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2010-08-02

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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

The Yankee Stadium crowd let out a collective groan.

After 25 outs, Cleveland Indians shortstop Felix Fermin had just unloaded a bullet to deep centerfield — vying to end Yankee pitcher Jim Abbott’s shot at destiny.

This storybook event was over.

But New York centerfielder Bernie Williams had a different idea. He streaked across the outfield, chasing after the fly ball, and reached out to nab it as he crossed onto the warning track some 390 feet from home plate.

The crowd of 27,125 was no longer on the edge of its blue plastic seats — New York City was on its feet.

The Yankees’ veteran announcer Al Trautwig was watching Abbott — the most unlikely of heroes — making history in the Bronx, the Mecca of modern-day baseball.

Two outs in the ninth, as Bernie Williams tracked it down in left-centerfield. With this catch the fans are on their feet. Jim Abbott has a no-hitter with two outs in the ninth!

Abbott tugged on his cap and turned toward home plate to face his final Cleveland Indians batter, second baseman Carlos Baerga. After a first-pitch strike, he aimed a slider low and away from the left-handed hitter.

From that point, Trautwig’s voice, booming through televisions across the nation, told the rest of the story.

And a ground ball to short, Velarde. He did it! He did it! No-hitter for Jim Abbott! Jim Abbott throws a no-hitter and shuts out the Indians four to nothing. Mobbed by his teammates …

The Yankee faithful exploded.

Abbott stood on the mound with his arms raised high and throngs of his pinstriped teammates surrounded him. Catcher Matt Nokes gave his battery-mate a big hug.

That moment, becoming the eighth player in Yankee history to pitch a no-hitter, was the apex of Abbott’s trek to the major leagues during his 10-year career.

This historic moment had come directly on the heels of a horrendous outing only five days earlier against this same Cleveland ball club, pounding Abbott for seven runs on 10 hits in only 3.2 innings.

On this day, though, September 4, 1993, the New York lefty had dominated a lineup stocked with the likes of Baerga, Kenny Lofton, Albert Belle, and highly-touted rookie Manny Ramirez.

Overcoming adversity was a common theme in the life of Jim Abbott: just when everyone told him he couldn’t achieve a feat, Abbott accomplished it, and did it to near perfection.

But to adequately understand this man’s story, it’s best to revert back to the roots of Jim Abbott’s story.

**

Abbott’s journey to perform on baseball’s biggest stage started rather normally, standing in the front yard with a ball, a glove and a dedicated father.

However, there was one glaring distinction between this kid and most other boys trying their luck at America’s favorite pastime.

Mike Abbott had a unique handicap to overcome while teaching his son to play catch: Jim was born with a normal left hand like most children, but lacked a right hand.

At the age of four, he received a prosthetic hook to compensate for his missing hand, but within weeks the toddler had ditched that option, rather satisfied with his one good arm.

No one ever expected this kid to ever step on a baseball diamond.

No one, that is, except this father and son.

An unprecedented dual-sport threat

Mike, an Anheuser-Busch salesman, and his wife Kathy, a local attorney, were determined to downplay his disability and give their son every chance to integrate normally into their community in Flint.

The pair went out and purchased a typical right-handed baseball mitt, and Mike set his plan into action.

Finding the perfect transition from throwing to catching didn’t come without taking a few baseballs to the face, but eventually he grew accustomed to his distinctive fielding routine.

His windup began with the glove resting on the right forearm, and as Abbott released the ball with the left hand, he would slip it into the mitt to assume his regular fielding position. Once he had fielded a batted ball, Abbott would tuck the glove under his right arm and extract the ball with his left hand to complete the play.

He would spend hours practicing this routine at home by bouncing a ball off a brick wall, making the switch, fielding and throwing again.

With time this transition became seamless. 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. I kept talking to him and hoped that he’d make the right decision which I thought was coming to school, whether it was Michigan or not.”

After a few weeks of discussion with Middaugh, his parents and the Blue Jays organization, Abbott decided to capitalize on his opportunity to become a Wolverine — his journey to the big leagues would first have to wind through Ann Arbor.

“I went back-and-forth a little bit, but I wanted to go to Michigan, that was my dream,” Abbott said. “To have professional baseball as an opportunity was very cool and exciting for a small window of time that summer, but … I was more flirting with the idea of playing professional baseball at that point. I was very flattered by the attention, and I think the Blue Jays made a serious approach, but both maturity-wise and physically, I needed to go to school.”

Welcome to Ann Arbor

Only months later, Abbott stood in the outfield at Ray Fisher Stadium, shagging fly balls during batting practice.

The lanky freshman looked at the players around him, faces that he’d never imagined he’d play alongside, and then he looked back to the fence behind him — the wall that would later carry a large emblem reading ‘Abbott 31’ in his honor.

