Retroactive Review: A Jim Abbott Double Feature

Jim Abbott is more than just a pitcher with one hand. (via John Traub)

Jim Abbott, like many others who have pulled on a major league uniform, probably isn’t what one would consider a household name. However, even the most casual fan might perk up, eyes alighting with recognition, if you were to lead with “Jim Abbott, the one-handed pitcher.” My father, a casual baseball fan in every sense of the word, might not be able to supply Abbott’s name unprompted, but he knows who the “one-handed guy who threw the no-hitter” is.

Jim Abbott’s career was coming to an end just as I started getting re-invested in baseball—I’d stopped following it as a middle schooler because of the strike—but even I knew who he was. I can still remember watching a game on TV and being fascinated by the one-handed Michigan-native. Even years later, Abbott was one of many ball players who’d never truly fade from my subconscious simply because what he was doing—what he did—was so impressive. Perhaps he wouldn’t like to think of it that way—impressive—but I couldn’t help but be impressed. When I found out he was putting out a memoir a few years ago, I quickly bought it and devoured it. And, when I found out a documentary was being produced by Fox Sports, I set my DVR. There are some public figures who leave an impression on you, in your youth. For some, that’s Justin Timberlake, George Clooney, or Julia Roberts. For me, that was Abbott.

Structured around Abbott’s no-hitter with the New York Yankees, Imperfect: An Improbable Life details the pitcher’s life, from before his birth—there are some chapters that deal with his parents’ youth and relationship —to the present day. The rest of the book revolves around his memorable no-hitter against a powerful Cleveland Indians team. The book came together with material taken from interviews done by Abbott himself. Tim Mead, VP of communications for the Los Angeles Angels, kept and maintained boxes of letters, newspaper clippings, and photographs of Abbott’s career that became the backbone of the project.

Abbott was born without his right hand, his arm ending in a stump. He describes going to a clinic as a child to be fit with a prosthetic and being surrounded by scores of other children far worse off than himself. Abbott witnessed parents coldly depositing their disabled children without so much as a hug or goodbye, and considered himself to be fortunate. His parents instilled in him, from a young age, an independence and almost an unwillingness to let his disability stand in his way. Abbott just wanted to blend in as “one of the boys,” not stand out because of his disability.

As he grew older, Abbott turned to basketball and baseball. He mentions that he didn’t get into sports to escape his disability; rather, he got into sports because that was simply what boys in Flint did. He also didn’t immediately excel unlike, say, Billy Bean, who threw himself into baseball to prove something to his absentee father and became a high school star. Abbott was cut from his ninth grade basketball team, and he had to constantly prove he belonged on the field or the court not only to his coaches and teammates but to himself. Abbott’s story is one of perseverance, from youth sports to college to the majors.

The book, co-written with sportswriter Tim Brown, is well-written and personal, diving deep into Abbott’s childhood as well as providing context for the upheaval surrounding the young pitcher’s life. Abbott was born the year of the 1967 riots in Detroit, moved often, and grew up during an economic downturn as GM manufacturing plants closed and Flint residents began losing their jobs. Abbott wryly mentions that his father, an Anheuser-Busch salesman, and his mother, a lawyer, did okay because “folks always had money for beer” and “always needed a way out of trouble.” The authors also do a great job of making the baseball minutiae lively and easy to understand and engage with. There are also occasional passages from the point of view of others—Abbott’s parents, for instance—that felt like digressions at first, but the more I considered them, the more I realized that they added context and flavor to the memoir.

Abbott channeled his insecurities and fears on the baseball field—and, once, on the football field when he was pressed into emergency quarterback duty due to his strong left arm. On the field, Abbott wasn’t different or vulnerable. He was just one of 25 men.

Occasionally exceptional, Abbott had a solid major league career. A first round pick out of the University of Michigan, Abbott made the California Angels out of his first spring training camp and put together a respectable rookie season, coming in fifth in Rookie of the Year voting. His third season was one of his best, posting 18 wins and a 2.89 ERA and finishing third in the Cy Young race. He also collected that unforgettable no-hitter in Yankee Stadium in 1993, blanking the Indians 4-0, and was part of the gold medal team that beat Japan in the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

Set Apart, produced by fellow Flint native Mike Ramsdell, covers the same ground as the memoir for the most part, expanding on what’s already in the book with additional interviews, including those with Mead, and former Yankees teammates Wade Boggs and Matt Nokes. The documentary also peppers in interviews with parents and kids who were born missing limbs, including the founders of the NubAbility Foundation, an athletics foundation that endeavors to “encourage, inspire, instruct limb different youth (congenital or traumatic amputees) by getting them out of the stands, off the bench and into mainstream sports.” Meeting Abbott inspired father and son to start their foundation.

The documentary didn’t really cover new ground not already covered in the memoir, but it was poignant, well-made, and served as a nice supplement to the book. The additional material with the families and children whose lives Abbott—now a motivational speaker—has inspired provide a nice point of reference, showing not only Abbott’s influence away from the baseball diamond, but also his embracing of the difference he once hid from. Abbott writes, “I had an idea…that reaching the major leagues would be a personal finish line. I was never going to have two hands, but I assumed the story would grow old, and some other sparkly object would come along to catch the eye of the sports world….” How wrong he was about that.

