AirTalk for May 17, 2012

The improbable life and success of pitcher Jim Abbott

Larry Mantle and Jim Abbott

KPCC

Larry Mantle with Jim Abbott, a major league pitcher who was born without his right hand.

Born without a right hand, Jim Abbott not only defied the odds of becoming a Major League pitcher but challenged the impossible by throwing a no-hitter.

In his book, "Imperfect: An Improbable Life," Abbott retraces his path from his days as an All-American at Michigan, to his pivotal role in winning the 1988 Olympic Gold Medal for the U.S. national team, to the seminal moment of his career when he threw a no-hitter in 1993 for the New York Yankees. However, as is the case with any Major League career, Abbott had his share of adversity as well. After a season of difficult losses, he was released from the team and found himself once again on the outside trying to get in.

Abbott said he still feels wary about showing the missing hand in public sometimes, but he's grown more comfortable as time has passed.

"I like my little hand. I haven't always liked it, it hasn't always been easy, but my hand taught me important lessons in life. With belief and determination, the challenges in life don't have to hold us back," he said.

According to the former Angels pitcher, his hand gave him the drive and ambition to make the Major Leagues. "A pitcher's mound, a baseball field was my place to fight back, to move past those low expectations and what other people thought of me," he added.

But Abbott said that he didn't grow up with the dream to pursue sports in order to debunk peoples' expectations. He said that going to an outdoor basketball hoop and shooting, imagining himself making the last shots in important games was something that every kid did. He treated baseball the same way.

"We lived in an end unit, in a town house in Flint, Michigan that had a brick wall, and I used to draw a strike zone on that brick wall, and take my glove and a rubber coated baseball and fire at that strike zone, and it was meditative," he recalled. "It was fun. I was working on trying to hit a single brick over here, the one up on the upper right hand corner, the one on the lower left hand corner."

Abbott said that after joining the Major Leagues and getting lauded for playing well, he thought he could move past the label of being 'the one-handed pitcher.' But the label never really left. Meeting fans with similar afflictions was a constant reminder of his missing hand, something Abbott said was both troubling and inspirational.

"It was a fine line to walk. Sitting in the clubhouse, I'd be with my teammates either playing cards or listening to music, and I'd get the tap on the shoulder and they'd say 'Jim there's a family down there.' And I didn't always want to walk down there and meet them in that corridor ... and yet, when I saw the look in those parents' eyes, and when I saw the young kids, ... I'd walk back into that club house renewed," he said.

In this insightful memoir, Abbott and his coauthor, L.A. Times writer Tim Brown, offer an honest look at the pitcher’s struggles related to his disability and his need to conceal feelings of alienation even as he played baseball in front of thousands. Throughout his career of highs and lows, Jim’s greatest honor was providing counsel and advice to the countless families waiting on the other side of the diamond with similar disabilities, an obligation that he continues to carry on today.

Guest:

Jim Abbott, author of “Imperfect: An Improbable Life,” (co-authored by Tim Brown) (Ballantine Books) and a former Major League pitcher with the Los Angeles Angels and the New York Yankees.


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