Twenty years later, Jim Abbott continues to pitch inspiration

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By Jeremy Summitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 10, 2013

A 16-year-old high-school student walked up to Jim Abbott to ask him about the no-hitter he tossed for the New York Yankees. Looking up, their eyes met, smiles were exchanged and the connection was instantaneous. The kid reached for a handshake with his left hand.

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“When I finally met him, there was a bunch of other people in the room, but it seemed like it was only me and him,” said Joe Rogers. “He had an aura about him that was really inspiring.”

It was just another passionate performance delivered by Abbott, who pitched for Michigan from 1985-88 before being drafted by the team then known as the California Angels in the 1988 Major League Baseball draft. But this time, no sliders or slow curveballs were involved — just a smooth speech full of encouragement and inspiration. Rogers was directly in front of Abbott, pressed between his uncle and family friend, after one of Abbott’s speaking sessions in Detroit.

Rogers found solace in someone who knew what he was going through, how he felt and what other athletes might have thought. Like Abbott, Rogers is missing his right hand, leaving the left-handed gesture inevitable. Both were born with the same birth defect. Rogers asked Abbott how he pulled off the no-hitter as he itched for one last ounce of motivation from a living, breathing example of how to defy the highest odds.

Rogers grew up in Marysville, Mich., just 64 miles east of Abbott. He fell in love with hockey and was crazy enough to sign up for goaltender. He excelled at the position with one hand.

Abbott has a similar story.

He would pelt a bouncy ball off a wall with his left hand and field it, again and again, with the same body part. When he got sick of that routine, he’d pick out a single brick on the wall and pitch a rubber baseball right at it. He’d aim for the brick in the bottom corner, and then the one in the top-left. He rarely missed.

Abbott didn’t always dream of playing baseball professionally, even collegiately, but he always wanted to attend Michigan. What was taken away from him at birth was given back in more ways than he could have imagined.

***

Bo Schembechler once told Abbott that he could play quarterback at Michigan. Instead, his retired baseball number, 31, is displayed on the outfield wall at Ray Fischer Stadium.

Abbott’s wish became reality when he was offered a scholarship to play baseball for the Wolverines in 1985 by former Michigan coach Bud Middaugh. He helped lead Michigan to Big Ten Championships in 1986 and 1987 and was named Big Ten Athlete of the Year in his senior season.

At Flint (Mich.) Central High School, Abbott took snaps under center at football practice and got a chance to play in several games his senior year as a backup to Randy Levels, who went on to play at Central Michigan. His performance at quarterback prompted a CBS sports crew to interview Abbott for a halftime broadcast during an NFL Thanksgiving Day game. He played basketball too, but baseball became his first love long before his high-school days began.

Abbott pitched lights out. His first start as a Little League pitcher resulted in a no-hitter, and he boasted a six-game stretch with an earned-run average of 0.00.

But baseball was about much more than wins and strikeouts.

“I started training for (baseball), and it was the one thing where I really felt like I could be who I was and battle back and try to prove myself in a lot of ways that I looked for as a kid,” Abbott said. “It really was my outlet.”

Chuck Johnson noticed. As a sports reporter from The Flint Journal, Johnson came to watch 12-year old Abbott in a Little League game when word had spread about a young pitching phenom in the area.

The encounter ended with a small, quarter-page article in the Sunday sports section. But the lasting effects of being a semi-famous pre-teen, just for a day, re-energized the dream to play baseball at the highest level.

“It was the first time I really felt like I was doing something noteworthy or that people were noticing,” Abbott said. “It was a small human-interest story but it really changed my perspective on how I looked at myself.”

And at age 12, Abbott started to realize a lot more about himself than the average high-school student. His gifted left arm and only hand were blossoming right in front of him, and everyone around him began to catch glimpses of what could be the beginning of an improbable journey.

***

Rogers now plays hockey at Notre Dame as a backup goaltender. Another kid without a right hand, from north Metro Detroit, participating in Division I athletics. The inspiration he received from Abbott never died. They still speak with each other every month just to check in on one another.

What he took away from Abbott’s speeches the most, he said, was how to handle all sorts of situations. Life throws a lot at you, and Abbott tells people they have to know how to hit it.

“You have to hit the curveballs,” Rogers said.

Abbott’s disability gave back to him on Sunday, Sept. 4, 1993, when he was the one throwing all the curveballs. The Yankees defeated the Cleveland Indians, 4-0. Abbott captivated an entire nation, rather than a few hundred kids, when he pitched one of the most improbable no-hitters in major league history that day.

In his previous start, Abbott was rocked for seven earned runs in 3.2 innings against the Indians.

“The next few days, leading up to the (Saturday) start, there was a lot of anxiousness and trepidation,” Abbott said. “I was really excited to get back on the mound and try to redeem myself.”

What a difference a day makes.

Abbott loved day games. That overcast, rainy Saturday morning, he took a cab to the ballpark from Manhattan, got to the “nice and cozy” old Yankee clubhouse and began his pregame routine.

