LONG BEACH, Calif. -- The 9-year-old boy was watching a baseball game with his parents on television at their Juneau home, when he noticed something unusual taking place on the screen.
The pitcher -- a left-hander, like the boy -- would move his glove quickly from his right hand to his throwing hand to receive the ball back from the catcher.
It was no trick, no sleight of hand. As the boy, watching raptly, quickly noticed, it was the only way the pitcher could catch the ball.
It was Jim Abbott, an Angels rookie in 1989, whose left arm was his only good one.
Just like the boy's.
"When I saw him transfer the glove like that I made up my mind I could do that, too," Chad Bentz said recently.
Bentz, 21, a 6-foot-1, 210-pound sophomore at Long Beach State, was born with a withered right arm that is shorter than his left.
His thumb is functional, but the rest of the fingers on his right hand are knuckle-like stumps.
His left arm, capable of throwing fastballs at speeds in excess of 90 mph, is considered by professional scouts the best on a 49ers staff that will seek to cement a berth in the NCAA Tournament in a three-game series against Cal State Fullerton that opened Friday night at Goodwin Field.
The series ends the regular Big West schedule, with the fourth-ranked Titans (39-14, 12-3) one game ahead of No. 20 UC Santa Barbara (37-13, 11-4) and two games in front of Long Beach State (34-18, 10-5).
Bentz (2-3, 7.09 ERA) has done his best work for the 49ers coming out of the bullpen.
In seven relief appearances his ERA is 3.86, and that number was below three until USC tagged him for four runs in one-third of an inning Tuesday.
His ERA in nine starts is 8.84, one of the reasons 49ers coach Dave Snow hasn't given Bentz a starting assignment since April.
"Chad needs to work on his off-speed pitches," Snow said. "That's where he's gotten in trouble, but he can come in for two or three innings in relief and blow hitters away with his fastball."
Bentz can take some solace in the fact that no opposing player ever can treat him as cruelly as many of the youngsters with whom he grew up in Juneau, a city of 32,000.
"I laugh about it now," said Bentz, who has a self-deprecating sense of humor. "I call myself the kid from Alaska with the screwed-up hand. But when I was a kid -- you know how it can be in a small town -- people knew everybody else, and kids would call me all kinds of things."
Bentz's parents didn't allow their second son to wallow in self-pity.
"We were devastated when he was born," said his mother, Mary, a registered nurse in family practice, "but we decided we would never treat him as being handicapped. He grew up always thinking he could do everything that everyone else could."
Said father Rob Bentz, who heads the Department of Sport Fisheries, the regulatory agency of that part of the state's fishing industry: "There wasn't one sport we didn't expose Chad to. He was playing hockey when he was 5. He played football and basketball, too. We encouraged him all the way and told him to shut out any negative stuff he heard."
Watching Abbott pitch on television was an epiphany for Chad.
"If he hadn't shown he could play on the major-league level," said Bentz, a candidate to be selected in the free agent draft June 5-6, "I don't know if I would have wanted to be the first to try with this kind of hand."
He said he has met Abbott several times and regularly corresponds with him. Both prefer the relationship be kept private.
Abbott had an 87-108 record in 10 major-league seasons and threw a no-hitter for the Yankees against Cleveland in 1993.
Through Angels spokesman Tim Mead, he acknowledged having met Bentz but offered no details.
Bentz said the fact he grew up in Juneau might be a bigger deterrent to a future in baseball than his right hand.
"It's a hard place for scouts to get to, and because of the weather the high school baseball season is so short, April and May," he said. In four years at Juneau-Douglas High he pitched in only 16 games. The shortstop on that team was Carlos Boozer, who became one of the key players on the Duke basketball team that won this season's NCAA championship.
Only six players born in Alaska have reached the majors, the first being Tom Sullivan of Nome, who caught in one game for Cincinnati in 1925. By far the most famous Alaska-born big leaguer is pitcher Curt Schilling, born in Anchorage but a product of high school ball in Phoenix, where he now plays for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Marshall Boze of Kenai, who played briefly for the Milwaukee Brewers in the mid-1990s, is the most recent player to reach the majors who developed in Alaska.
"We play some good baseball up here," said Jim Ayers, the current Juneau coach who is chief of staff to Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles. "Our native kids show that by doing well in the Alaskan Summer League, where a lot of top players have been. It's mostly for college players, but Chad was in it during high school."
Among the current notables who played in the Alaska League are Barry Bonds, Randy Johnson and Mark McGwire.
Bentz was recruited to Long Beach State when Mike Weathers, the 49ers' associate head coach, saw him pitch in a summer-league game.
Living 1,500 miles from his hometown, he maintains the sense of humor that saw him through some dark times beneath the northern lights.
"When someone wants to shake my hand, I put my left one out," he said. "But sometimes I'll put out the right hand. I like to see the expression on someone's face when I freak them out like that."
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