The moment Jim Abbott had long strived for finally arrived this season. It happened in April, when he was an 0-4 pitcher with a 6.00 ERA for the California Angels and the local columnists had turned calumnists and the callers from Placentia to Burbank were spewing their displeasure over the radio airwaves. Abbott was a 23-year-old lefthander with, his critics said, no control, no off-speed pitch to confuse hitters and no minor league seasoning to draw on. There was no time like the present, they added, for him to get a taste of Triple A. The words missing from this litany were the ones Abbott was most accustomed to hearing, the ones that said he couldn't succeed because he had no right hand. "It was all about pitching—this guy stinks," Abbott recalls with a smile. "I thought, 'There it is. Finally. I've arrived.' "
After untold fastballs in the Flint (Mich.) Little League, three dominant years at the University of Michigan, stardom at the Olympics, a slew of award-acceptance speeches, millions of hearts touched around the world and three seasons in the majors, Abbott was at last being seen as he had always seen himself—simply put, as a pitcher. He was no longer the feature attraction of a media circus or the living embodiment of a made-for-TV movie; he was one fifth of the Angel rotation. True, he is special; he is visible proof that what appears to some a limitation need not be. But he is equally special for the commercial ventures he turns down, for the time he takes with the physically disabled kids who flock to him and for the casual way he carries both himself and his latest reading material—last week it was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance—into a baseball clubhouse.
Now that he is being judged solely as a pitcher, the 6'3", 215-pound Abbott is also special because over the last four months he has been the best pitcher in the American League. Since May 5, he has gone 14-4 with a 2.95 ERA; four more potential wins evaporated as the result of blown saves. In Abbott's last 23 starts, he has pitched into the seventh inning 20 times, and held opponents to three earned runs or fewer 19 times. "Several times I've seen him with legitimate no-hit kind of stuff, where nobody's even come close to attacking the ball," says Angel third baseman Gary Gaetti. "And we have lost almost all of those games."
Adds California lefthander Chuck Finley, "It's a special thing to watch someone throw the ball that well time after time after time. I don't care what anyone says, he doesn't have this or he doesn't have that. The hitters don't think that. They know he's a fierce competitor and that every fifth day he's going to shove the ball down their throats."
September 8, 1991
The naysayers at the start of the season got no echo from the Angel brass. Manager Doug Rader, since dismissed and replaced by Buck Rodgers, never considered shipping Abbott out; pitching coach Marcel Lachemann said any trip Abbott took to the minors would include him, too. What they saw in him was a kid with a bat-breaking fastball and a slider that chewed up the knuckles of the league's best righthanded hitters. In 1989 he had gone 12-12 with a 3.92 ERA as a rookie right out of Ann Arbor by way of Seoul and through hordes of distractions. Six Japanese camera crews followed Abbottsan for days; one reporter wanted to know his blood type. During that season he fielded more questions about how he would field bunts and comebackers than he did the bunts and comebackers themselves. His fan mail filled shopping carts.
But the frenzy dissipated last season, when Abbott dipped to 10-14 with a 4.51 ERA and allowed more hits than any other American League pitcher. His 1990 record was a bit deceptive; the Angels scored 15 runs for him in his 14 losses, and in one game the five bats he shattered produced five base hits. Abbott was also serving an in-the-majors apprenticeship in the art of pitching, learning to work the outside corners and snapping a slow curve. "I thought last year was a step forward for him," Lachemann says. "The numbers may not indicate it, but he was improving on some things, holding the runners, throwing the outside pitch. It was progress."
Abbott asks no quarter and accepts none, either. Bullpen coach Frank Reberger fungoes to him every day and says, "If you're hitting them too soft, he'll get on you—fast." But the negativity swirling around Abbott's 0-4 start, while soothing in a backhanded sense, was trying as well. "It was the toughest thing I've gone through, baseballwise, in a long time," he says. "In the back of your mind you think, Maybe I just don't have it. Maybe every lousy pitcher thinks that some day he's going to get good. And then all of a sudden, your worst fears are out in the open, in public debate.
"I know a lot of people said that because of my hand, I had something to prove. I never felt that was the case. For some reason, I have a real dislike for the adamant 'I'm going to prove something.' But I felt I wanted to vindicate the people who had helped me."
With the encouragement of those close to him, Abbott turned his "arrival" in April into a point of departure. From Rader and Lachemann he got advice to work inside, to nibble less with his off-speed stuff and to rely instead on his package of power pitches. From Ken Ravizza, the team psychologist, he learned to relax by talking to himself on the mound: "Trust it, trust it, you've been here before." From outfielder Luis Polonia he received the help of a good-luck voodoo doll, Joe Vu, which was temporarily placed on the shelf in Abbott's locker. From his other teammates there were pats on the back; from his parents in Flint, encouraging phone calls; from his fiancèe, Dana Douty, a sense of security and calm.
And then the talent and tenacity that had made Abbott the ace of the U.S. teams in the '87 Pan Am Games and the '88 Olympics became an effective asset for the '91 Angels. He was suddenly in control of himself and of the plate. "It's been a renewal for me, it really has," he says. "There's so much more confidence. I like to go home and read the stats now that I'm not so ashamed of my own. It's like it was in college; I enjoy going out and pitching again."
