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IT'S THE FABULOUS SPORTS BABE! // Hoo-Wah!

Her hot dog is half-eaten, her coffee mug is empty, and now her producer is giving her that "Wrap this up NOW!" look.

The Fabulous Sports Babe is caught in a squeeze play.

She has just finished a phone interview with Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, and now she has basketball analyst Dick Vitale on the line. Jackson and Vitale are both at a spring training game in Sarasota.

Vitale can go on forever about hoops, but all the Babe needs are a couple of predictions about the upcoming NCAA tournament. She has 15 seconds.

"Don't tell Steinbrenner," Vitale says, "but I've been stealing Yankee baseballs and throwing them over the fence to the kids."

Vitale laughs. The Babe rolls her eyes.

"I need a first round upset!" she barks.

Vitale is having a hard time hearing her. She asks again. He picks the College of Charleston over Maryland. Maybe. Then he picks Kansas to win it all, and starts to launch into the reasons why.

The Babe sees it coming. This could take days, weeks, years. Cost thousands of lives. She cuts him off at the pass.

"Go watch a baseball game and hang up the phone!"

Vitale laughs again and starts to argue something about how ESPN should hire Jackson as an announcer.

"I love ya," the Babe says. "Goodbye."

Just like that, Vitale is Baberized. Jacked outta here like a Reggie home run.

"You know how Dicky V. gets," the Babe tells her listeners as she goes to a commercial, "when he has nothing to do for two or three days.

"Sheesh.

"I am . . . the Fabulous Sports Babe. Here at Al Lang Stadium doing spring training in the beautiful sunshine. With the palm trees and the cruise ships in the background.

"Ah . . . it's a tough job, but somebody has to do it."

+ + +

Fifty years ago, you might have found someone like her behind the counter at some all-night diner out on I-35, slinging hash and chatting up the truckers. She'd have the best jokes and comebacks, she'd know all the guys by name, and to a man, they'd adore her.

She's sort of like that now. Only her audience _ and the stakes _ are far bigger.

Today, the Fabulous Sports Babe, alias Nanci Donnellan of Bristol, Conn., and Gulfport, Fla., hosts the No. 1 rated syndicated radio sports talk show in America. Broadcasting on what she calls the Global Babe Network, she is heard in more than 200 cities. In addition, an hour of the show is broadcast on ESPN2, the cable television channel. (Locally, the Sports Babe is heard from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on WZTM-AM 820.)

As they say on the show to first-time callers . . . Hoo-Wah!

She started as an overnight disc jockey at WLOM on Cape Cod in 1977 ("The Best From the Bog"), and moved to Tampa in 1981 to do late night on now-defunct WNSI-AM 1380. She worked for three other Tampa Bay stations before that defining moment in 1989 when she injured her back playing golf and was confined to bed.

Broadcasting from her home one day, she invited listeners to "come spend the afternoon in bed with a fabulous sports babe." An image was born, although she didn't officially become the Fabulous Sports Babe until two years later at KJR in Seattle.

A low-key, politically correct town like Seattle had never heard anything like the Babe. She referred to her callers as "Honey" or "Sugar," and she'd say things like "Come here. I promise to be gentle, my love."

She became the dominatrix of the dial.

But more than the gimmicks, the Babe knew what she was talking about, and she got guests who were interesting, articulate and intelligent. As a result, ratings increased fourfold _ and EPSN Radio came calling. The Babe got out of her $135,000-a-year contract and joined ESPN on July 4, 1994.

Only 29 stations agreed to carry the program that first year, but just as she had won over Seattle, the Babe conquered America. She has interviewed everyone from Labor Secretary Robert Reich to fighter Mike Tyson. Former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent has granted only two interviews since he resigned under pressure in 1992. Both have been to the Babe.

There is something else she has that no one can quite describe. Just call it The Touch.

After Andy Van Slyke, an aging outfielder trying to make a comeback with the Cardinals, was caught in a run-down during Tuesday's game at Al Lang, the Babe looked down from the press box and gave him the Kiss of the Babe-ino.

The Babe, you see, is also a softie who loves the underdog.

When Van Slyke came up a few innings later, he pounded the second pitch over the right field fence.

It was his first home run of the spring.

+ + +

"It's a different life these days," the Babe said after the game. "I have people now. I always wanted to have people. And now I do. I have a personal assistant that I travel with. I have a literary agent. A book editor. A publisher. It's ridiculous.

"But it's good because the demands on your time are so huge from so many different directions that there has to be somebody there so I can stay focused on doing my job.

"And you know what?" she added. "I'm still me."

She was born Nancy Dolores Donnellan in Newton, Mass., an only child. Her parents divorced when she was young. Her stepfather was in the Air Force, so her family moved a lot. One of her earliest memories is of taking a radio into a school bathroom to hear the World Series.

"The nuns would've killed me," she said.

She did a few years at the University of Tampa before she entered radio. She's now in her mid-40s (she's vague about her exact age), and she lives alone. Relationships, she says, have taken a back seat to her career.

She loves George Steinbrenner, Cal Ripken, Roger Clements and Luciano Pavarotti. She can do without golfer Greg Norman, baseball players union chief Don Fehr and all the "Gomers, Bubbas and Gilloolys" who call in with nothing to say.

She has season tickets for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and loves breakfast at Skyway Jack's or the Seahorse in south Pinellas County. She thinks the Bucs "are like the Revenge of the Nerds."

The one thing she's not comfortable talking about is, of course, herself.

"I think the bigger you get the smaller the privacy can become," she said. "Even if the privacy is just a matter of going home and kicking off my shoes and turning on some Maria Callas. My house is like that last place that I have."

Her success? She says it's because she's real, she prepares (she reads seven newspapers a day), she tries not to lob softball questions, and she never stops to think how many people are listening to her.

"When I'm in that room all alone, and maybe it's because I was an only child, but I've always done my shows like I'm talking to one person."

She also maintains her contacts. After each show, she works the phones. "I don't do drugs," she said. "I don't drink. But I do the telephone. That's my vice."

Not everyone has accepted the Babe and all that she is. It took several conversations with North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith before he called her Babe. And some think her name is blatantly sexist.

"But anybody who's worried about it," she said, "should take all their money out of the bank and buy a sense of humor."

A sense of humor can come in handy sometimes.

"I have some sad memories," she said. "I was embarrassed they wouldn't let me in (NFL locker rooms), whether it was Boston or here in Tampa. But unless somebody asks me about it, I don't think about it at all."

She's not concerned about when it will all end. Or how she _ or anyone else _ could possibly top the Fabulous Sports Babe.

"There's a part of me that could walk away tomorrow and never look back," she said. "But there's also a side of me that will always be involved in something like this."

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