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July 18, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

Most people don't even notice anymore, and that's just the way Jim Abbott likes it.

He arrived in the major leagues 5 1/2 years ago as a highly touted pitching prospect . . . and as a perpetual human interest story. But the boy with one hand has become a man who can handle the likes of Frank Thomas and Ken Griffey, which makes the term "disabled" seem -- at the very least -- disingenuous.

There is little Abbott can't do on the mound. He had Cy Young-caliber statistics (18-11, 2.89 ERA) in 1991. He pitched a no-hitter last year. He is a big reason that the New York Yankees have spent most of this season in first place. If there is a problem, it is that he never can do enough off the mound to satisfy every organization and individual who might benefit from his inspiring story.

That's why Yankees owner George Steinbrenner did the unthinkable this spring and criticized Abbott for supposedly putting his charitable endeavors in front of his obligation to the team.

"I have to put certain restraints from the organization on what he can do," Steinbrenner told reporters in late February. "He's an All-American. He's the greatest example of what you want a young man to be. He's just got to be willing to say no for a while, so he can pitch the way he knows he's capable of and the way we are going to need [to win the American League pennant]."

The Boss had taken on some of the biggest names in the game during his tumultuous tenure as curator of the Bronx Zoo. He had feuded openly with Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson. He had hired and fired Billy Martin so many times that their names became virtually inseparable during the late 1970s. This was different. This was the baseball equivalent of telling Mother Teresa to stop meddling, but Steinbrenner apparently knew what he was doing.

"His agent -- Scott Boras -- has to lay off for a while," Steinbrenner continued. "So do other people to allow him to reach what he knows he can do. It wasn't there last year. He knows that. Everybody knows that. Every magazine I read said the same thing."

Funny thing is, it was all true. Abbott denied at the time that off-the-field overload was affecting his performance, but he recently acknowledged that Steinbrenner's comments hit home.

"In some ways, it has really been a blessing that he took that position," Abbott said. "Pitching in New York, it got a little overwhelming. It had to happen. I do feel everybody has a responsibility [to the community] and those have been some of the most rewarding moments of my life, but there also has to come a time when I say, 'This is my career.' I want to know I made every effort on the field, so maybe sometimes you have to get a little selfish."

No one will ever accuse him of that . . . at least no one who has followed Abbott through a typical day and seen the parade of parents who bring their disabled children to the ballpark to show them that life can be more than just wheelchair ramps and the sympathetic stares.

It is a social responsibility he has accepted without complaint, but no one really understands the emotional toll that each of those meetings can extract. Abbott is a quiet, sensitive individual who remembers all too well what it was like to grow up a little differently from everyone else. Though he insists that a supportive group of friends and family enabled him to have a very happy childhood, he is in a unique position to identify with the physical and emotional pain of each of the youngsters who come to him for moral support.

"There were times when it was two or three kids every day in each city," he said. "It's not the time. I'm happy to give the time. It's just emotionally demanding and the season is emotionally demanding."

Abbott still talks to kids. He still makes personal appearances. The difference now is that those activities are integrated into his schedule so that they are less likely to affect his performance on the mound.

Has it helped? The numbers point in that direction. Abbott was 11-14 with a 4.37 ERA last year. He is 7-6 with a 4.11 ERA in his first 19 starts of 1994.

Steinbrenner gets a bad rap in New York -- and usually it is well-deserved -- but his comments about Abbott appear to have been a well-orchestrated attempt to take the heat so that his young pitcher could help take the team to the World Series.

"The first day of spring training, he called me into his office," Abbott said. 'He said, 'I want you to be the best pitcher you can be. I know that you're inundated. I want to know that your energies are focused on baseball.' "

It was another 10 days before Steinbrenner went public, but not before he reportedly informed manager Buck Showalter that he was going to take the fall so that Abbott could lighten his off-field schedule without darkening his conscience.

"Looking back on it, maybe it has helped," Abbott said, "but I'm not saying that meeting with kids and doing charitable work has ever detracted from baseball. It's hard. There is no way of putting it into perspective."

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