Former Major League pitcher shares inspirational story at benefit in Carmel Valley

Baseball great Jim Abbot speaks at Torrey Pines High School. Photo/Jon Clark
Baseball great Jim Abbot speaks at Torrey Pines High School. Photo/Jon Clark

By Karen Billing

Former Major League pitcher Jim Abbott was born without a right hand but he never let it be an excuse, he never believed he was different and he never let it stop him from accomplishing his dreams.

Abbott shared stories of his inspiring baseball career at Torrey Pines High School on March 6. The event was presented by the Torrey Pines High School Foundation to benefit the TPHS Baseball Program and it turned out to be the most successful fundraiser ever held for the baseball program.

Abbott spoke of the joys of his baseball life, from getting his first baseball card at his locker during spring training as a 21-year-old rookie to the improbable thrill of throwing a no hitter wearing the pinstripes in Yankee Stadium.

Most importantly, he talked about his ability to adapt, a lesson that he believes anyone can apply to everything.

“What’s important is how you respond to challenges because challenge comes to us all,” Abbott said.

When challenge comes, he said the question is always the same: “What are you going to do about it?”

“I believe there is strength and resiliency in all of us,” Abbott said.

A close friend of Torrey Pines’ new head baseball coach Kirk McCaskill, whom he played with in the Angels organization, Abbott now resides in Orange County.

Abbott was raised in Flint, Michigan and was a standout pitcher for Flint Central High School, where he also played quarterback.

He fulfilled a dream of playing baseball for the University of Michigan and won two Big 10 championships in his freshman and junior year. He had a career 26-8 record at Michigan and saw his number retired by the school in 2009.

In 1987 he became the first baseball player to win the Sullivan Award, the top amateur sports award, and played for Team USA in the 1988 Pan American Games, part of the first American team to beat Cuba in Cuba. Abbott was also on the mound at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, pitching a complete game to help the U.S. beat Japan in the gold medal game.

The Angels drafted Abbott eighth overall and he went straight to the Major Leagues without a stop at the minors, enjoying a 12-12 record, the most games won by a rookie without playing in the minors.

He won 18 games one season and finished third in the American League Cy Young votes. In 1993 Abbott threw a no hitter as a member of the New York Yankees.

Last year he released the book “Imperfect: An Improbable Life” with Tim Brown and Abbott works as a motivational speaker, sharing his lessons in the word “Adapt.”

He preaches the lessons of the word “Adapt” and also breaks it down into its component letters.

A for adjustability; D for determination, the courage and awareness to block out negativity; A for accountability, the obligation to make the most out of what we’ve been given; P for perseverance, the refusal to quit; and T for trust, “know what it is that is your strength, follow through without hesitation, without fear, with conviction and trust,” he said.

Abbott learned about adjustability early on as he had to learn how to do things in a new and different way after being born missing his right hand.

“I never wanted to make a big deal about that,” Abbott said. “I knew there were a lot of people in the world that had it worse than me.”

He said it wasn’t always easy — he knew the loneliness of low expectations and he knew what it felt like to be on the outside looking in.

But even in a tough town like Flint, he found generous and open-minded people in his community. He still remembers the teacher who came up with how the could tie his shoes on his own and the football coach who figured out a way he could take a snap using forearm. Those small adjustments represented optimism and a belief that there was another way to do things.

He learned how to throw and catch a baseball with one hand — he demonstrated for the crowd, throwing with a TPHS baseball player, quickly shifting his glove after he threw the ball.

“I was faster without a wedding ring and a sport coat,” Abbott said after the room applauded his quickness.

His adaptation was better than those who had no challenges to overcome—he threw 90 miles per hour as a junior in high school.

Although he didn’t like the attention, the “One-handed pitcher” caught the attention of the nation and his story was featured in the New York Times, Parade Magazine and on a segment on ABC’s “The Wide World of Sports,” narrated by Howard Cosell.

“All these journalists and writers came to Flint and described my play as courageous, motivational and inspiring,” Abbott said. “It was none of those things. I was just doing what I wanted to do and I had great people around me who believed in me.”