He was in awe.

“It really was just a dream come true,” Abbott said of his arrival at Michigan. “I know it sounds really corny, but it really was true in my case. I really thought that if I didn’t play baseball beyond the University of Michigan, I still would’ve been very proud of my accomplishments.”

Not only was the opportunity surreal, but Abbott also feels that he couldn’t have been matched up with a better group of teammates at Michigan.

“The class of seniors when I was a freshman was a tremendous class of guys,” Abbott said. “Casey Close, Scott Kamieniecki, — guys who really took me under their wing and were just phenomenal.”

He forged a special bond with Kamieniecki in quick fashion. The pair roomed together on road trips during the 1986 season, and eight years later they would reunite to headline the Yankees’ pitching staff.

In Ann Arbor, every player and follower was a fan of the talented left-hander purely based on his performance on the field, but he still had to gain his respect around the league.

Abbott had to prove his fielding competence even at the collegiate level — Middaugh was aware of that, so he did everything he could to help the freshman out, including dressing him up with full protective padding.

“We put Jim in hockey equipment and hit balls right back at him so that he’d be prepared and wouldn’t hurt himself in a game,” Middaugh said. “Being a great athlete like he was, he adapted really well. But we also brought the corners in — the third baseman and first baseman — to try and discourage people from bunting, but even if they did Jim could adequately field it.”

In a game against North Carolina, Michigan’s skipper called on Abbott to shut down a feisty Tar Heels squad in a tie ballgame, but it wasn’t his pitching that was put to the test.

Inheriting a two-out situation with a runner on third, the Wolverine freshman hardly broke a sweat while getting out of the jam.

After his first pitch, the catcher lobbed the baseball back to the mound. Suddenly, chaos consumed the playing field.

Just as the catcher released the ball, North Carolina coach Mike Roberts sent his runner on a mad dash to home plate, certain that Abbott wouldn’t be able to make the catch, transition, and throw in time to keep the run from scoring.

But once again, Abbott did it.

He easily cut down the runner sliding into home, ending the inning. Michigan scored in the next inning, earning Abbott his well-deserved first collegiate victory.

Abbott finished his first year with a 6-2 record, including earning a late victory to clinch the Big Ten title.

After his sophomore campaign ended with continued success, namely a 9-3 season on the slab, word of Michigan’s unique talent had not only gotten out — Jim Abbott’s name was now a buzzword in the sports realms.

He was given the Golden Spikes Award in 1987, a token honoring one amateur baseball player who exhibits tremendous athletic prowess.

The 20-year-old junior was genuinely flattered by the attention, but he had another goal in mind. He aimed to carry his Wolverines to the College World Series that next season.

“It was a nice honor,” Abbott said. “To receive that kind of award is special, and to represent Michigan — a northern school, not necessarily known as a baseball school — that’s something pretty cool.”

But on March 7, 1988, his baseball season was interrupted by another nomination. This time it was for the James E. Sullivan Award, a yearly recognition of the nation’s top amateur athlete.

He didn’t have a chance to win this one, he thought.

No baseball player had ever won, and no team-sport athlete had won since basketball great Bill Walton in 1973. But Abbott, amidst the chiding of teammates, took the trip alongside his parents to Indianapolis for the banquet where a winner would be announced.

“I went, but it really was a lark though,” Abbott said. “I was honored to be nominated for the award, but while I enjoyed the ceremony I really felt like a throw-in.“

The Sullivan Award committee stunned everyone by selecting Abbott over a field that included eventual NBA superstar David Robinson among others.

To this day, Abbott remains the sole baseball player with a Sullivan Award to his credit in the 80-year history of the award.

“When they announced my name I was shocked, I couldn’t believe it,” Abbott said. “I was proud of that. It’s a very significant award, and you appreciate it more and more as the years go on.”

Once back in Ann Arbor, the medals and honors didn’t stop piling up, as Abbott was given the Jesse Owens Big Ten Male Athlete of the Year award.

Frankly, he was running out of room and patience; his real desire was to get out of his formal-wear, don his white uniform, tie up his black Nikes and return to the mound.

When the No. 31 came back onto the rubber, its presence was feared. Abbott finished up his junior year with a superb 11-3 win-loss differential and led Michigan to another Big Ten title.

His dream to take the Wolverines to college baseball’s biggest stage — Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Nebraska and the College World Series — ended prematurely, but the pitcher had much else to look forward to as the MLB Draft Day approached.

With a composite 26-8 record at Michigan, along with his 3.03 ERA, he was at the top of most draft boards, yet some still worried that his handicap would hinder him at the sport’s highest level.