Once you accept Abbott as a pitcher first, it's O.K. to marvel at how he does it. For Abbott, being born without one hand seems about as much of a hindrance as wearing a pair of Reeboks would be for Michael Jordan. Since he was five, Abbott has practiced switching his glove from his left hand to his right arm and back again, a maneuver that is now as fluid and routine as a sleepy-eyed shave. He can do it in that instant before the bat meets the ball. "You see him catch the ball, but you never see him put the glove on his hand," says Angel catcher Lance Parrish. "That's a remarkable feat nobody really pays attention to."
"I still can't see how he gets the ball out of his glove, it happens so fast," says Gaetti, who fields 60 feet away from Abbott. "I thought I saw it the other day at just the right angle, but I'd like to see it in slow motion." Says pitcher Kirk McCaskill, "After a while, you forget how special the guy is. You have to be reminded. He mentioned the other day that if the catcher throws the ball back real hard it can sting his fingers, and he still has to pitch with that hand. Think about that."
On Aug. 28, after Abbott and two relievers trimmed the heavyweight Tigers 1-0 in Anaheim, Detroit starter Bill Gullickson said, in appreciation, "A guy goes out and shuts us out and I wonder, How does he do it?" Watchers of the late-night highlights of that game were awed by a stab Abbott made of a wicked one-hopper hit by Alan Trammell in the sixth inning, when he leaped high and wheeled to second in time to get the lead runner. Back in Flint, Mike and Kathy Abbott were struck by the fact that the local papers mentioned the play, but not their son's handicap. "That old line about him not having a hand didn't even come up," Kathy says.
It's O.K. to marvel, too, because Abbott does it all the time. Not that he marvels at himself, of course. He has rejected offers to buy the film or book rights to his life story because he can't conceive of himself on a big screen or of his thoughts, at 23, being recorded in a raft of pages. "They were all promoting the idea, Hey, look what I've overcome," Abbott says. "But I'm here to pitch; that's my job. I'm not here to be anybody's crusader or anything." And because he finds them too impersonal, he refuses to do the assembly line card-show signings that could earn him $5,000 a day.
What does pry Abbott's blue eyes wide open are such things as Parrish's black, orange-rimmed catcher's mitt, which Abbott had seen as a kid when Parrish played for Detroit. "And, then, coming to spring training, and there it is," Abbott says, "staring right at you." Or his memories of [former infielder] Richie Hebner's shoes. "I'll always remember seeing them when I went to Tiger Stadium," he says. "I remember the way they were just so polished and black. I remember that feeling: This is what it's all about." Or the space he shares on a SAY YOUR PRAYERS poster with Angel pitcher Mark Langston. "Somewhere deep down I'm saying, Wow, this is Mark Langston," he says. "And I'm doing posters with him."
Abbott is living his dream, and he appreciates it. He is also living the dream of many others who aspire to overcome their disabilities, and he appreciates that, too. He still answers more than 300 pieces of mail a week, sometimes giving personal responses to writers who need encouragement or reassurance. In each city he goes to, Abbott chats easily with youngsters who came to the park just to see him. "At times I've felt like saying, I can't give any more," he says. "But it's there. You don't want to become jaded to how much it means."
Abbott may have pat answers to numbingly repetitive questions about his own life, but he doesn't pretend to have a simple response to such letter writers as the eight-year-old girl who was attacked by a mountain lion and lost the use of a hand, or the five-year-old girl whose hand got blown off by an explosive. Recently, a seven-year-old boy with curly black hair and only parts of two fingers on one hand came into the Angel clubhouse in Anaheim to see Abbott. "He asks me, 'Did kids ever tease you?' " Abbott recalls. "And it takes me back, because they did. People said to me, 'Aw, your hand looks like a foot.' And he said, 'They called me Crab at camp.' A vicious thing that is. So I said, 'Yeah, they teased me, too. Do you think it's a problem?' And he says, 'No.' I asked, 'Is there anything you can't do?' And he says, 'No.' And I said, 'Well, I don't think so either.'
"And for the first time I said to somebody, 'Look at me, I'm playing with these guys. There's Dave Winfield and Dave Parker and Wally Joyner. I'm playing with them, and I'm just like you.' And I don't know if it helps or not. I don't know if it strikes any deep nerve. I don't even know if that's the point of it. But maybe it's just the fact he has someone to relate to. I think that's what matters most."
Through it all, perhaps Abbott's most amazing achievement is his normalcy. "I don't know how to say this about him, but he's like Joe Average," says bullpen catcher Rick Turner. "The bottom line is that he's a great guy and a lot of fun to be around."
Abbott will roll his eyes at the mention of the numerous plans to be made for his December wedding. He will prattle endlessly about Michigan football. He will throw an occasional fit. He will suggest that there isn't enough tape on a reporter's recorder to cover a discussion of the triple he hit in spring training. Abbott superstitiously wears the same shorts every start. Conversely, Finley likes to recall the time Abbott was boogie boarding at Newport Beach, Calif., and a wave sucked the swimsuit right off of him. "He's in the water and you see this butt popping up," Finley says. "He had to swim around until we were able to get him some new pants."
This year has had some lows for Abbott. The Angels are dead last in the division, and Rader, the man who unflinchingly believed in him, is gone. As for the highs, Abbott backs off from any talk that might suggest he has the game completely licked. His view of himself is, unlike where his fastball travels these days, straight down the middle.
"Sometimes I don't know where I fit in the picture," he says. "I don't feel like someone who has overachieved, because I feel really blessed. But I don't think I've underachieved either. It's somewhere in between. I see myself as someone who has to worry about his weight somewhere down the line." Until then, Jim Abbott is just a pitcher.