Disabled Dealer Magazine Mid-Atlantic Region April 2004
The Winner’s Circle
Profile of Baseball Pitcher Jim Abbott
By David Block
By anyone’s standards, Jim Abbott had an impressive amateur and professional baseball career.
He was the first American pitcher in 25 years to beat Cuba on Cuban soil. He led the 1988 US Olympic team to gold, which was a first for the US.
Unlike thousands who try but fail to make it to the Major Leagues, Abbott was a first round draft choice.
In addition to these impressive accomplishments, he also was the first Major League pitcher born with no fingers on his right hand. Though some may have considered it a handicap, Abbott never did.
“I was very lucky,” said Abbott “to be born with a lot of strengths.” This attitude gave him confidence to play baseball. “I started playing baseball when I was 5 or 6 because I loved the game,” said Abbott. “Looking back on it, I probably used sports to fit in. That made me get involved with other kids, be a part of recess. It was my way of introducing myself.”
With help from his father, Jim Abbott figured out a unique way to pitch and catch the ball, which he has never altered from the time he was a child.
When pitching, Abbott rests the glove on the stump of his right arm. After throwing the ball, he flips the glove onto his left.
While growing up, Abbott also batted. “I hit very similar to everybody else,” said Abbott who explained although missing five fingers he still uses the palm. “I just grip my two hands together sort of overlapping my right hand with my left hand at the end of the bat, using the nub of the bat as a little bit of a wedge. That’s how I swing my golf clubs.”
Abbott had clear goals for his future. When he graduated from high school in 1985, he turned down the offer of playing for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Instead, Abbott chose to accept a full scholarship to pitch for the University of Michigan. “It was a life long dream for me to go to the University of Michigan.” Abbott knew that he could gain valuable experience if he pitched first in college. Although the Toronto Blue Jays made him a fairly serious offer, he was a 36th round draft choice. When Abbott finished his junior year at college, he was a first round draft choice for the California Angels. “It remains a goal of mine to finish college,” said Abbott.
Abbott’s first college win, which was against the University of North Carolina, was pivotal because he stopped an opposing player from taking advantage of his disability. “The runner on third base tried to steal home in the time it would take me to switch my glove on and off, but that didn’t work. I still got him out.”
In 1987, when Abbott competed in the Pan AM games in Cuba, beating them on their own soil for the first time in 25 years, the fans and onlookers were impressed.
“Cuba was regarded as the best amateur team in the world at that point,” said Abbott. “This was before their players started to make their way over to the United States. So they had a lot of players (in ’87) that were bona fide Major League prospects. They were much older than we were. We were the underdogs… The Cuban team tried to intimidate us. They held their stretching exercises in the middle of our batting practices, right in the middle of center field. They showed up just a little bit late, making these grand entrances. Fidel Castro would also show up.
Abbott said that many Cubans were shocked to see him pitch. “Every time I played catch even before the game, people stood up, started cheering and whistling. It became a bit of a spectacle every time I went on the field.” Because he was the winning pitcher against Cuba, a lot of Cubans were surprised. He learned that the Cuban government prohibited their citizens with disabilities from playing baseball. “It made me feel good to be an example of what can happen if given a chance.”
The following year at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, Abbott pitched against Japan in the finals and won 5 to 3 giving the US a first time Olympic gold medal in baseball. “To win a gold medal, represent your country, that’s something you never forget.”
The following year, Jim Abbott was drafted to the California Angels. He accomplished one of his life long goals to be a Major League pitcher.
Although Abbott could bat, he never had to worry about it because the American League always used a designated pinch hitter to substitute for pitchers.
Statistically, 1991 was Abbott’s best year pitching with 18 wins and 11 losses.
“I felt I pitched better in ’92, even though I lost 15 games.” His ’92 pitching record was 7 and 15. “It comes down to how many runs your team scores, too. One of the more difficult lessons I learned as a pitcher that year was a lot of times the results weren’t necessarily within your control.”
In ’93, Abbott was traded to the New York Yankees. The only no hitter Abbott pitched was September 4, 1993 where he beat the Cleveland Indians 4 to 0. Abbott felt redeemed. “Five days earlier, Cleveland demolished me.”
Abbott spent the ’97 baseball season in the Minor Leagues due to his pitching slump.
“I learned some valuable lessons in the Minor Leagues,” said Abbott. “I got a chance to see how hard it was for some people to make it to the Major Leagues.”
He also learned that a lot of Minor League players – including him – had to make a great effort to block out disparagement. “You have to remember the people who do believe you can do it (advance to the Major Leagues).”
Abbott returned to the Major Leagues in ’98, pitching for the Chicago White Sox. He won his first game with Chicago, beating his former team, the New York Yankees.
In 1999, Abbott’s final year as a Major League baseball player, he was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers, a National League team. He now had to bat. He got two hits, one of them was a run batted in (RBI). Jim Abbott’s overall pitching record was 87 and 108.
Throughout Abbott’s baseball career, he often refused to talk to the media.
“A lot of people wanted to interview me. So much attention was focused on how I played. I wanted to set an example, if I was going to be a role model for people who face challenges in life, I wanted to try to be the best pitcher I could. I didn’t want to be a spokesperson. I didn’t want to stand on any platforms. That wasn’t who I was. I was a baseball player. I felt I needed to focus everything I had on being that, and that way I could best serve the people who might find some lessons in my playing.”
Currently, Abbott gives inspirational talks to large groups. He also spends time with his family, particularly his two daughters.
Abbott’s advice for people with disabilities who encounter numerous struggles: “I would say don’t ever give up on yourself. It’s important to never give up on the gifts you have been given, no matter how small or large they are. Don’t give too much of yourself away. Sometimes I wanted so much to fit in. I wanted so much not to be different, that I tried to accommodate other peoples’ perceptions of me and now I try to encourage people to be who they are, no matter what their circumstances are. Don’t give yourself away, don’t fit somebody else’s idea of what might be possible in your life. Be who you are. Take advantage of the things you want to do with your life.”