The routine was nothing different from the last time he battled through Cleveland’s lineup with the likes of then-rookie Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Kenny Lofton and Albert Belle staring back at him. He’d first go to the training room and get to a quiet place. There, he could browse the lineup and visualize how exactly the game might go, batter by batter. Surely, he thought, what happened last time on the hill would be avoided this time around.

Uneasiness and nerves almost got the best of Abbott that day, and he’d be the first to admit it.

“I think I was effectively wild, to be honest with you,” Abbott said. “I didn’t have spot-on, pinpoint control that day.”

Abbott, in fact, walked five batters and struck out just three that Saturday. What made the difference all afternoon was his aggression.

“I think that was part of the key to having some success that day,” Abbott said. “I was aggressive. I was trying to really trust it and really try to let it go and let the stuff take over.”

He tried something new, mixing in slow curveballs to keep the Indians honest. Abbott credits his catcher, Matt Nokes, with the idea in the scouting report. With hardly any strikeouts, infield ground balls came in flurries. None more important, of course, than the 27th out that rolled directly to shortstop Randy Velarde, thanks to a slider that tailed toward the outside part of the plate. Velarde whipped the ball over to the glove of Abbott’s best friend, first baseman Don Mattingly.

Game over. Let the party in New York begin.

Abbott described the feeling of watching the ball hit Mattingly’s glove as “elation.”

“The excitement of the stands and the excitement of your teammates, the unbelievably, stunning suddenness that it’s over,” Abbott said. “That countdown is over, and there it is and it looks like it might happen, you just can’t believe it. You just can’t believe it and you’re beside yourself.”

Two decades later, it still gets to him.

Mattingly took Abbott out to dinner that night at Cronie’s, a popular place for New York athletes. Abbott’s meal was paired with a bottle of champagne at Mattingly’s expense.

“That’s what a no-hitter is all about,” Abbott said. “It’s a personal achievement, but it’s a shared moment with your team who had so much to do with it. Guys like Donnie made it all the more special.”

***

Abbott’s dad was the one that inspired the phrase, “What is taken away once is given back twice.”

His parents were just teenagers when Abbott was born, but that single sentence was repeated as far back as he can remember.

“My parents were my heroes,” Abbott said. “They could have gone a lot of different directions. Yet, they didn’t keep me away from experience. They wanted me to get out there and get involved and not shy away from the real world, so to speak.”

And that’s what Abbott inspired Rogers to do. Most conversations after his speeches are quite general, Abbott says. But the one with Rogers remains the most vivid, reminiscent of both men’s unforgettable accomplishments.

Abbott’s father’s phrase rings true through the no-hitter. He laid an egg against the Indians one Sunday and came back with an uppercut the following Saturday.

It resonates with every child with or without a disability in the jam-packed auditoriums that he speaks in every week. The kids talk about what it’s like to have someone to look to who understands their situation and scattered emotions.

“I just try to share in the idea that so much more is possible than we sometimes think,” Abbott said.

Abbott’s parents simply allowed him to be a kid. Being born differently, there is no denying that there were bumps in the road. By giving back what he received through his parents, Abbott strives to shatter the bumps that similar children face every day in sports and school.

He paved the way for Rogers, multiple times. Rogers was so enthralled the first time he heard Abbott speak that he made plans to be at his next speaking session in Michigan. To this day, Rogers uses quotes from Abbott’s speeches as motivation before he takes the ice in South Bend.

It was never easy, for Rogers, for Abbott or for anyone to fully move past a physical disability.

“I think the most difficult part is maintaining belief in yourself,” Abbott said. “I think that when you’re different, you have a tendency to make concessions and try to fit in and sometimes you can lose your way a bit in terms of who you really are because you want people to like you.”

Not too surprisingly, Abbott’s speaking career began rolling while he was still tossing pitches. He estimates that he spoke with at least one kid with a physical disability on every road trip of his MLB career.

“When I meet kids today who have similar challenges, I just try to encourage them to find something that they love to do,” Abbott said. “Not something that somebody else thinks they can do or tells them that they should do. Find something they want to do, and stay true to where they want to go in life and what they want to do.”

That was baseball for Abbott. His dad inspired him with a single sentence, and in return, Abbott has given back to many more people than the children he’s talked to. He enthralled the entire baseball nation through his stints with the Angels, Chicago White Sox, Milwaukee Brewers and the Yankees.

Teams consistently bunted to him to test his one-handed fielding ability, but he’d drop the glove and record an out barehanded. Playing in the American League, he was never forced to bat with the exception of interleague play. That didn’t matter, though.

Current Yankees closer, Mariano Rivera, recalls watching Abbott hit home runs in batting practice during Rivera’s rookie year of spring training, according to The New York Times. Abbott chuckles about the fact that Rivera somehow remembers the scene.

He still says that wearing a Michigan baseball jersey is one of his greatest achievements to date. That, right alongside his speaking career, are what he calls his most rewarding decisions.

Abbott has given back what he’s received through baseball. But for his father, himself and his audiences, Abbott won’t stop speaking until he’s given back twice as much as he’s inherited.