He said while people believed in him, there were those that were skeptical or even mean-spirited. He recalls when a kid from a rival school crashed a pep rally before a football game with a sock on his arm to imitate Abbott. Or when a coach in little league yelled at all his players to just bunt it right back at him when he was on the mound.

“They bunted for six batters in a row,” Abbott said, pausing to deliver the punch line like a split finger fastball: “Two innings.”

Those were other people’s efforts to intimidate him or make him feel bad about himself but he never let them.

“Determination is a mental toughness to filter out negativity and influences that push you away from where you want to go,” Abbott said.

Abbott’s Major League memories are priceless.

He spoke of his rookie opening day at Anaheim, where he couldn’t stop smiling because he was in an Angels uniform, they were paying him to wear his Nikes, he had access to unlimited seeds and gum, and on his first day in the league he was involved in a bench-clearing brawl where he came face to face with Carlton Fisk.

“I loved my time in the big leagues, who wouldn’t?” Abbott said.

He said his most memorable times didn’t come out on the beautiful, immaculately mowed baseball fields but often in the dark and dingy corridors outside the clubhouse. He said while he had hoped to shake the label of the “One-handed pitcher,” families started bringing their children to the game who had challenges he couldn’t even begin to describe. And they all wanted to meet him.

He said he didn’t always want to go to those meetings because it reminded him of his own differences that he was trying to move beyond. But then he would see the look in those children’s eyes and see how bound and determined they were to do something special.

“I never walked back to the clubhouse uninspired,” Abbott said.

Those meetings reminded him that he had to make the most of the opportunity he’d been given and not let the circumstances of his life become an excuse.

Abbott said one of the greatest baseball experiences of his life was playing for the USA team at the Olympics. He will never forget the feeling of pitching a complete game and being on the mound for the last out, winning a gold medal.

“We celebrated like stupid baseball players, I was at the bottom, my face in Korean mud with 25 of my best friends on top of me,” Abbott said.

There were also lessons though, in the failures.

After a painful season in which he lost 18 games he was sent to the minors and eventually released. His old manager Buck Rogers called him in the off-season and encouraged him to work on getting back to the big leagues. He worked his way through A-Ball, playing for the Hickory Crawdads in North Carolina, then to the Salem Warthogs, sweated through an Alabama July with the Birmingham Barons and up to Canada with the Calgary Canons. He worked his way back onto the Chicago White Sox and his first night back in the majors had to face the New York Yankees.

His lesson in perseverance resulted in a win and when Yankee Manager Joe Torre flipped a piece of gum at him at the end of the game and said “Welcome back,” it was one of the proudest moments of his career.

The audience at Torrey Pines couldn’t help but get wrapped up in the excitement of the retelling of his perfect game at Yankee Stadium: Momentum growing in the stadium, fans booing every ball called, teammates superstitiously sitting far away from him on the dugout bench, being three innings away from a dream, then six outs away from a dream and then three.

Abbott swears that last out, a hit to shortstop, took a half an hour.

“You can’t believe it’s you,” Abbott said of the celebration that occurred after that perfect game.

Referring to his current work as a motivational speaker, Abbott talked about how one of his most difficult speaking engagements was career day when his daughter was in pre-school. He admits he had made the kids’ eyes glaze over speaking about humility and sportsmanship when his daughter asked a question that stopped him dead in his tracks.

She asked him, “Do you like your little hand?”

The family had never called it that and he never knew how she came up with that or how she perceived him. And he had never really thought about his answer to that question before that moment.

“I said, ‘I do like my little hand. I haven’t always liked it, it hasn’t always been easy but it’s me. It’s pushed me and took me to places that I can’t believe. It’s taught me life is not easy and not always fair,’” Abbott said. “’And it’s taught me that if you believe there’s a way and you make the most of what you’ve been given—and you’ve been given a lot— nothing can stop you. Challenge will come. We know that. But it doesn’t have to hold you back.’”