INDIANAPOLIS, AUG. 8 -- The first standing ovation was the kind Jim Abbott doesn't care too much about. More than 50,000 Cubans at the stadium in Havana stood and saluted Abbott, a 19-year-old American pitcher, for the mere act of taking the mound one afternoon a month ago.

The Cubans had never seen him pitch, but they had heard. They had heard about how he was born without a right hand, about how he perfected a glove-switch routine that enables him to field his position better than many pitchers with two hands. So, the Cubans put aside strained relations and cheered their lungs out for Abbott, this American, before he had thrown a pitch.

Clearly, it was a sympathetic reaction, but anyone who has ever seen Abbott pitch doesn't feel sorry for him very long.

That steamy day in Havana, with none other than Fidel Castro looking on, Abbott threw a three-hitter at the best "amateur" team in the world. The second ovation, when he left the mound, came out of respect, not sympathy.

"I don't go out there to be courageous or inspirational," he said today, a few hours before he carried the flag to lead the U.S. delegation at the opening ceremonies of the Pan American Games. "I go out there to get hitters out. I was blessed with a pretty good left arm, but a not-so-good right one. I just pitch under a little different circumstance."

After losing the first two games on this pre-Pan Am Games tour, the U.S. team had itself an 8-3 victory over Cuba, compliments of Abbott, a University of Michigan junior-to-be from Flint, Mich.

After an 11-3 record as a sophomore at Michigan, he won six of seven decisions on the summer exhibition tour. He has been the most consistent pitcher on the U.S. team, which comes into these Pan Am Games probably needing to win a medal to qualify for the 1988 Summer Olympics.

There are dozens of highlights in Abbott's brief career, but few if any made him feel as good as he did today at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"This is a feeling that I don't know I can describe to you," he said. "To call home and tell your mom and dad you'll be carrying the flag for the United States . . . They went crazy. I don't know what to say. To be selected by the representatives of all the U.S. teams here is incredible.

"On Friday, a teammate told me he had heard that it was down to three of us: David Robinson, Greg Louganis and me. I told him, 'Well, I'll be at the back of the line with the rest of you guys.' "

Now, as always, he somehow works his way to the front despite what seems like an overwhelming handicap. As a ninth-grader, eight straight batters bunted, and the last seven were thrown out. Once he was convinced to go out for football, he never dropped a snap and threw enough touchdown passes to lead his Flint Central team to the state playoffs.

Later that year, he threw four no-hitters. As a freshman at Michigan, he made his collegiate debut in relief with a North Carolina runner on third. While the catcher was throwing the ball back to Abbott, the runner took off from third.

Abbott switched gloves lightning-like and threw the Tar Heel out by 20 feet. Abbott won the game when Michigan scored twice in the bottom of the inning.

Several pitching teammates with this U.S. team and at Michigan have said Abbott is one of the best fielding pitchers they've ever seen.

His U.S. team coach, Ron Fraser of Miami, said today: "I was curious, too. His coaches at Michigan were selling him just like any coach sells one of his own players. But I keep thinking, these seasoned international players will bunt this kid to death. How can he switch the glove to get it up there in time to catch a line drive? No way!

"In Cuba," Fraser said, "he's all they wanted to see. They wanted to see how he could switch the glove and throw. Well, the first batter hits a chopper 20 feet in the air down the third base line. Jim {who balances the glove on the end of his right wrist} catches the ball on the back of his glove and throws the guy out. Another standing ovation."

Abbott, not surprisingly, doesn't think his fielding is any big deal. At 6 feet 3 and 200 pounds, he seems to be the most perfect athlete imaginable until he takes his right arm out of his pocket.

His fielding, to everyone else, is staggering. He pitches with his left hand, while balancing the glove with the right arm. After the pitch, he puts his left hand into the glove as he follows through. If you don't watch closely, you'll miss the whole thing.

"Whenever I pitch someplace for the first time, the reaction is the same," he said. "But you have to remember, when my father {Mike} came up with this idea, nobody had beating the Cubans in mind. It was just to play catch in the back yard. But now, it's come to this."

Mike and Kathy Abbott wanted their son to play soccer, at first, where hands are of no use to anyone besides the goalkeeper. But young Abbott has always loved baseball, and he says he has never -- not once -- been discouraged to play on any level.

Major league scouts usually offer favorable reviews: fastball near or at 90 mph, curveball inconsistent, good control, alert. The Toronto Blue Jays drafted him out of high school in the 36th round. But he says he wasn't ready for the minor leagues and wants to make sure he isn't being drafted as an oddity.

"Besides," he said today, "if I had gone to the minors I wouldn't have had the opportunity to carry the American flag for the United States.

"I understand why people inquire, and I understand why some people feel that I'm an inspiration," he said. "I don't like to think I'm important, but if there's a model or someone for {a handicapped youngster} to emulate, maybe that makes my pitching more significant."