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Cheer for an Expos relief pitcher? Trust me

Published April 11, 2004

Today's baseball is gurgling in muddy issues, about money and steroids and fan interest, so are you having trouble finding somebody for whom to root with all your hard-working heart?

I've got the guy. Chad Bentz. Never heard of him? This is a rookie left-hander in the Montreal Expos bullpen. Hold on, I'll get around to telling why you can't help but cheer.

First, allow me a flashback.

Sixteen years ago, at the Seoul Olympics, I met Jim Abbott, a kid pitcher from Michigan on the U.S. team. I was captivated. Born without a right hand, Abbott was anything but handicapped, deftly trapping a glove in his armpit and then maneuvering the leather like magic to defend his position.

Abbott's attitude was heroic. Eschewing sympathy. Competing beautifully at the highest levels against chaps who were physically flawless. Abbott made the majors, pitching 10 seasons for the Angels, White Sox and Yankees, throwing a 1993 no-hitter for New York against Cleveland.

Abbott was my hero.

Okay, about the 23-year-old Bentz. He grew up in Alaska, where sled-dog racing is bigger than baseball. Hardball pride of Juneau. "Most of my practicing," he told the Winnipeg Sun, "was done on a fake mound in a gym."

Bentz earned a chance to play college baseball at Long Beach State. One day, Abbott dropped by the campus to watch. "I saw Jim and almost fell over," the Alaskan recalled this spring. "He was exactly like me. Right there, I was sure there was no reason I can't make it in the big leagues."

Bentz was born with a deformed right hand. It is of no athletic use. He handles a glove just like Abbott. "It was one of the best experiences of my life, meeting Jim and talking with him," he said. "Now, five years later, I'm trying to get in the door, to create a chance to do some of the things Jim did."

A role model so unique. Abbott, all those years ago, was a young man with a special challenge but colossal dreams and determination. How remarkable to hear it again, now from Bentz, about powering ahead without the use of a right hand.

"I don't look at it as a handicap," he told reporters during spring training. "If I did, I would apply for a parking permit. To me, it's like a birthmark.

"It doesn't prevent me from doing anything. I think it would be boring to catch a baseball normally, without switching the glove. But I'm sure it's not normal to anyone else."

Except to Jim Abbott.

Is the trivia cog in your mind at work, wondering if anybody from Alaska made a MLB roster before Bentz showed up? Surprise! The most accomplished ballplayer born in Alaska is Curt Schilling, but the splendid pitcher left the 49th state in infancy.

Until now, the only guy truly raised in Alaska to make a big-league roster was Marshall Boze, a member of the Brewers in 1997 who lasted about as long as a winter streaker in downtown Fairbanks.

Chad, being with a National League team, could be asked to hit. Something that Abbott never had to face, being in the American League with its designated hitter rule.

So, what's the problem? That's what Chad wants to know. Back in high school in Juneau, he hit 23 home runs. "I can bunt," he said. "I can swing the bat. I can get the job done.

Join me in being a Bentz cheerleader.

AIR LINCOLN?: After glorious generations as championship-level foot soldiers, the Nebraska Cornhuskers are working at becoming an air force.

What worked beautifully in win-win-win football coaching stretches of Bob Devaney and then Tom Osborne, but a tactic that semi-soured for Frank Solich and got him bounced, is getting an extreme makeover.

For the first time since JFK was president, the 'Huskers went outside their tight Lincoln family and hired Bill Callahan. After 21 years as an assistant coach at colleges and in the pros, Callahan succeeded Jon Gruden and bossed the Raiders for two seasons, quickly making the Super Bowl where he got clobbered by Gruden's Bucs and soon disintegrating in a 4-12 mess in 2003 that got him fired.

Callahan sees Nebraska as a slightly rusty behemoth in need of retooling. He aims to add offensive octane and a 21st century shine. Quarterbacks who formerly specialized in handing off to tailbacks are now being asked to handle a complex, air-heavy, NFL-style offense. He is pushing for a $50-million stadium renovation.

It'll be a fascinating fall in that enormous 'Husker ballpark where seats never got empty and expectations never sink below extreme. It is time for major change. We'll see if it's time for Bill Callahan.

[Last modified April 11, 2004, 01:05:45]

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