The musicians and "roadies" who travel with Neil Diamond were in Worcester, Mass., between road shows when spring fever hit on a sunny Sunday afternoon and they decided to play ball.

So while Diamond went out to buy a mitt, the entourage -- about 40, by one estimate -- got the game underway.

"It's probably a good thing I'm sitting here talking to you," said composer and keyboard man Tom Hensley, recalling that his high school gym teacher made him do exercises as punishment. "They're choosing up sides."

Hensley is art director and one of two musical directors for Diamond's special tonight, "Neil Diamond: 'Hello Again' " (8 on CBS). He has written several songs for Diamond's albums, including "Forever in Blue Jeans" and "American Popular Song"; shares credit for the title song on Diamond's new album, "Headed for the Future," and appeared briefly with the star in "The Jazz Singer."

"There's some stuff in the special that's quite neat," said Hensley. "Neil's a pretty funny guy." Fledgling comedian Diamond gets help tonight from guests Carol Burnett and Stevie Wonder.

But this is Diamond's first TV special in nine years. If you haven't been able to catch him on tour, you've been left with only his many albums or his one 1980 movie, "The Jazz Singer." So what has he been doing, anyway?

Diamond, having returned and joined the game, made a run for his team and then left the playing field briefly to talk about his family and private life, about which he is somewhat protective; the camaraderie of his traveling entourage, and tonight's special, which -- appropriately for a man who seems to drop in and out of public life -- is called "Hello Again."

"Last year was kind of a rough year. My dad passed away last March. I didn't do much work for eight or nine months after that. I kind of pulled it all together and decided I would make this my 'coming out' year. We have a TV special and I have a brand new album coming out ("Headed for the Future") and we have this major tour."

But for Grammy-winner Diamond, an occasional hiatus from the public eye is not particularly uncommon.

In 1970 Diamond was the nation's top- selling male singer, but in late 1972, after a European tour, he decided to take a sabbatical from the concert stage and work instead on his musical score for the 1973 film "Jonathan Livingston Seagull," which won a Grammy and grossed $12 million, compared to the movie's $2 million. Reportedly, Diamond saw only 12 minutes of film rushes but was so impressed by the photography that he agreed to do the score for $100,000 if producer Hall Bartlett would guarantee that 48 minutes of Diamond's music would be used as written.

Then he spent the next four years "getting to know myself and my family, to write, to explore different kinds of music without the distraction of having to tour. I came back with a great deal of confidence; I wasn't as insecure about myself as a person. They were four of the best years of my life."

Diamond did not return to the stage until 1976, when he performed in Australia and New Zealand; at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles (followed by the album "Live at the Greek"); in Las Vegas, where a one- week show reportedly earned him $425,000, and in a television special. The following year marked another TV special and another album, "I'm Glad You're Here With Me Tonight." The same year -- 1977 -- "Beautiful Noise" became his 11th LP in a row to be certified gold or platinum.

That summer Diamond told a reporter that he was thinking of quitting concerts altogether after a scheduled performance in Moscow in 1980, saying that traveling with almost 50 people and 20 tons of equipment was becoming too complicated.

In 1979 Diamond, then 38, underwent 91/2 hours of surgery to remove a piece of vertebra from his spine, and then the next year starred in a remake of Al Jolson's "The Jazz Singer" with Lucie Arnaz and Sir Laurence Olivier, for which he composed and performed the film's soundtrack. Though panned by most critics, the film grossed $45 million, and the soundtrack sold 10 million copies.

Since then, Diamond hasn't appeared in any film or television special, although he has continued to compose and to turn out albums, notably his recent "Primitive." "I do write," he said, "that's basically what I do. That's very time-consuming, when you do it every day. I record. I haven't been doing a really heavy schedule like we are now . . . "

In a business where transience seems almost a way of life, Diamond and his entourage appear to be a relatively stable group. Hensley has been with Diamond more than 10 years, but said, "I'm one of the newer guys . . . Richard Bennett and Alan Lindgren (the other musical director for the TV special) have been with him 14 years, I think."

Diamond agreed. "There's very strong camaraderie. We all know what we're out here for. I'm lucky to have them; I consider myself very lucky . . . While you're moving around very quickly, you're very close when you're on the road -- it's fun, it's exciting."

The current tour began in Pittsburgh in April, then moved to Washington, D.C.; to locations in Massachusetts and Connecticut and to Philadelphia before returning to Los Angeles for a break. This week, Diamond will begin a swing through the Midwest, where he is extremely popular (Kansas City fans trying to get tickets for a concert 21/2 years ago overloaded and temporarily knocked out the city's telephone system). He plans to cover more of the nation throughout the summer. "It's probably the largest tour I've been involved with in a long time," he said. "We may take it overseas."

But traveling also takes him away from his home in Malibu, where he does much of his composing, and from his family. Diamond, married for a second time, has two sons -- one in high school, one only 8 -- and two daughters. The elder daughter attends college in Boston but studied in Spain this spring, and the other is a high school junior. While the tour was in the Northeast last month, he took time out to help her check out colleges.

Diamond, the son of a dry goods merchant, went to New York University on a fencing scholarship and once planned to become a physician, but dropped out to take a $50-a-week contract at a music company with a stable of songwriters.

