Jim Abbott, a former MLB pitcher who played for the Angels, Yankees, Brewers, and White Sox, was born without his right hand. Despite the birth defect, Abbott is a College Baseball Hall of Fame inductee and pitched for the U.S. gold medal Olympic team in 1988. Abbott's most memorable accomplishment is throwing a no-hitter in 1993 for the Yankees.
You might wonder how Abbott was able to play baseball — especially at the pro level — with only one hand. Well, when he learned the game, he also developed a way to throw with his left hand, then move the glove to his left hand in order to make a catch.
Today, as a motivational speaker, Abbott talks about his days playing baseball and inspires others to never give up on their dreams. I recently caught up with him to talk about overcoming obstacles, baseball rituals, and his favorite present day pitchers.
When you were a kid, who taught you to play baseball?
My dad was the first person who taught me to play and how to switch the glove on and off and play catch. And then I had a lot of great coaches: My Little League coach, a man named Jeff Blanchard, my high school coach, Bob Holec. They all were really helpful to me in my career.
How did they help you?
They were creative and very positive. They helped me devise the strategies to hold the bat a little bit differently, to switch the glove on and off, and to go about what it would take being a baseball player. I’m really thankful that they were so positive and creative and that they believed that there was a way for me to play.
You're very inspirational in showing that we can achieve dreams even if others look us at differently. How did you become so confident in your ability to play baseball? Did you ever feel that people looked at you like you were different?
I think maybe people don’t understand. They look at my hand and they look at my play and they think, “You must have been so confident and you really believed.” But the truth is that it was always a battle and I didn’t always believe. It took a lot of hard work. It took a lot of going through times when I felt a little bit insecure. I went through times that were a struggle and not doing well and having coaches there to support me. So, just because somebody makes it or they do positive things or achieve great things, it doesn’t always mean that the path was easy and that they always believed that it would happen. A lot of times it takes a lot of hard work and struggle to get there.
When you pursued your baseball career, what made you never give up? Do you think it was harder for you than it was for other people?
I don’t know that I worked any harder than anybody else. A lot of people work really hard to achieve their dreams. Especially as you get higher and higher up the baseball ladder, as the players get better, it gets harder and harder. There are more people who want it: More people who want to be in the major leagues, more people who want to play college baseball, more people who want to play in the Olympics. So, I don’t know that I wanted it any more than anybody else, but I worked really hard. Growing up differently gave me a drive and an ambition to prove myself.
Do you have a ritual when you throw a pitch? If so, what is it?
I had a lot of different rituals. I was a little superstitious. I changed them up a bit. Most of the time I would get to the ballpark at the same time, like three-and-a-half hours before the game and I would put on the same outfit, I would put on the same t-shirt and shorts before the game…Then the game would start and I would get up on the mound. You know on the mound there’s the pitching rubber. That’s where you start every pitch from. My favorite thing to do was to wipe it clean and I would wipe all the dirt off and get it as clean as I could get it. That, to me, was a ritual and a symbol of starting new, starting a new game.
What was it like to throw that no-hitter in 1993? How did you feel afterwards?
I felt like I was plugged into a wall. I was so excited. It was like electricity was going through me. I was so happy and charged up. So many people were so excited in the stadium; my teammates were so excited. A no-hitter is nine innings, it’s 27 outs, so it’s a countdown. It gets to a point where you’re counting the outs down. So when you get that last out it’s like, “Yeah!” So it really felt like you were plugged in; like electrical charges are going through you.
Who are some of your favorite current MLB pitchers and why?
I really like Jared Weaver for the Angles. I like him because he’s really matured into a smart pitcher. He came up and he threw hard and he had – baseball people call it ‘good stuff,’ which means you have a really overpowering fast ball and breaking ball. As he’s gotten older, he doesn’t throw as hard as he used to, but he’s just as effective because he’s become a smart pitcher. So he’s one of my favorites right now.
Looking back at your career, what lessons did you learn from baseball and overcoming obstacles?
I think the greatest lesson I took away from baseball is that what happens today doesn’t mean anything about what’s going to happen tomorrow. What I mean by that is, my proudest moment as a major league player was a no-hitter that I pitched for the Yankees. It was this great moment and it’s looked at as this great time, but one game before that I had one of the worst games of the whole year. I was knocked out early. I felt terrible. I was really struggling. I went into that next game, that no-hitter game, with a great amount of uncertainty and really worried. Baseball taught me that you can be really down and struggling, but if you work hard and you believe, the next time can be great. There’s always going to be another time and another chance to prove yourself.
Photos: John Iacono /Sports Illustrated (Yankees), courtesy Isabel Gomez