Jim Abbott delivers 90-mph fastballs not to turn doubters into admirers or the curious into the awestruck. His objective is simply to turn batters into outs. The sophomore southpaw, who has a 10-3 record for ninth-ranked Michigan, was born with just one hand. He says, no, he's not discomforted; no, he's not courageous. He doesn't even consider himself handicapped. "I'm a pitcher working at it," says the 19-year-old from Flint, Mich., "and people write me letters calling me an inspiration." Abbott has always counted his good fortune and never dwelled on his misfortune. "I've been blessed with a pretty good left arm and a not-so-great right arm," he says.
The right arm, it's true, transforms Abbott from another college ace into a rather compelling story. The limb begins normally enough at the shoulder, but it ends just above where the wrist would be in a fleshy nubbin, from which protrude the barest glimmers of a finger and nail. Even so, he can applaud a good defensive play or tie his shoelaces, and when he sticks his nub into his jeans pocket he's indistinct from the campus horde. "The only thing really missing is fingers," Abbott says.
If the right arm is unusual for its appearance, the left is extraordinary for its performance. He led the Flint Central High intramural basketball league in scoring. He once heaved three TD passes for Central in the first half of a state playoff game. (That fall he also averaged 37.5 yards as a punter.) In his senior season he struck out two batters an inning and gave up fewer than two hits a game. And with his nub tucked in his left-hand grip, he batted .427 with a team-high seven homers and played left, first and an inning of short. "If I hadn't grown up having to do everything with my left, I don't know if it would have developed like this," Abbott says.
As a Wolverine freshman in '86, Abbott was 6-2, including the win that clinched the Big Ten title. This year the 6'3" 200-pounder has a 2.44 ERA for the 50-10 Wolverines, largely because he threw 35 straight innings without an earned run. Sunday, in the Big Ten tournament, he threw seven innings of six-hit ball to beat Purdue 5-2 and force a final game with the Boilermakers on Tuesday for the league title. Both teams have locked up NCAA playoff berths.
Earlier, in a 2-1 win over Indiana, Abbott dazzled a troop of major league scouts by pitching six one-hit innings. Ed Katalinas of the Tigers: "After the second inning, there's no handicap." Bob Gardner of the Angels: "What really amazes me is how he fields. He has the tools to pitch in the majors." Steve Boros of the Padres: "Very impressive. Good stuff. Live fastball. Decent curve. Throws strikes. If he stays healthy, he'll be a legitimate high draft choice."
Making all this feasible is the so-called Abbott switch, a stroke of legerdemain that enables him to pitch with his left hand while balancing the inside of his glove on his nub. After a pitch, he slips his hand inside the glove. On a fielding play, he catches the ball, cradles the glove with his right arm, slips his left hand out and makes the throw. The process is so fluid and natural that many who have gone to a game expressly to see him throw have watched for several innings before realizing it was Abbott they had been watching all along.
Abbott would prefer those innings of unawareness to last forever. He takes the attention from the press in stride. "If the story helps out someone else with a problem, then it makes what I'm doing all the more worthwhile," he says. But when talk shifts from the left arm to the right, Abbot's blue eyes dim a bit and his blond head bows. He's not mad or annoyed, just once again reminded that he's stuck with this starring role in a life straight out of a made-for-TV movie. No, his boyhood idol wasn't Pete Gray, the one-armed outfielder, or Monty Stratton, the one-legged pitcher. It was Rick Leach, the two-sport Wolverine star from Flint now with the Blue Jays. "I had to learn to do it with one hand because that's all I had," Abbott says. Consequently, he has followed the advice he gives to handicapped kids: "Don't let it get you down." Says his father, Mike, "Jim never talks negatively about himself or anyone. That's just his nature."
Mike and his wife, Kathy, were both 18 and barely out of high school when they had Jim. It wasn't easy, but they got through college, and now Mike is a sales manager for a beer distributor, Kathy is an attorney for a firm specializing in education law, and they have one other son, Chad, 15.
Jim was fitted for a fiberglass prosthesis with clamping metal hooks at age five, but he found it unwieldy and stopped wearing it at six. Mike and Kathy hoped Jim would gravitate toward soccer, where his handicap would be inconsequential, but Jim loved baseball. He spent hours pitching imaginary games against the brick wall outside the family's town house, moving closer and closer to his target, forcing himself to effect the hand-glove switch more and more quickly before the ball caromed back. He wasn't working on a technique to wow the world; he liked doing it, and it was what he had to do to play. "Jim has always been well adjusted, self-motivated—academically and in sports," Kathy says. "After a while, what he did we took for granted."
Abbott got his first start as an 11-year-old Little Leaguer for Lydia Simon Real Estate. He smoked a five-inning no-hitter, which was ended by the mercy rule. Word of his handiwork spread quickly through the press ("We were amazed," says Kathy), and encouragement was everywhere. "If someone had said, 'No, Jim, with that arm maybe you should sit this out and keep score,' I might have been crushed and never gone on," Abbott says.
When he was a freshman at Central, eight straight hitters once bunted on him. "I don't know if that was the situation with one hand," Abbott says, "or because I'd just struck out 10 of them." After the first bunter reached first, he threw out the next seven. But even varsity baseball coach Bob Holec was a shade skeptical. During a freshman game Holec told Mike Abbott his son might have trouble fielding at the next level. As he spoke, Jim speared a one-hopper and started a double play. "Well," said Mike, "I guess he can handle grounders back at him." Holec became an ardent supporter and urged Jim to give football a shot as a junior. He needed several weeks to learn to control the snap, but Jim went on to quarterback the Indians to the state semis his senior year.
Holec's fondest baseball memories are of Abbott throwing a speedy runner out at home on a 270-foot fly to left; Abbott whacking a 330-foot game-winning homer to center; and Abbott, after a poor outing in the opener of a double-header, pausing to talk quietly with a handicapped kid, then returning to win the nightcap in extra innings. His own three-run homer was the gamer.
Toronto drafted Abbott in the 36th round after his senior year of high school and offered him $50,000 to sign, but he elected to go to Michigan. His first victory as a Wolverine came against North Carolina last spring. A runner was on third with two out when Abbott entered in the bottom of the seventh inning. On the return throw after his third pitch, the runner broke for home while Abbott was switching. The peg beat him to the plate by 20 feet. "If they had done that on any of my other pitchers, they might have got away with it," says Michigan coach Bud Middaugh. "But Jim's much more aware. He was looking right at third base." The Wolverines went ahead in the eighth and won 6-3.
"He fields better than I do," says Michigan pitching star Mike Ignasiak. "His mechanics are unbelievable."
Life's not perfect for Abbott. Like most young lefthanders, he can be wild, and his curve hasn't quite come around. Fish don't like the way he baits his hook. He hasn't yet settled on a major. But game accounts no longer call him the one-hand wonder, and he's being appreciated more and more for his ability than for his disability. That's the breakthrough he has always wanted. "When it comes down to it I'll take my ability with anyone else's," Abbott says. "It's not that big a factor in my life."