He says at the end of the documentary: “As a young person, I ran away from my difference. I wanted to be like other people. I realize now that I’m older that it shaped me and molded me. It’s made me who I am. I think the danger is to deny that, because I wouldn’t have gone to the places I went to without it…”

He’s right, of course. As he says, it’s naïve to think you can go through life untouched, with your difference, your disability, safely hidden. And, of course, it’s scary too.

As a child born with a birth defect—a cleft lip and palate—and a developmental disorder, I was never quite able to hide the fact I was different. As Abbott did when he was a youngster, I often endured stares, taunts, and crude questions from my peers. My differences made me self-conscious and I was always painfully aware that I wasn’t like everyone else. Like Abbott, I too just wanted to fit in with the other kids on the playground. I didn’t want to answer questions about “why my face looked that way,” why I talked with a lisp, why I had bone-graft scars hidden in my hairline, or no cartilage in my left ear.

Reading Abbott’s memoir and watching the documentary stirred up old memories and, rather than fill me with the dread or disgust or self-consciousness I felt as a child, I came to view it differently. Though our circumstances couldn’t have been more different, with Abbott an accomplished athlete and me someone who writes about them, I still felt a level of kinship with him as he described his childhood fears and insecurities. I could see myself in the figure of Jim Abbott, cutting across the park to school with his hand stuffed in his pocket, trying to avoid taunts, stares, and intrusive questions, just trying to fit in with the other kids. I could also see myself in Abbott as he was forced to shoulder a burden he didn’t want: the burden of being “special,” of being “different” in a world that just wants us to conform.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

“They called me courageous,” Abbott writes. “I was a ballplayer. People called it more. I didn’t see it.”

How many times had I—and my parents—told myself I wasn’t any different than anyone else despite the challenges I’d faced? I’d grown up all my life believing my experiences were unremarkable, that everyone else had to have experienced what I experienced because it was normal and I was normal. I was incredibly shocked to find out, as a high schooler, that having a Le Fort osteotomy was, in fact, not something every other kid experienced and I was “courageous and brave” to have gone through such a thing. I never saw myself as courageous or brave for having had a birth defect or having had surgery or experienced pain, though others see it differently, and it still makes me a little uncomfortable to think of myself that way.

My parents, like Kathy and Mike Abbott, had brought me up, rightly or wrongly, not to see myself as any different than anyone else. I had my share of slips and falls, and pulled myself up without asking for help. I still have a hard time reaching out or asking for help, even as an adult.

And, like Abbott, as an adult I too came to understand that my differences were things I should embrace, rather than run away from. I spent so much of my youth afraid to stand out, lest I draw unwanted attention from other kids or—horror of horrors—appear needy and in want of help and guidance from an adult. In hindsight, I can admit now that I probably could have used a little more assistance, particularly in school. My autism—known as Asperger’s, at the time—went undiagnosed through high school and I probably would have fared better with a bit more attention or guidance from a teacher. That being said, I’m still immensely proud I managed to get through it on my own merits.

Abbott says, near the end of his memoir, that it wasn’t until he struggled in his career that he came to understand the destructiveness of pinning his perception of himself—and, in turn, his right hand—on success on the diamond. It wasn’t until he finally came to understand how entangled he’d become with wins and losses that he was able to step back and look at his disability differently. Instead of hiding it, he tried to “develop a strength that was independent of the circumstances” around him. The looks and questions from strangers were their problems, not his. This too was a lesson I had to learn, and is something I still struggle with. Disentangling myself from my disabilities and difficulties wasn’t easy, but it was freeing and, like Abbott, I was able to view them in a new light.

Abbott’s book and documentary both end with this (paraphrased) quote from author Cormac McCarthy: “Those who have endured some misfortune will always be set apart, but it is that misfortune which is their gift and their strength.” For the longest time, I saw it as neither; as an adult, I’ve come to appreciate my differences. Even celebrate them. I’m nowhere near Jim Abbott’s level of celebrity or influence, but I’d like to think that sharing some of my experiences with kids like me—and kids unlike me—has made a dent.

You can find Alexandra Simon ranting about things at @catswithbats, and tweeting about the Tigers on @glasshalffulmer.
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5 years ago

I had a pleasure of watching Abbott pitch while he was still in college. It didn’t take long for me to realize that he was much more than just an oddity, but was a legit pitcher.

5 years ago

Jim has always been my sports hero. I was born missing the longer bone from my left elbow to wrist, so I don’t have a functioning wrist. I made many visits to Boston Children’s hospital over my childhood. Always catching a game at Fenway when down there, multiple times getting to see him pitch. It was always special.

One time while he was on the Yankees I got to meet him in the clubhouse. I was maybe 10, so I don’t recall a lot of specifics. Mostly that he was really friendly, super tall, signed a ball for me that I still have today. He also introduced me to some of the other players. Pretty sure I met Don Mattingly and Paul O’Neil. Maybe Boggs and a pitcher or two.

Anyway, disappointed I only just heard about this new documentary. Hopefully can find it somewhere to watch. Jim might say he was just another good ballplayer, but he inspired a lot of people. I played little league as long as I could. I was awful, but I played. And was really only able to because I had Jim to mimic with the glove switching. I caught and threw right handed. What I learned from playing sports and watching him as a kid are tools of adaptation and determination I’ve used my whole life.