When I was growing up, like any sports-crazy kid, I admired a few athletes.
Orel Hershiser was definitely one. What he did in that 1988 season made me love baseball and follow his career. In Little League I would wear #55 in honor of Orel. One year when our jersey numbers went only from 1-16, our coach special ordered me a #55 Pirates jersey.
The other athlete that I admired a lot was Jim Abbott.
We can start with the obvious reason a right-handed, non-pitcher of a kid would admire Jim Abbott: he overcame one of the biggest obstacles dealt to him to make it into the majors. If that didn’t inspire you as a kid to dream big, then you were a crackhead.
Abbott was born without his right hand and was one of the rare players to be drafted and go straight to the majors without playing a single minor league game.
Dude was a stud.
As a SoCal kid and with Abbott pitching for the Angels, I was immediately drawn to him. He made his major league debut in 1989, just one year after I fell in love with baseball.
Is it weird to think that Abbott’s feats in his life were extraordinary because he was missing his right hand? Or was he just a superb athlete with a handicap, put on this earth to motivate people to overcome their odds?
I read Abbott’s book when I was a kid and found out that he played quarterback for his high school team, pitched for Team USA and was an All-American at Michigan. He wore a right-handed fielder’s mitt on his right arm as he pitched, then quickly switched it to his left hand to field any balls hit to him. He practiced this by constantly throwing a ball against his garage as a kid and then moving closer and closer to exchange the glove quickly because of the speed of the ball coming back to him was greater.
I begged my mom to buy me one of those cool caricature shirts of athletes and she obliged. I wore it on my first day of school, when picking out your first day of school outfit still meant something.
I was in awe of Jim Abbott. He was 12-12 with a 3.92 ERA as a rookie in 1989 for a mediocre Angels team and then two years later he went 18-11 with a 2.89 ERA and finished third in Cy Young voting behind Roger Clemens and Scott Erickson.
After being traded to the Yankees, Abbott threw a no-hitter in 1993 and was widely celebrated because of his disability. Plus, anything that happens with the Yankees is automatically magnified, but for Abbott it was with good reason.
Unfortunately, it all came crashing down when he returned to the Angels in 1996 when he went 2-18 with an ERA near 8.00. That was a sad year when the greatness of Jim Abbott just faded away.
When I covered the Angels as a beat writer, Mike Scioscia would constantly bring players back as guest instructors during spring training. (He is also a motivational speaker. Check it out here.) Abbott was there one day and it was like being a kid again.
I had been around pro athletes for a few years now and realized most of them didn’t deserve the attention they received, but seeing Abbott in the hallway with us peon sportswriters was a thrill for me. Of course I played it cool and when I introduced myself I didn’t fawn all over him. Although I wanted to. He was an inspiration to me following my dreams and becoming a baseball writer.
Because I knew all about Jim Abbott, I reached out with my left hand to shake his hand. Another writer in the hallway went the typical route, stuck out his right hand and was immediately embarrassed. Abbott, probably used to it, laughed it off and reached with his left hand and shook the guy’s hand.
Jim Abbott was never an All-Star, never was a household name among non-baseball fans and was usually regarded as “that guy without his hand.” Yet, he was an inspiration to us all. While most of our big league dreams die at a young age, it doesn’t mean we can’t be great in other parts of our lives and strive to do better.
Hell, if a guy with one hand can do all the things Jim did, we can certainly try harder to be better, too.