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A New Field

General manager at Nevada car dealer gives livelihood to ex-athletes

October 20, 2006|Ben Bolch | Times Staff Writer

HENDERSON, Nev. — They call him Coach and tend to hang on his every word, as if he's leading them into the biggest game of their lives.

Yet, the athletes who work for Rich Abajian have left their playing days behind, their shot at glory either having fizzled or never quite taken hold. Their arena is now paved and stocked with row upon row of shimmering cars a few miles off the Las Vegas Strip.

It is at this most unlikely place, Findlay Toyota and Scion, in the shadow of Sin City, where scores of former pro and college jocks have converged in search of a new destiny.

Some needed jobs, others a sense of purpose. Former Angels pitcher Bo Belinsky, for example, sought absolution from decades of drug and alcohol abuse.

"Everybody came here thinking they were going to be stepping down, not stepping up, to this job," says Abajian, Findlay's general manager. "It was from a failure in their past, whether it was personal or professional. A lot of them have ended up at a higher place than they were when they left there."

Eric Ludwick, a pitcher whose biggest claim to fame was being involved in the 1997 trade that sent Mark McGwire to the St. Louis Cardinals, was far removed from the bright lights of the big leagues when his baseball career ended in Japan in 2001.

After a year and a half, Ludwick found himself foundering, mildly depressed and wondering what he would do. Visits to several Las Vegas car dealerships in search of a job resulted in a familiar refrain: No experience, no thanks. Then one dealer suggested he try Findlay, where Abajian had a different outlook. No experience? No problem.

Ludwick soon found himself working alongside enough athletes to form their own fantasy league. Among others who have worked for Abajian at Findlay or his previous dealership, Saturn on West Sahara, are Bill Madlock, former National League batting champion with the Pittsburgh Pirates; Ed O'Bannon, a former UCLA basketball standout, and Jason Thomas, a former USC and Nevada Las Vegas quarterback.

Abajian, 53, a former UNLV football assistant, had greater aspirations than stocking a company softball team with ringers; he wanted to build what he saw as the ideal workforce.

"There's something special about athletes," he said. "First of all, they have a dedication that most people don't have. They have a work ethic. They always know that all spectacular performance is preceded by unspectacular preparation."

Abajian estimates that half of his roughly 70-person sales force participated in high school, college or pro athletics. The salespeople are divided into four teams, with each trying to outpace the other during workdays typically spanning 12 to 13 hours a day, six days a week.

"Us being ex-athletes, the competitiveness is there, and you always want to be first," said O'Bannon, the 6-foot-8 star forward on UCLA's 1995 national championship team. "And it kind of rubs off on other people too. Guys who weren't professional athletes see that you're working as hard as you're working, well then he or she is going to do the same thing to equal your competitiveness. We push each other, the same as on the playing field."

There's a sports metaphor for nearly everything at Findlay Toyota. In the dealership's region, which Abajian called "our conference," Findlay ranks No. 1 in new and used car sales.

And the driving force is Abajian.

"I can't imagine anybody saying he wasn't a major influence in what they became," said Kevin Higgins, a former San Diego Padres third baseman. "He was as influential to me as any coach I ever had. That's what he was. He was a coach, but in a different business."

Not everyone works out, of course. Abajian found that some of the athletes "came in and believed their own stats and they really were more of a thorn in our side because they didn't have the work ethic."

Abajian thought he was going to have to let Belinsky go shortly after hiring him as a salesman in 1991. The former Angel, a hard-partyer, developed a reputation as a malcontent, slugged a co-worker, and attempted suicide by slitting his wrists after a one-night relapse with alcohol. But Belinsky eventually came around, thriving as a community liaison and conducting clinics for kids at the Las Vegas Baseball Academy, which used to be housed on the premises at Abajian's Saturn dealership.

Belinsky worked for Abajian until the day he died in 2001.

"I think it was a very stabilizing thing for Bo," Higgins said. "It gave him somewhere to be and a family that he didn't have in Las Vegas. It was us."

Most of the successes Abajian has engendered are smaller but no less meaningful.

O'Bannon has transformed himself from a timid salesman who Abajian described as having "a self-worth problem" into a gregarious go-getter who has helped co-workers close deals by talking UCLA basketball.

"I can hold a conversation now," O'Bannon said, "whereas before, I was a little intimidated, not by the person but just actually by talking and opening up."

Abajian has had such a profound influence on so many that some wonder whether he might not be better served as a youth counselor, affecting change earlier.

"So many of us just blow what should be our best opportunities and we self-destruct and we were never coached on how not to do that because people didn't care enough," Abajian said. "They were too busy selfishly looking at themselves -- 'How can I help me?' -- instead of help you improve.

"And by helping you guys improve helps me. It comes back."

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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