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Is the Time Past to Belittle Abner? : Baseball: Intent on making good as Padre center fielder, the 24-year-old is changing his ways.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He junked the earrings and left them home. His raunchy locker-room humor is being kept in check. He’s seeking advice from veteran players instead of snapping wet towels at naked men.

Shawn Wesley Abner, who has been little more than an intriguing sideshow to the Padres for the past five years, is changing his act.

“For me, this is it,” said Abner, vying for the Padres’ starting center-field job. “This is my do-or-die year. I’m on a mission. I’ve busted my ass all winter and didn’t even think about anything else. I don’t succeed, I’ll be the most disappointed guy in the world.

“Really, I’ve got no excuses, because they’re giving me every opportunity in the world. I wake up every morning thinking about the opportunity. I mean, there are two outfield spots wide open. The only other teams who have two spots open are the expansion teams, and they haven’t drafted yet.

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“But I’m sure people are expecting me to fail so they can call me a failure again. I know I haven’t lived up to expectations. Don’t you think I know that? Everyone tells me that.

“But you know something? The hardest thing of all is not living up to your own expectations.

“That hurts more than anything.”

Shawn Abner is 24 years old.

He was supposed to be a star. The town of Mechanicsburg, Pa., was flooded with baseball scouts every time he played. He had speed. He had power. He could field.

“He had everything you’d ever want,” said Joe McIlvaine, Padre general manager, who scouted him while with the New York Mets. “He had all the tools and that great makeup. Who wouldn’t want him?”

The Mets, who had the No. 1 pick in the free-agent draft of June 1984, decided to take him. They picked him over Mark McGwire . . . and over Cory Snyder . . . and over Oddibe McDowell . . . and over Scott Bankhead.

“I remember sitting in his house that day,” McIlvaine said. “He didn’t have an agent, so I thought I’d have to be dealing with his father. But it was his mother, she was the force. And, let me tell you, she was stubborn.

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“I finally said, ‘Mrs. Abner, why don’t you please call an agent, because it should sure would be easier dealing with an agent than you.’

“We signed him 10 minutes later.”

Abner received a $150,500 signing bonus, at the time the largest in the history of the game.

It took three years for the critics to emerge. He no longer had any power. He couldn’t hit a breaking ball. He didn’t have any discipline at the plate. He was a bust.

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“It was crazy,” McIlvaine said. “He was the youngest player in the league, and all you’d ever hear about was that he couldn’t lay off the curveball. He keeps chasing curveballs in the dirt. The kid was 19 years old.”

He didn’t play again for the Mets. He was traded during the 1986 winter meetings to the Padres in a package that included Kevin Mitchell. The Mets got Kevin McReynolds.

Padre fans never have forgotten.

“I can’t blame them,” Abner said. “What have I done? It’s not like I’ve been completely awful. But I’m sure they want to guy who can do more than play defense and hit .240.”

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When you’re the No. 1 pick in all of the land, mediocrity hardly is tolerated.

“I remember going to this card show over the winter,” Abner said, “where I was signing autographs. This guy comes up with about 1,000 of my rookie cards. He just walks up, doesn’t say anything, but he shows me his cards and gives me a look, like, ‘Look what I wasted my time on.’

“This other one came up and said, ‘You can play defense, but you can’t hit worth a (darn).’

“And this girl was 3 years old.”

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There was the time Abner brought ferrets to spring-training camp, wanting to alleviate his boredom. There was the spring-training camp that Abner had designs shaved into his head, and after he grew tired of it two weeks later, shaved everything off. This year, he was all set to have U.S.A. shaved into the side of his hair, you know, for patriotic reasons, but his barber told him he couldn’t pull it off.

Yes, the dude can be a little peculiar.

Do you know anyone else that keeps his forearms clean-shaven--and occasionally shaves his chest hair?

“I don’t like hair on my body,” Abner said.

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Then there’s the matter of his wedding. He married his high-school sweetheart, Kris, in the Little White Chapel in Las Vegas on Oct. 5, 1987. Or was it Oct. 6?

“I don’t know, one of those,” Abner said. “I can never remember that date. I just know it was the day after the season ended.”

The attire?

