon's appointment. The truck made a turn and she was thrown from the vehicle while asleep, hitting a roadside post, and severing part of her elbow bone and tearing her tricep from her left arm, which severed the muscle and nerve endings in her fabled pitching arm. She has said it was "like losing my identity," but somehow she persisted through nine intensive months of rehab and made her comeback with Oklahoma State.

Overcoming obstacles and doing things thought unthinkable is nothing new.

Smith has been studying for this assignment, and traveled cross-country Thursday to Atlanta from Portland, where she was working for ESPN, calling three games in the girls' equivalent of the Little League World Series, for 10-12-year-olds. It would seem to be a spectacular contrast, except that those who see it that way are ignoring what Smith and Title IX are all about. Boys or girls, women or men, they are players on a diamond achieving at the highest possible level, with what they have in front of them.

"It's a huge, huge honor," Smith said. "It opens up a lot of doors. TBS, the thing I like about them, they're always thinking outside the box. Any sport, if you just threw a camera on the field, to the true fan it would be interesting, but you have to remember it's show business. It's a show. All those guys in trucks, producers, directors, picking the shots, what are people going to see. You create this element that invites people to watch, then you have the analyst who can add to the broadcast, and to be a part of that is a huge thing. To be able to add my perspective is wonderful. It's going to be fun."

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of Read and join other baseball fans on his community blog.