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Mike Downey

On One Wing and a Prayer . . . U.S. and Abbott Soar to Gold

September 29, 1988|Mike Downey

SEOUL — Two outs in the ninth. The one-hander, Jim Abbott, bears down. The batter, Magafumi Nishi, digs in. Abbott wheels and deals. Grounder to third. Robin Ventura gloves it, throws over to Tino Martinez at first, and the United States has beaten Japan, 5-3, for the Olympic gold medal in baseball, a mere demonstration sport for now, but the real thing come 1992.

The real thing? Man, this sure looks like the real thing. The U.S. players are charging the mound. Abbott spreads out his arms--the long one and the short one. His teammates stampede to him, knock him down, pile on top of him. Abbott is on the bottom, squashed. Other U.S. players stop shaking hands and propel themselves onto the pile.

Abbott, whose work after this will be for the California Angels, finally rises from the mass of flesh and shakes his pitching hand to see if it is broken. It hurts like heck, but he doesn't mind. He laughs it off, and lifts both arms triumphantly while outfielder Mike Fiore plants an American flag into the mound, along the order of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin claiming the moon. Chamshil Stadium is now your field, Fiore indicates, motioning to his pitcher. Abbott's Field.

Abbott goes toward the Japanese dugout to extend his left hand in sportsmanship. Suddenly he hears a commotion and sees that the rest of his team is taking a victory lap around the outfield. Abbott stands there in mid-diamond, watching.

It is a touching scene, the winning pitcher, the one-handed man who is handicapped only in some people's minds, standing apart from the squad, separate but equal, taking it all in, applauding them with his good hand against his stub.

Demo sport or real, the American boys savored Wednesday's win, in which the Seattle-bound Martinez delivered 2 home runs and made 15 putouts at first base to support Abbott's 4-strikeout, 3-walk, 7-hitter. It pleased these players so much, they nailed Coach Mark Marquess with a cooler full of water, Bill Parcells style, and lobbed souvenir baseballs into the crowd.

"Oh, man, this is the best," Martinez said. "You can't know. The hard work, bus rides, plane trips, wake-up calls. . . . "

Abbott nodded and remembered the world championship game in Italy, where nothing went right. The game didn't start until 9 o'clock at night, and then a bad call kept Cuba alive in the ninth inning, and then a 2-run homer off Abbott tied the game, and then the game was lost, and then the team immediately took off for 50 hours of seemingly nonstop plane rides and exhibitions through Japan and Hong Kong and India, until one day Abbott found himself in the New Delhi airport, "looking at a bunch of guys in front of me wearing turbans, and thinking I was Indiana Jones."

That stuff was all over now. Just call him Angel in the morning.

"It's a heck of a way to go out as an amateur," said Abbott, 21, who already has signed a double-A contract with Gene Autry's ranch. "I hope it carries over. I know pro is a whole new ballgame, but I think I'm ready for that challenge. It's time for something new."

He thought back to high school years in Flint, Mich., where his no-hitters and even his batting had caught the Toronto Blue Jays' attention to the point where they drafted him. Nevertheless, he said, because of this Olympic victory, picking college over the majors was "the best decision I've ever made."

Which got Abbott thinking further, not just to Flint but to the University of Michigan, where the season records were always good, but the ultimate outcomes always disappointing.

"You know, I've never been on a team that's won anything," Abbott said.

Neither have the Angels, of course, but possibly Jim Abbott can help change that. He knows about the managerial change, is eager to find out what's happening back home. So are the rest of the U.S. players, who have been sequestered from their usual world, to the point that some of them have lost touch.

Like when somebody asked who would win the World Series back home, Baltimore-bound catcher Doug Robbins, who went to Stanford, quickly yelled, "Oakland!" But almost simultaneously, Ventura, the third baseman from Oklahoma State drafted by the Chicago White Sox, shouted, "Who's in it?"

It was Martinez, the first baseman from the University of Tampa, who came through in the championship game here, with 3 hits and 4 runs batted in. Against Japanese starter Takehiro Ishii, who already had thrown 110 pitches in a game 2 days earlier, Martinez hit a 2-run homer in the third inning over the 410-foot sign in straightaway center.

Then, in the eighth, after a 3-run U.S. lead had been cut to 4-3, Martinez sliced one into the left-field corner 328 feet away that just made it over the fence, giving Abbott the insurance run he craved. As the scoreboard lit up "Homerun," the Chamshil loudspeakers blasted out "Surfin' USA" by the Beach Boys.

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