Abner wore high-top tennis shoes, shorts and a khaki shirt.

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Kris wore a mini-skirt with sneakers.

“We just wanted to get it over with,” Abner said. “It only cost us $25, it was great. It was just us, and a secretary from the (Las Vegas) Stars. She had to be our witness because we didn’t have any.

“When it was over, we went grocery shopping.

“You know, I wouldn’t call it fancy or anything.”

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The Abners spent their winters in Las Vegas, where he spent most his professional career, playing for the triple-A Stars. Every Friday night, you could find Abner at a casino playing blackjack.

“I was never one for all that glitter,” he says, “but I do like to gamble. My wife let me gamble once a week, so every Friday I’d go down to the Golden Nugget, and play blackjack. Fourth table from the left. I’d never bet no more than $5 or $10 a time, and as soon as I get up $50, I’d quit.

“Come on, $50, that’s a lot of money. That’s a pair of pants and shirt right there.”

It was the simple life. Just a kid growing up, exploring the world. Maybe he would have matured quicker if he had attended college and accepted the football scholarship offered by the University of Georgia.

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Maybe his scholarship would have been revoked, anyway, considering that he never graduated from high school, and instead wound up obtaining his GED--general equivalency diploma.

“I got it through the mail,” Abner said. “Basically, my mom took it for me.”

It never mattered, Abner figured. He always had sports. His athletic skills would earn him a living.

Then, it dawned on him. Life without baseball? What would he do?

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“I decided I better get damn serious,” Abner said, “and that’s what I’ve done.”

If his confidence has been shattered over the years, it was restored over the winter by Merv Rettenmund, the Padres’ hitting coach. Five times a week, two hours a day, Rettenmund worked with Abner in the batting cage.

The long, sweeping swing, the one that resulted in one strikeout every 5 1/2 at-bats during his big-league career, has been transformed into a short and compact stroke. Instead of his willingness to swing at every pitch within two feet of the strike zone, Abner has learned patience.

“I know it’s only the first week of camp, and the games haven’t started,” Abner said, “but this is the best I’ve ever felt. I’ve never hit line drives the first week like this.

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“It’s such a great feeling knowing that their are jobs open. That’s the first thing I think about every morning. Even my wife talks about it. We’re having dinner, and she’ll say, ‘There’s two jobs open. After you’re done eating, why don’t you go out and hit some more.’ ”

There are five players vying for the center-field and left-field positions, but Abner is the only one who never spent a day in the minors last season. Let’s see, there’s Thomas Howard and Darrin Jackson in contention for the center-field job, and Jerald Clark and Oscar Azocar in left.

“It wasn’t like last year, if I hit .350 I was going to knock Joe Carter out of there,” Abner said. “I don’t think Jack (McKeon, former manager) ever wanted to go in the same direction as me. He never had confidence in me.

“Larry Bowa liked me. I think he was going to me the chance. But as soon as he got fired, I knew I was cooked. He even said, ‘They’ll probably send you to the minors now.’

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“And then Jack took over, and everything went downhill. It was like, ‘Screw you, go to the back of the line.’ ”

When you have a .218 batting average, with six homers and 41 RBIs in a career spanning parts of four major-league seasons, managers have this funny habit of omitting your name from the lineup.

But now there is a new regime. He has Manager Greg Riddoch telling him that the job is his to lose. He has McIlvaine telling him that he’ll finally have a chance to prove himself. He has teammates telling him that this is a chance of a lifetime.

“It’s funny because so many people say it’s an advantage to me that Joe is here,” Abner said, “because he’s the one to sign me.

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“But what people forget is that he’s also the one who traded me. . . .

“Listen, all I’m asking for is a fair shake, and now I’m going to get it. Look at what happened to Shane Mack. They never gave him a chance. They said he couldn’t hit. So they let him go, and he hits .327 with Minnesota.

“Now, I’d be a conceited SOB if I said I’m the only one who hasn’t gotten a chance. I know I’m not the Lone Ranger here. But I know I’m going to do it this year. I can feel it.

“I’m going to show people that they’ve been wrong about me. I’m going to show them I can play this game. You’ll see.

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“Then what can what they say?”


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