Diamond is a little reluctant to talk about his family, a bit protective. "I live a pretty quiet life -- I try to, anyway, because I find that so much of the public part can take over if you let it. You have to try to be private in a very public profession." In a 1982 interview, Diamond told Richard Harrington of The Washington Post that "I have never really gone public except under very special circumstances . . . I try to keep all of my creative strength and preserve it for those moments of writing and recording. You can't be a star 24 hours a day. You can be a star for two hours, and that's fine."

Diamond said he talks frequently with his younger brother (whom he calls "an electronic genius") in Los Angeles. His mother lives in California but maintains a home in Brighton Beach, in Brooklyn, where he grew up and where, for his 14th birthday, the somewhat introverted teen- ager received a second-hand guitar (he said it cost $9), took a few lessons and wrote his first song, "Hear Them Bells."

Since then, Diamond has sold more than 60 million albums and become a multimillionaire. His popularity spans the globe: Princess Diana wanted him included among the guests at the White House dinner for the British royal couple last year, and in Australia, where a developer promised him $1 million in land and cash if he would appear, promoters received sacks full of letters with blank checks based on mere rumors that he might tour.

Of tonight's special, he said: "It was fun to do. We had a chance to do some comedy, which I wanted very much -- I didn't want it to be a serious thing. I had some very good help. When you're working with Carol Burnett, she can composed and performed the film's soundtrack. Though panned by most critics, the film grossed $45 million, and the soundtrack sold 10 million copies.

Since then, Diamond hasn't appeared in any film or television special, although he has continued to compose and to turn out albums, notably his recent "Primitive." "I do write," he said, "that's basically what I do. That's very time-consuming, when you do it every day. I record. I haven't been doing a really heavy schedule like we are now . . . "

In a business where transience seems almost a way of life, Diamond and his entourage appear to be a relatively stable group. Hensley has been with Diamond more than 10 years, but said, "I'm one of the newer guys . . . Richard Bennett and Alan Lindgren (the other musical director for the TV special) have been with him 14 years, I think."

Diamond agreed. "There's very strong camaraderie. We all know what we're out here for. I'm lucky to have them; I consider myself very lucky . . . While you're moving around very quickly, you're very close when you're on the road -- it's fun, it's exciting."

The current tour began in Pittsburgh in April, then moved to Washington, D.C.; to locations in Massachusetts and Connecticut and to Philadelphia before returning to Los Angeles for a break. This week, Diamond will begin a swing through the Midwest, where he is extremely popular (Kansas City fans trying to get tickets for a concert 21/2 years ago overloaded and temporarily knocked out the city's telephone system). He plans to cover more of the nation throughout the summer. "It's probably the largest tour I've been involved with in a long time," he said. "We may take it overseas."

But traveling also takes him away from his home in Malibu, where he does much of his composing, and from his family. Diamond, married for a second time, has two sons -- one in high school, one only 8 -- and two daughters. The elder daughter attends college in Boston but studied in Spain this spring, and the other is a high school junior. While the tour was in the Northeast last month, he took time out to help her check out colleges.

Diamond, the son of a dry goods merchant, went to New York University on a fencing scholarship and once planned to become a physician, but dropped out to take a $50-a-week contract at a music company with a stable of songwriters.

Diamond is a little reluctant to talk about his family, a bit protective. "I live a pretty quiet life -- I try to, anyway, because I find that so much of the public part can take over if you let it. You have to try to be private in a very public profession." In a 1982 interview, Diamond told Richard Harrington of The Washington Post that "I have never really gone public except under very special circumstances . . . I try to keep all of my creative strength and preserve it for those moments of writing and recording. You can't be a star 24 hours a day. You can be a star for two hours, and that's fine."

Diamond said he talks frequently with his younger brother (whom he calls "an electronic genius") in Los Angeles. His mother lives in California but maintains a home in Brighton Beach, in Brooklyn, where he grew up and where, for his 14th birthday, the somewhat introverted teen- ager received a second-hand guitar (he said it cost $9), took a few lessons and wrote his first song, "Hear Them Bells."

Since then, Diamond has sold more than 60 million albums and become a multimillionaire. His popularity spans the globe: Princess Diana wanted him included among the guests at the White House dinner for the British royal couple last year, and in Australia, where a developer promised him $1 million in land and cash if he would appear, promoters received sacks full of letters with blank checks based on mere rumors that he might tour.

Of tonight's special, he said: "It was fun to do. We had a chance to do some comedy, which I wanted very much -- I didn't want it to be a serious thing. I had some very good help. When you're working with Carol Burnett, she can make a door frame funny. I think Stevie Wonder did some surprising vignettes that are based on truth . . . "

Diamond's fans will recognize some of the composer's long-time hits, "Hello Again," "September Morn," "Cherry, Cherry," "Sweet Caroline," "America" and "I'm Alive." Diamond combines with Wonder on "Sir Duke" and with Burnett on a medley that includes ''Hello Again," "Song Sung Blue," "Play Me," "Love on the Rocks" and "You Don't Send Me Flowers," the duet that originally paired him with former classmate Barbra Streisand.

Diamond was ready to return to the Sunday afternoon ball game. At 45, he admitted, "I still think of myself as an adult teen-ager." With a tour, an album and a television special, he's off and running. He hopes he'll score again.