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08/23/08 12:35 PM ET

Abbott seeks opportunities for disabled

Two-thirds of people in US with disabilities are unemployed

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- Jim Abbott brought a message to the Little League World Series that he urged people to heed.

Abbott's message wasn't a slogan or political statement. His message served as a simple reminder to American employers that a disability wasn't a liability.

He's Exhibit A for that message.

"I was lucky that my talents were on the baseball field," said Abbott, the former Olympian who pitched for 10 seasons in the Major Leagues. "But there may be people with talents in other areas."

It is that message Abbott, born without a right hand, is bringing to more places than Williamsport. In partnership with Major League Baseball and the U.S. Department of Labor, Abbott is helping to spread that message through a campaign called Proving Individuals with Talent Can Help or PITCH.

According Labor Department statistics, two-thirds of the 50 million disabled Americans, a deep pool of untapped talent, are jobless. Those men and women face obstacles in trying to prove to employers their disability doesn't limit them, Abbott said.

He can tell any boss who's open to listening to look at what he accomplished. From Flint, Mich., to a long career in the big leagues, Abbott succeeded in the face of challenges that might have forced lesser people to relent.

What helped Abbott to succeed was the strong support system behind him. It all began with his father, who didn't let his son dwell on what he couldn't do. His son could do whatever he set his mind to.

Baseball coaches proved willing to give Abbott an opportunity.

"What's special about baseball is the inclusiveness of it," he said shortly before he went out Thursday to throw a ceremonial first pitch at the World Series. "If you can do it, the opportunity will be there."

Little League World Series

His success in baseball should be a model that other organizations can follow. The sport, he said, has been a proving ground for progressive ideas, although those progressive ideas haven't always filtered down to the lower levels of baseball, including the Little Leagues.

He wondered about the demands put on young ballplayers to play year-round. He urged boys and girls to pick up other interests beside baseball.

"I believe if all you know is one thing your whole life, you may miss out on a few things that my help you on a baseball field," Abbott said. "I know that it's a trend. I know probably it's unavoidable."

Abbott sees that trend in his two girls, both of whom are softball players in California. As much as he opposes the single-minded focus on one sport, he knows, too, that for his girls -- 11- and 8-years-old -- to compete, they'll have to embrace this troubling trend.

Trying to avoid the trend risks seeing a young athlete fall behind his or her peers, so to argue otherwise won't get the kind of reception Abbott might want.

But that's nothing he can't deal with. He already realizes that tough messages don't play well, and his message on behalf of disabled Americans proves that point well.

Just as he didn't give up on his childhood dreams of playing baseball, he's not about to run away from an issue that he considers too important for employers to ignore. The workplace should be just as inclusive now as baseball was as Abbott was working his way to the bigs.

"We're just out there with the PITCH program trying to get businesses to look past those perceptions -- look past those limitations and give people a chance to prove what they can do," Abbott said. "In the same spirit that Little League Baseball does it, in the same spirit that Major League Baseball does it.

"If you have the talent, you can do it."

Justice B. Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.