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The Anomaly: Michigan alum Jim Abbott’s unlikely trip to the Major Leagues

By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Writer
Published June 24, 2010

Abbott was not only an adequate fielder — he was exceptional.

As a local legend goes, a Little League coach once tried to exploit the lefty’s handicap by having eight consecutive batters lay down bunts. The first one reached — Abbott threw out the last seven.

“The intent was clear, but that’s the way things are,” Abbott said, laughing at the distant memory. “I suppose everyone, one-handed or two-handed, comes across those points in life where they have to prove themselves. I guess it was almost a tribute to the kind of pitcher I was.”

Although some people tried to deter Abbott from playing baseball in any organized league, fearing his potential inability to handle a comeback line drive to the pitcher’s mound, by the time he reached high school, playing baseball was second nature.

Entering his final year at Flint Central High School, Abbott wasn’t solely focused on baseball, though. He also had picked up a back-up quarterback position on the football team, and after academic ineligibility hounded the starter, Abbott got the nod.

After taking his first serious look at a football only the year before, Abbott had a few things to consider.

“Our head coach, quarterbacks coach, and defensive coordinator were all under center trying to figure out how I could take a snap,” Abbott said. “It was that kind of generosity that surrounded me and gave me a chance. The ability to adjust was a big key in my growing up.”

How did the football experiment turn out?

Abbott carried the Indians to the semifinals of the Michigan state championships, tossing four touchdowns in a 26-20 victory over Midland in one of his playoff starts.

However, baseball remained his primary concern, and he again failed to disappoint.

Taking baseball to the next level

Abbott’s senior season at Flint Central offered a remarkable stat-line: a 10-3 record, four no-hitters, a 0.76 earned run average, 148 strikeouts and scattering just 16 hits in 73 innings.

But not only was he a threat on the mound, Abbott’s hitting was reminiscent of St. Louis Browns’ one-armed hitter Pete Gray, as he also hit .427 with seven home runs.

As the graduation and the summer of 1985 neared, Abbott had two goals he was determined to accomplish.

First and foremost, he wanted to reach his ultimate dream of reaching the Major Leagues as a pitcher, but that desire still seemed far from a reality.

Also, Abbott had cultivated a lifelong aspiration to attend the University of Michigan. After being recruited heavily by Michigan coach Bud Middaugh, Abbott had his mind set on heading to Ann Arbor that fall.

“I loved Michigan from the time I was a kid,” Abbott said. “I was recruited by a few teams in the Midwest, but when Michigan entered the fray, and after I took that recruiting trip to Ann Arbor, it was pretty much all over.”

After discovering the talented pitcher in a Connie Mack Summer League before Abbott’s junior season, Middaugh was quickly impressed. But throughout the recruiting process, there was doubt that Abbott could survive in collegiate baseball.

Middaugh quieted those skeptics by saying that the upside he saw in the pitching performance outweighed any possible physical handicap.

“When you’re in Michigan you are going to be recruiting supposedly the best talent around, in my opinion, and those people should all be coming to the University of Michigan,” Middaugh said. “I never looked at (his situation) as a handicap. I would never recruit a kid I had doubts in.

“When you first recruit a pitcher, the main question is, ‘Will he be good enough to be in your starting rotation?’ I without hesitation said he would be ready as a freshman.”

And just a few days after his high school graduation, the Toronto Blue Jays drafted Abbott in the 36th round of the MLB Draft — a move that many viewed as a backhanded compliment.

The 18-year-old pitcher had a decision to make: attend the college at Michigan, or head to nearby Toronto and attempt to make the ball club.

“As a coach, you’re always trying to sell Michigan,” Middaugh said. “Being drafted that low, you have to wonder if the one-handed thing played into it, just as a publicity thing, but you never know. I think he was deserving to be a much higher pick.