But the California Angels didn’t flinch, selecting Abbott with the eighth overall pick of the 1988 amateur draft — a full 35 rounds earlier than Toronto’s bid in 1985.

Abbott had no doubt about whether or not he was prepared for the bright lights of the Big Leagues, and the decision to forgo his senior season didn’t faze the young man.

The decision was clear: hello California, good-bye Ann Arbor.

“It was time for me professionally to try baseball,” Abbott said. “I had competed at the top levels of amateur baseball, and there comes a time where it is just right to go.

“To play with some of the players I played with, played under coach Middaugh, it’s something that I’ve carried with me for my entire life. The proudest aspects of my life, to be honest, are to have gone to the University of Michigan and to have played baseball there.”

Finding worldwide recognition

As his college career wrapped up, Abbott received an offer to take his pitching to a much larger venue: the 1988 Summer Olympic Games.

He had led the US National team to a silver medal in the Pan-American Games a year prior — becoming the first American pitcher to garner a win on Cuban soil in a quarter of a century.

The American players had been treated like celebrities in the charged environment and none more so than Abbott.

“At that point, none of their players were allowed to leave Cuba to play in the Major Leagues, so that put a lot of intrigue into the series,” Abbott said. “Fidel Castro came to the game the first night, we had a chance to shake his hand. It was kind of a strange feeling.”

When he got his Olympic nod, Abbott never balked at the opportunity.

In the Olympic opening ceremonies, Abbott was asked to lead the American athletes by representing his nation as the flagbearer.

Nothing looked any different when he stepped onto the field in Seoul, South Korea — his left arm was just as lights-out as ever. In the gold medal game, coach Mark Marquess slated Abbott to face the Japanese National team.

Nine innings later, Abbott had done it again. After a slow grounder to Robin Ventura at third, a toss across the diamond sealed a 5-3 victory and ended Japan’s threat, Abbott jumped up and down on the mound in pure elation.

“To be out there on the field, to be able to pitch that game, you know I can’t even think about it,” Abbott said, reflecting on his complete game, seven-hitter. “It was just a game for me back then, but now I think about the real importance of it. That was the best team experience I ever had in the game of baseball, and it was just unsurpassed.”

Moving on to the Majors

When he reported to spring training in March of 1989, Abbott wasn’t expected to make the Angels’ Major League squad for at least a few years.

But the Angels took no time in turning their newest acquisition into a true member of the California Angels pitching staff.

Abbott was given his own slot in the California rotation — only the fifteenth player in history to make his professional debut at the major leagues, bypassing the minor leagues altogether.

The first start against the Seattle Mariners wasn’t pretty, as Abbott got roughed up for six runs, three earned, in 4.2 innings, but Angel fans still rose to their feet to offer a standing ovation as he walked off of the mound and into the dugout.

True to form, Abbott shut down his doubters the next chance he got.

He ultimately finished out his rookie season with a 12-12 record and an ERA of 3.92.

As he reflects on his improbable placement in the majors, as well as his whirlwind trip across the country in a year’s time, Abbott tries to maintain perspective.

“It’s hard to describe just how fast things were happening at that time in my life,” Abbott said. “I was just doing what I loved to do in pitching. It’s hard to imagine that all my friends were still back in Ann Arbor going to classes and I was playing in the Major Leagues.”

Taking on bright lights and booming bats

Later in his debut season, the Angels traveled to Michigan to take on the floundering Detroit Tigers.

Abbott had been to countless games at Tiger Stadium, taking in the festivities at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, but he never imagined he’d actually take the field there one day.

In the second game of a three-game series, Abbott was handed the ball. He stood on the mound, looked around at all the familiar sights, hometown faces and set to work.

He had watched these same Tigers players perform for years, and now he was standing just 60 feet away.

After pitching seven innings of three-run ball, Abbott picked up his sixth victory of the season, and the crowd couldn’t have been happier for the hometown hero.

“Coming to Tiger Stadium for the first time was something really special,” Abbott said. “Some of my college teammates and coaches came. It was pretty crazy to be 21 years old and have all those things happening so quickly.”

His former coach couldn’t help but reminisce.

“Sitting there and watching him play just brought back memories of him coming in as a freshman, adapting to the academics, and going on the field and competing,” Middaugh said. “All of the sudden, he was now pitching on a big league club, so it was just a fascinating thing for me to see.”

Within the next two years, he had transformed from a greenhorn lefty into a Cy Young-contending pitcher, as his 18-11 record, alongside a 2.89 ERA, earned him third place in the voting for the league’s top pitcher.

Given another two years, Abbott had grown into a true veteran, and a trade to the Yankees had given him a new home, one laden with history and tradition.

That relocation set him up for the greatest game of his career, September 4, 1993, when the eyes of the nation watched Jim Abbott, the one-armed pitcher, no-hit the Cleveland Indians.

