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REPORT OF DIMAGGIO'S DEATH IS GREATLY EXAGGERATED

Nobody was more surprised than Joe DiMaggio when he saw a television report that he had died.

"He was livid," his lawyer and neighbor Morris Engelberg said Monday. "Then I made him laugh. I said, 'Joe, we must be in heaven together.' "

The two were watching a tape of "Gunfight at the OK Corral" -- DiMaggio's favorite Western -- at the baseball great's home in Hollywood, Fla., on Sunday.

They happened to stop the tape just when the report appeared as a "crawl" across the screen during "Dateline NBC."

NBC ran another crawl about 20 minutes later, saying its previous report was inaccurate. The network later said a technician in the New York control room inadvertently sent the item.

NBC delivered an apology to DiMaggio to Engelberg's office on Monday, spokesman Cory Shields said.

DiMaggio, recovering from pneumonia and lung cancer surgery on Oct. 12, already was upset by a story in the New York Daily News that described him as bedridden and in grave condition.

The lead doctor on the team that treated the 84-year-old Hall Famer during his 99-day hospital stay disputed the Daily News report.

"He is progressing nicely since his discharge from Memorial Regional Hospital one week ago," Dr. Earl Barron said in a statement to The Associated Press. "Over the weekend, his physical therapy has progressed to the point that he is walking. Reports of his condition worsening are not true."

Engelberg, who lives next door to DiMaggio and visits him at least once a day, called the newspaper report "absurd."

"He's walking. He's taking therapy." Engelberg said. "And he will be at opening day."

Yankees owner George Steinbrenner said last week when DiMaggio was discharged from the hospital, "Joe will certainly toss out the first ball."

The Yankees open their home schedule April 9 with a day game against the Detroit Tigers.

McGwire back in spotlight

ST. LOUIS -- This year's St. Louis Baseball Man of the year was a no-brainer: Mark McGwire.

The home run king, wrapping up his first visit to town since hitting No. 70 on Sept. 27, was honored Monday night by the St. Louis chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Cardinals teammates still are shaking their heads at his accomplishments.

"That was the most fun year I've ever had, just being a part of that," pitcher Kent Mercker said. "It was a blast, and I hope it happens again."

McGwire came to town three days before the pope's arrival and seemingly created the same sort of stir. During his two-hour autograph session Sunday at the team's annual winter charity event, fans who weren't lucky enough to have won in a raffle for his signature crowded around him just for a glimpse.

The only thing missing from McGwire's visit was a summit meeting with Pope John Paul II, who's in town Tuesday and Wednesday. McGwire was raised Catholic.

"Unfortunately, it's not going to be able to work out," he said.

Around the majors

Outfielder Tim Raines has signed a one-year contract with the Oakland Athletics, according to manager Art Howe. Raines, 39, hit .290 with five home runs and 47 runs batted in for the New York Yankees last season. He is the only member of last year's team the Yankees did not re-sign. . . . . . . Infielder Andy Stankiewicz, who played with the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks last season, agreed to a minor league contract with the Anaheim Angels. . . . Reliever Xavier Hernandez, whose contract with Baltimore was voided after he failed a physical, agreed Monday to a one-year deal with the Houston Astros. Hernandez will begin his third stint with the Astros, for whom he last pitched in 1996.

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