If you plan to watch the annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show next week, don't expect to see Joe Garagiola.

The brain trust at USA Network has sacked the 76-year-old baseball great who has come to personify the canine competition during his nine years as host. Garagiola's "what the heck is going on here" approach to covering the second-oldest annual sporting event in the country (it trails the Kentucky Derby by a mere 20 months) even got lampooned by actor-comedian Fred Willard in the Christopher Guest mockumentary "Best in Show." And how many other USA Network personalities ever got that kind of star treatment?

Asked to explain this network-wide brain belch, a rep for USA Network's sports department -- the division that puts on the show -- said the network decided to go in "a different direction" on the telecast.

That would be the "jolly weatherman turned no-tough-questions interviewer" direction. USA Network has hired former "Early Show" weatherman Mark McEwen to replace Garagiola. McEwen -- lovely guy -- was named one of the "Ten Most Trusted TV News Personalities" in a TV Guide survey in February 1995, USA Network notes.

A network sports rep said McEwen was one of a number of people considered. Asked if McEwen owns any dogs, the rep replied, "I think he has a couple; I'm pretty sure he does, but I couldn't tell you what breeds."

McEwen was picked, the rep said, because "he's a very comfortable person" and "it takes a special person to talk about dogs and kind of break it down to an everyman language."

Yeah -- Joe Garagiola.

Garagiola -- a major-league little-dog lover -- said he found out he was sacked when USA Network did not call him. "They usually call me in about November and when I didn't get the call I said to [wife] Audrey, 'Uh-oh, the training deadline is here,' " he told The TV Column.

Eventually, Garagiola said, he did receive a call from USA Senior Vice President Gordon Beck. "He said they were going to go in a different direction. I said, 'Gordon, I understand; it's your decision. You own the candy store, I just work in it.'

"That was pretty much it. They gave me no reason -- they just said they were going to go in a different direction. What's different? They can tell you the camel's got two humps -- you're gone!"

Garagiola said he wishes they'd let him have a round 10 years, "but I can't complain; I had a good ride."

He added: "It always tickles me -- I say to some people: I played in the World Series and I broadcast the World Series, I broadcast the All-Star Game, I've done the 'Today' show, 'The Tonight Show,' the 'Tomorrow' show, the 'Yesterday' show and the 'Day After Tomorrow' show -- and people come up to me and say, 'I love you in Westminster.' "

Garagiola said he will watch the dog show Monday and Tuesday and encourages others to do so.

"Especially with what's hanging over us," he said. "I remember that line: If I could only be the person that my dog thinks I am."

The program's new producer, Ben Harvey -- who said he thought that McEwen had at some point had dogs but wasn't sure -- assured The TV Column that McEwen is a fan of the show, loves dogs and has "the television mechanics and versatility to move from one element to the next. He's tremendous in repping the vibe of the three hours of the dog show," Harvey said.

Different Direction McEwen, meanwhile, said Harvey "came looking for me" because of his work on the A&E music show "Live by Request."

"He liked how I handled the show, how I hosted the show, how generous I was with the guests and working the whole time to make it better," he said.

McEwen -- who it turns out hasn't owned a dog in 15 years because he lives in New York City and is a big-dog guy from "the old school; I want to open the door and let the dog run and chase squirrels" -- said he isn't worried about his Westminster debut on Monday.

"I've done live television forever and that doesn't throw me," he said. "TV is TV. Your job is to tell the story and that I can do, and I've got [analyst] David Frei sitting next to me. He's the bible; he's a big-time analyst.

"I've known him forever," McEwen said, explaining that he used to interview Frei on the CBS morning show.

"We're like peanut butter and jelly."

Will USA Network's Westminster coverage make even canine viewers doze off without Joe Garagiola (below right, with Yogi Berra)?