Abbott still struggles to describe his emotions as he saw the ninth inning close.

“Elation,” Abbott said, trailing off. “Just to make the pitch and see that grounder. The tension had been building all game, and to see that final out and the celebration, it was just unbelievable.”

But his career was by no means a cakewalk. Thanks to playing on a few lowly teams, the lifetime 87-109 record won’t earn him a spot into the Cooperstown, N.Y. — nor will his 2-18 record and 7.48 ERA in 1996, his final full season. Yet, coming from the most humble of roots, Abbott is thrilled with what his career afforded him.

In all sincerity, Abbott will only admit one regret, and that is to have never known championship baseball.

“I was disappointed that I never played in the playoffs,” Abbott said. “I would have loved to have known that level of excitement and the atmosphere.”

Returning to Ann Arbor

Prior to a game against Michigan State on April 18, 2009, Abbott once again found himself on the field at Ray Fisher Stadium, but this time he wasn’t in uniform.

His jersey was there, but it was in a glass frame.

Standing alongside his wife and two young daughters, Abbott shook the hand of current Michigan coach Rich Maloney and looked around the place one more time. His former number had been placed up on the outfield wall, surrounded by the names of four other Wolverine greats: Moby Benedict, Bill Freehan, Don Lund, and Ray Fisher.

“Having my number retired was one of the real highlights of my career,” Abbott said. “I can’t really describe how much it meant to go to school there and have that opportunity, but to think that my number sits on the outfield there is truly mind-blowing to me. I’m as proud of that as anything.”

He stood at the pitcher’s mound with a microphone and spoke to the crowd for a few minutes, thanking family, old teammates and former coaches.

One of the highlights for the honoree was that Middaugh attended the ceremony, paying tribute to his former standout pitcher.

Greeting his mentor and coach brought back a wave of emotions and memories.

“Coach Middaugh gave me a great opportunity, believing in a kid from Flint Central,” Abbott said. “I didn’t come from a baseball hotbed by any means, and he gave me a chance to pitch as a freshman. It meant a lot to me that he came back to the jersey retirement ceremony.”

After the formalities had ceased, Abbott took his final step onto the rubber and delivered the ceremonial first pitch of the game.

**

Today, Jim Abbott strolls across the stage — no longer dressed in California’s gray and red, nor is he donning the infamous pinstripes synonymous with Yankee baseball.

This time he is dressed in a black ensemble: suit pants, a blazer and polished black shoes.

The Nikes are gone. The cap is gone and much of his hair is gone. But some things haven’t left this man: his smile and general aura of contentment.

The stage has become his second home; he looks just as comfortable there as he did pacing the mounds across the majors. Sure, this auditorium has none of the prestige that old Yankee Stadium carried, but no one seems to mind.

Abbott is beaming, sharing his stories — he has tons of them. He talks about the no-hitter, playing football and memories of teammates.

The well-dressed speaker tells of triumphs, of tragedies and of perseverance, but in all he speaks of satisfaction.

He laughs. The audience laughs. The former ballplayer speaks with the wisdom of an elder, but still looks comfortable in his 42-year-old frame.

He invites a man from the crowd to join him on stage; the pair tosses a baseball back and forth as Abbott describes how he learned to play the sport he loves.

This too is home.

Abbott’s new title refers to him as a motivational speaker, but he likes to shy away from that label.

“I know there is something of a slick connotation that goes along with motivational speaking,” Abbott said. “But I didn’t really know what I wanted to do after baseball. As well-rounded as you hope to be after going to the University of Michigan, my eggs were all in one basket — I wanted to be a baseball player — and when you’re done all of a sudden you don’t know what to do. So motivational speaking was just an opportunity for me to get out there and tell my story to help others.”

Now residing in Southern California with his family, Abbott has taken to doing everything he can to aid others with similar disabilities.

Abbott never considered himself to be a handicapped, and now he is encouraging others to find a new outlook for their adversities.

In the last few weeks, he has been in contact with a one-handed softball player from Grand Rapids, as well as a doctor in Aruba who is coaching a young boy who was born without a hand.

“I believe that the challenges that we face in life can make us better,” Abbott said. “I’m not saying that they’re easy, and struggle is painful … but if lacking a right hand pushed me in any way, then I have to say I’m thankful for that.”

And after a lifetime of being tested and tried, Abbott has proven that his physical limitations mean nothing — he dreamed a dream that countless young boys dream, and he didn’t need two hands to achieve it.

He is an inspiration to those near and far, and not only because of his handicap, his Michigan roots, his success, or his no-hitter. Jim Abbott became one of the most memorable ballplayers to ever play the game.

To use Trautwig’s words, in anything and everything, he did it.


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