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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 Typing and Keyboarding 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."