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Where are they now? Jim Abbott continues to inspire the disabled

The letters come from Saratoga, Calif., from Fairfax, Va., from Monmouth Beach, N.J., written by determined mothers, desperate fathers and sometimes the children themselves. The content can be remarkably similar. A boy is born without the use of one hand. A doctor suggests that he try soccer, but the boy is interested only in baseball.

And before anyone can change his mind, he finds out that somebody played major league baseball despite having one hand, accomplishing more in the majors than most of his peers did with two. The boy is introduced to the legend of Jim Abbott.

Twelve-year-old Michael Branca learned the legend from his mother, Robin, who had heard about Abbott on the car radio during the 1988 Olympics. Ten-year-old Billy Inserra learned it from a children's book about Abbott, Overcoming the Odds, which Billy chewed on as a baby. And eight-year-old Blaise Venancio learned it on the Internet, watching video of Abbott artfully transferring his glove from his left hand, which is fully developed, to his right arm, which ends in a fleshy nubbin. Michael, Billy and Blaise are all Little Leaguers who practice the Abbott Switch, in which Abbott would catch the ball with the glove on his left hand, then cradle the glove in his right arm while pulling out his left hand and letting the ball fall into it.

Of course, none of them were alive 20 years ago, when Abbott went the distance for Team USA to win the gold medal game at the Seoul Olympics. None of them were alive 15 years ago, when he threw a no-hitter for the New York Yankees. And none of them were watching nine years ago, when he tossed his last pitch, for the Milwaukee Brewers. Abbott wonders why, now that he's 40 and long retired from baseball, boys and girls keep writing him letters. Perhaps it's because they know he writes back.

Officially, Abbott is a motivational speaker, hired by corporations such as Prudential, Exxon and Wells Fargo to tell his story. Unofficially, he is the repository for everybody else's story. Abbott receives approximately 20 e-mails or letters a month, all of them heart-wrenching, many of them about children who are missing a hand, or part of a hand, or feeling in a hand. He responds to each one personally.

"To Blaise," reads the note to Blaise Venancio. "I just wanted to wish you the very best of luck with baseball this year. Hopefully you are having a great time playing. I know it is sometimes hard to do things a little differently from other kids. But believe me, if you stick with it, you can be just as good. Always believe. Anything is possible."

Blaise, from Monmouth Beach, N.J., is a natural left-hander who was born with Poland's Syndrome, which cost him the use of his right hand. When he started playing baseball, he wanted to wear a glove on his right hand, like all the other southpaws. His father, Matt, tried five different mitts, bathing them in oil to soften the leather, but Blaise couldn't close any of them. Finally in March, Matt showed Blaise the video of another lefty with a similar problem. Blaise decided then to copy the man in the video.

In May, wearing his glove on his left hand, Blaise ran in from center field to cover second base, making a backhanded pick-up of an in-between-hop throw. When asked how he did it, Blaise said, "Jim Abbott. He's my friend."

Abbott lives on a cul-de-sac in Corona del Mar, Calif., within walking distance of the beach. He spends his summers in Northern Michigan, at a house in the woods on a lake. He and his wife, Dana, have two physically gifted daughters, 11-year-old Madeleine and eight-year-old Ella, who pitch for their youth softball teams. Abbott also has hundreds, if not thousands, of other, physically challenged kids.

Abbott started meeting them shortly after he joined the California Angels in 1989, after an All-America career at Michigan. Sitting in the clubhouse, he would feel a tap on his shoulder, from a coach or a clubby. He knew what the tap meant: There was an aspiring baseball player outside who wanted to meet him. "They would always have their gloves with them," Abbott says. "I'd ask them to show me how they switched their glove, and they would do it real fast. And then I'd show them how I did it. And we'd do it together."

It's not just kids who draw strength from Abbott's story. On May 29, Abbott delivered a speech at the Ritz-Carlton on Lake Las Vegas for a corporation called Investors Capital. After Abbott's talk ended with a standing ovation, he walked into the lobby and was greeted by 36-year-old Adam Schenk. Schenk developed his first brain tumor when he was three. During surgery on a second tumor, when he was 30, Schenk had a stroke, resulting in massive nerve damage to the right side of his body, including his right hand. "When I was in the hospital, Jim is the one who inspired me to eat again and walk again and dress myself again," Schenk says.

Schenk and Abbott sat in the lobby of the Ritz for more than an hour, two guys talking baseball. Schenk recited all of Abbott's big league statistics -- an 87--108 record, 888 career strikeouts and a 4.25 earned run average. "You know," Schenk told him, "it wasn't a very good record." Abbott nodded knowingly.

After he retired in 1999 Abbott got a call from Lilly Walters, author of One-Hand TypingandKeyboarding Manual. Walters, who lost part of her left hand in an accident when she was 10, wanted a testimonial for her book. But she also represented public speakers and asked if he was interested in a gig. Abbott was an unlikely choice, devoid of bluster and ego, a guy who kept his gold medal hidden at the bottom of a dresser drawer. Besides, even speaking at full volume Abbott often sounds as if he is whispering. But he enjoys connecting with an audience and feels that his story can make a positive impact on people's lives.

Still, "I don't want to talk about my playing days forever," he says. "You can't live in the past. You have to find the next phase, the next passion. Tell me: Where do I go from here?"

The answer lies in all those letters. They come from 13-year-olds like Andrew Christopoulos, who has a rare blood disease called Langerhans Cell Histiocytosis that required weekly chemotherapy treatments for four months. Abbott's letter to Andrew read in part, "I've always believed that tough challenges make even tougher people. Andrew, you will always be up to any challenge. Always believe that."

Abbott does not like to be portrayed as an ambassador, but that will be his next job description. Neil Romano, the head of the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy, has tabbed Abbott to be the office's spokesperson. "Jim Abbott exemplifies," Romano says, "that people with disabilities have an awful lot to give."

Romano knows policy, but Abbott knows people. He knows so many, in fact, that it is impossible for him to remember all their names and faces. So when he thinks of them all, he often thinks of just one.

"His name is Joe Rogers," Abbott says. "He wrote me a letter once. He is a hockey player from Michigan, a goalie, and he uses his hand for his glove. He's going to Notre Dame [on a partial scholarship]. He's terrific, just the nicest kid in the world. I wish I could know every single one of them as well as I know him. I ask myself all the time if I'm doing enough. I wish I could do a lot more."

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