If you took every no-hitter ever thrown in the big leagues and arranged them in alphabetical order by pitcher, the one thrown last Saturday by James Anthony Abbott would be at the top. Should you then delineate the no-hitters according to their inspirational value, the same one would lead the list.
That was clear on Sunday in New York City when Abbott, the New York Yankee lefthander, reported for work at Yankee Stadium at 11 on a pristine morning, his head still weighty from a night of champagne celebration. The crowd that had gathered 20 deep around police barricades near the players' entrance greeted him with cheers and good wishes. Abbott stopped to sign a few autographs, including one on the arm cast of a little girl small enough to walk underneath the blue barricades. It was then, with people still giddy 19 hours after the last out of his 4-0 gem against the Cleveland Indians, that Abbott finally realized his no-hitter was an accomplishment with an extraordinarily lasting quality.
"I guess it kind of hit me walking in, seeing the people were still going crazy," he said. "I'm thrilled about it. I didn't think it would get this kind of reaction."
By any measure it was a special achievement. For starters, Abbott threw his no-hitter in the heat of a September pennant race. When the first-place Toronto Blue Jays lost later that night and again on Sunday, New York tied them for the American League East lead. For another, Abbott shut down an Indian lineup that featured six players batting .298 or better. Mostly, though, it was a lasting moment because of who Abbott is. Two weeks shy of his 26th birthday, Abbott, who had won the gold medal game of the 1988 Olympics and had never once pitched in a minor league game, had long since established himself as a man whose quality as a pitcher was exceeded only by the quality of his character. Though he would prefer to be regarded as just another pitcher, it is on days like Saturday that it must be remembered—marveled at, really—that he was born without a right hand.
"The last couple of innings," said teammate Don Mattingly, "I had these huge goose bumps on my forearms, and the hair on the back of my neck was standing up. Maybe that would have happened with someone else. Maybe I'd have the same feelings. But I think because it was Jim there was a little something extra."
Abbott had arrived for his start wearing his lucky pair of jeans—they are marked with an inside the waistband—and as usual his game jersey was hanging in his locker already buttoned. It is one of the few concessions he allows for his disability; that way he can simply pull the jersey over his head. He was determined to salvage something out of his season, especially after his last start, also against the Indians, on Aug. 29 in Cleveland. That day he was knocked out in the fourth inning with his team down 7-3. Abbott, a fierce competitor, left not for the showers but for the streets outside Cleveland Stadium, where he punished himself with a three-mile run. By the time he returned to the clubhouse, the Yankees had rallied for a 14-8 win, prompting manager Buck Showalter to crack, "Why'd you come back?"
It was the fifth time in his last six starts that Abbott, then 9-11, had failed to win. His earned run average had swelled to 4.31, and his career record remained at 56-63, a curiously poor mark for someone with such quality stuff. He had struggled for much of this season because he had inexplicably lost about two miles per hour off his fastball. Moreover, he still has not developed a pitch that runs away from righthanded batters to complement his best pitch, a cut fastball that moves in on them. Indian switch-hitter Carlos Baerga likes to take away that cut fastball by batting lefthanded against Abbott.
"Let's work a little different this time than last time," Yankee bullpen coach Mark Connor told Abbott as he warmed up on Saturday. "Let's work the outside more and mix in more breaking pitches."
Abbott did precisely that in a performance that was hardly overpowering. He walked more batters (five) than he struck out (three), while obtaining 17 outs by ground balls. He was assisted by several fine plays from his infielders, the best of them by third baseman Wade Boggs, who threw out Albert Belle after diving to his left to stop a bouncer in the seventh. By then club owner George Steinbrenner had departed the stadium, choosing to take a flight home to Tampa rather than see Abbott parry with history.
In the ninth inning Cleveland leadoff hitter Kenny Lofton, after fouling a bunt attempt, grounded out. Then Felix Fermin smashed a drive 390 feet to left centerfield, but the ball was high enough for centerfielder Bernie Williams to easily run down. Finally, Baerga, batting lefthanded, hit one last grounder, to shortstop Randy Velarde. When Velarde's throw reached Mattingly's mitt, Abbott exulted. He threw open his arms and shouted, "How about that, baby!" And so the party began.
Even Showalter, who normally shows as much emotion as a rock, broke into such celebration he nearly whacked his head on the dugout roof. Then again, the last out provided as much relief to him as anyone. "No one wants to be blamed for doing anything to jinx a no-hitter," he said. "I had to go to the bathroom for the last four innings, but I was afraid to go."
Abbott took home two bottles of champagne and later, accompanied by his wife, Dana, met Mattingly at an Upper East Side restaurant for dinner. By then people were already stopping him to sign early copies of the next day's papers.
On Sunday the Yankee Stadium grounds crew, which had dug out the pitching rubber from the mound, presented Abbott with the slab, which all of his teammates had signed. The Hall of Fame called for his hat and the baseball. "There's been so much excitement about this," he said. With Abbott, the wonder never ends.