Rarely has there been so much clamor over the debut of a rookie who wasn't on his organization's major league roster. Before lefthander Jim Abbott, a California Angel prospect, took the mound on Friday in Yuma, Ariz., for a B game against the San Diego Padres and threw his first pitch as a pro, he had already turned down three book offers and a movie deal. He did agree, however, to sign a baseball for Cuba's president, Fidel Castro, who was scouted by the Washington Senators in the late 1940s. Abbott resisted the temptation to inscribe the ball, FROM ONE LEFTY TO ANOTHER.
Abbott remained unruffled by the goings-on about him. Japanese camera crews filmed him. So many photographers snapped his picture that Angel pitching coach Marcel Lachemann asked him if he would be able to pitch without a constant click, click, click. Hordes of writers braved winds of as much as 35 mph at Desert Sun Stadium to watch him pitch and to ask him tasteless questions, such as "Is anyone else in your family deformed?"
The attention was understandable. After all, Abbott was a first-round pick in last June's draft and pitched the U.S. Olympic team to a 5-3 win over Japan in the gold medal game in Seoul. Before that he had become the first baseball player to win the Sullivan Award, as the nation's top amateur athlete. Oh yes, he also was born without a right hand.
But the Angels drafted the 6'3", 200-pound Abbott for his ability, not his disability. Abbott came on in the fourth inning and struck out the first Padre he faced, rightfielder Thomas Howard, with an inside fastball. He fanned the next hitter, 1984 Olympian Gary Green, on three pitches. Then, after a batter reached first base on an error, Abbott got veteran infielder Tim Flannery to ground to first to end the inning. "He threw me one fastball that really exploded," said Flannery. "Even the catcher couldn't hold on to it."
In the three innings he worked, Abbott struck out four, walked none and gave up two singles and no runs. After the game, California manager Doug Rader rewarded Abbott with a lemon drop and then quipped, "It might be a tad more expensive for [general manager] Mike Port down the line."
"Impressive," said New York Mets scout Harry Minor of Abbott's performance. "He threw his fastball inside to righthanders, which is something you don't often see from first-year pitchers."
For now the Angels have Abbott ticketed for their Double A team in Midland, Texas. His fielding—he deftly slips his glove from his right arm to his left hand to catch and then removes the glove to throw—doesn't seem to be a concern. But the Angels want him to develop a better curve to complement his slider and his 94-mph fastball. Abbott, though, thinks he still has a chance of starting the season in Anaheim. "All I'm trying to do is pitch the best I can and put myself in a position where somebody has to make a decision," he says.
Abbott already has major league "makeup," the clubhouse term for a mature attitude and poise. Abbott handled the press with aplomb last week and remained composed when a teammate clumsily kidded him by saying, "Hey, you've only got one hand."
When catcher Rick Turner found out that he would be rooming with Abbott, he thought he might have to help him perform some everyday tasks. But Turner quickly learned otherwise. "You don't have to ask him what he can't do," says Turner. "Just sit back and watch what he can do."