Jim Abbott: Overcoming Obstacles
Jim Abbott is one of baseball’s best stories in its long history.
Abbott was born without a right hand, but that did not deter him from playing baseball. Abbott is a success story that cannot be put into actual words. You almost have to see it to believe it. I remember the first time I saw Jim Abbott pitch in a professional baseball game.
It was a game where the California Angels were playing the Chicago White Sox. I was eleven years old when I saw Abbott pitch for the first time. At first, I did not notice anything different about Abbott. That was until I saw that every time he would throw a pitch, he would do something weird with his glove. My father told me that Abbott only had one arm. Me, being ignorant thought that was impossible, but here I was witnessing it before my very eyes. A pitcher, playing professional baseball, has one arm.
Jim Abbott is a native of Flint, Michigan. He started his career just like many others, in little league. There he led his American Legion team to the championship. He was a standout pitcher in High School, and even a Quarterback for Flint Central High School.
After playing summer baseball in the Connie Mack league in Michigan, Abbott was eventually drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the thirty-sixth round of the 1985 amateur draft. Abbott had made it all the way to professional baseball…..that is until he did not sign. Abbott chose to go to college instead, signing with the University of Michigan.
Abbott played for three seasons at Michigan, leading the Wolverines to two Big-10 championships. He received the James E. Sullivan award for being the nations top amateur athlete in 1987. He was selected to participate in the 1987 Pan-American games in Indianapolis and earned a Silver medal with the United States team. Abbott also participated in the 1988 Summer Olympics in baseball. At the time Baseball was not an official sport in the Olympics and was considered a “demonstration sport.” Regardless of the term, the United States won the “unofficial” gold medal, and Jim Abbott pitched, and won the final gold medal game. In his final year at Michigan, Abbott was named Big-10 player of the year. He once again entered the amateur draft in 1988, this time being selected as the 8th overall pick by the California Angels.
Without playing a single game in the minor leagues, Jim Abbott made his major league debut on April 8th, 1989 against the Seattle Mariners. Abbott was introduced to the Majors by Harold Reynolds with a single to right field. The Mariners got the better of Abbott, winning 7-0 in Abbott’s debut. Abbott only pitched 4 2/3 innings, giving up six runs (three earned) walking three, and not recording a strikeout. Abbott recorded his first win against the Baltimore Orioles on April 24th, 1989 with a 3-2 win.
In 1991, Abbott won 18 games, posting a 2.89 ERA. He finished third in the American League Cy Young award voting. The highlight of Abbott’s career came on September 4th, 1993, pitching for the New York Yankees. Abbott pitched a no-hitter against the Cleveland Indians.
Abbott spent a few more years in the major leagues with limited success, pitching for the White Sox, and Brewers. With the Brewers, he was able to bat for the first time in his career. He was 2 for 21 (his two hits both coming off Jon Lieber), not bad for a guy who could only use one hand.
As I stated, Jim Abbott is considered one of the best feel good stories in the history of baseball. He enjoyed success at the big league level, making the best use of his ability. In 2007, Jim Abbott was inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame for his career at Michigan. Michigan retired Abbott’s number 31 jersey on April 18th, 2009. Abbott just published his autobiography in April, 2012 titled Imperfect: An Improbably Life. While Abbott may have had an disability, his life was far from imperfect.
In July of this year, I had the opportunity to meet with Jim Abbott and wanted to ask him a few questions. While I was not a writer for this site at that time, I wanted to get as much information as I could about Jim Abbott.
Question: What was the most difficult thing you had to alter, in order to play baseball?
Abbott: “Probably the slipping the glove off and on. You have to understand, I did not know any different. That is how I was taught. I could always throw hard, and my parents made sure to give me the best training that was out there in Michigan. After about a year, it just became second nature. Batting however, has still been something I have yet to master, and probably never will.”
Question: You mention hitting. Did you ever get a chance to bat in the Major Leagues?
Abbott: “I did, as a member of the Milwaukee Brewers. They had just switched from the American League to the National League, so I had a chance to bat. I think I hit somewhere around .100 with my only two hits being against the same pitcher.” (Jon Lieber)
Question: How did he take it?
Abbott: “He talked to me after the game and told me that had just made history. (laughing), Little did he know that those two hits were the only ones of my career.”
Question: It has been said that you had the ability to hit the ball over the fence. Is that true?
Abbott: “When I played with the Yankees, we played a joke on Mariano Rivera. He was a rookie back then, and bet me some dollar figure, I don’t even remember what it was. Anyway, he said I could not hit the ball with one hand. I knew that I could at least get contact on the ball, so I stepped into the cage and took some at bats. When he was not looking, Paul O’Neill threw up a ball and hit it over the left field stands. Guess who was standing in the cage. Mariano turned around, and the look on his face was priceless, but no I never hit a ball over the fence.”
Question: What was the most memorable moment of your career?
Abbott: “Pitching the no-hitter with New York was awesome. I remember that day like it was yesterday. I did not even know I had a no-hitter going until the ninth inning, when Wade (Boggs) came up and said “Hell of a game you are pitching.” See here is the thing, I walked like five batters that game, so it did not feel like a no-hitter. In the ninth, with two outs. Carlos Baerga came up, and all I’m thinking is just throw strikes, go back to the old days where it’s just pitch and catch with the catcher. Carlos hit a weak ground ball to short, and the rest is history. Right before that, Felix Fermin hit a ball that would have been gone if hit anywhere else in the stadium.”
Question: What was the first thing that you thought when the final out was made in that game?
Abbott: (Laughing) “Oh my god!”
Question: Did you keep anything from that game, a jersey, ball, hat?
Abbott: “I kept the ball that recorded the final out. I display it nicely on my desk at home. The uniform was donated to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.”
Question: Do you remember when you felt like you did not want to play the game anymore?
Abbott: “I still want to play the game, I never really stopped. I do motivational speaking now about what I went through, and that anyone can do anything they want, despite what cards you are dealt. I do remember though in 1995 I think. We had a huge lead in the American League West division. We lost the lead towards the end of September, then went on a big winning streak to catch the Mariners and force a one game playoff. We got creamed, and lost the division on the last day of the season. I remember thinking that, I don’t ever want to go through that again. So that was the first time I considered retirement.”
Question: But you came back?
Abbott: “I came back after taking a year off to join the White Sox, and pitched pretty well. I went to the Brewers the next year, and went like 2-8 or something. I knew then that it was time.”
Question: How did you know?
Abbott: “It’s hard to say really. I think that even though I was young enough to still play, I just did not have the passion that I had before. I see players every year announce their retirement, and it brings you back to that day that you announce your retirement. It’s hard.”
I thought it was a good time to stop asking questions at this time, and thanked Jim for taking a few moments of his time.
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