Bob is a longtime member of the Florida sports media, having served as a reporter and copy editor for more than 30 years. His true sports passion, however, is the history of the various games, exhibited by his in-depth book reviews and hobby of collecting cards and other sports memorabilia. He blogs for TBO.com on both subjects, transferring his work for the Tampa Tribune to the realm of cyberspace.
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Abbott’s ‘Imperfect’ a perfectly uplifting story
Posted Mar 31, 2012 by Bob D'Angelo
Updated Mar 31, 2012 at 08:07 PM
As I read former major-league pitcher Jim Abbott’s autobiography, I thought of my next-door neighbor when I was a teen growing up in South Florida. Like Abbott, my friend also was born without a hand, and yet it never stopped him from getting involved in the baseball, Wiffle Ball, touch (and tackle) football and basketball games we played.
Like my friend, who was a few years younger than me, Abbott never asked for any favors — only a chance to compete. But even someone as grounded and tough as Abbott had to pause when his 5-year-old daughter asked him a question as he spoke to her class during her preschool’s Career Day.
“Dad, do you like your little hand?”
It’s an innocent, sweetly posed question, and the perfect opening to Abbott’s autobiography, “Imperfect: An Improbable Life,” by Jim Abbott and Tim Brown (Ballantine Books, hardback, $26, 286 pages).
“My little hand was my motivation. It was my pride and my insecurity, my antagonism and my empathy,” Abbott writes.
The website www.baseball-reference.com has this unique listing for Abbott: Bats: Left, Throws: left, Fields: Left as well.
Abbott was born without his right hand but had a burning passion to play baseball. He earned All-American honors at Michigan, won a gold medal for the United States at the 1988 Summer Olympics, and threw a no-hitter for the New York Yankees, the highlight of his 10-year major-league career.
He tells his story with Brown, who currently writes for Yahoo! Sports and has more than 20 years experience as a newspaper reporter covering major-league baseball. He seamlessly weaves Abbott’s life experiences with his baseball career.
Chapters in the book alternate between Abbott’s life story and a pitch-by-pitch account of his September 1993 no-hitter at Yankee Stadium against the Cleveland Indians.
His story focuses on his solid family life at home, with parents who “saw hope for me, and then for others.” Sports was a way for Abbott to fit in and belong with other kids his age, giving him the confidence to stop hiding his right hand in his right front pocket.
Abbott’s career record was 87-108 with four major-league teams from 1989 to 1999, including a 2-18 mark in 1996 with the Angels. But he won 18 games in 1991 with the Angels and finished third in balloting for the American League Cy Young Award.
And in case you’re wondering, he only made nine errors during his career, with three of them coming in his rookie season.
Certainly, Abbott was viewed as different and faced questions about his hand during his career, noting how newspaper articles would refer to him as the “pitcher with one hand.” His catcher in high school nicknamed him “One-Point-Five.” Others in elementary school called him Captain Hook because of the steel appendage he wore.
Abbott had no problem with the nicknames or the repetitive questions. But at times he drew a line, like when a New York bartender asked him to sign a baseball that had been signed by Pete Gray, the one-armed outfielder for the St. Louis Browns during World War II. Abbott flatly refused to sign and would not be moved despite the bartender’s prodding.
What did move Abbott were the children and parents who would wait for him outside the clubhouse, seeking a kind word or encouragement.
“I didn’t expect the stories they told, or the distance they traveled to tell them, or the desperation revealed in them,” Abbott writes. “They were shy and beautiful, and they were loud and funny, and they were, like me, somehow imperfectly built.
“And, like me, they had parents nearby, parents who willed themselves to believe that this accident of circumstance or nature was not a life sentence, and that the spirits inside these tiny bodies were greater than the sums of their hands and feet.”
That’s some strong, heartfelt prose, and if it doesn’t touch a chord with you, then re-examine your cynicism.
Some of his teammates would shake their heads when Abbott left the clubhouse to speak with these fans. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner once complained that Abbott sometimes struggled on the mound because these meetings distracted him.
Abbott ignored the critics and forged ahead. “I never felt like I did enough,” he writes.
Thanks to the kindness he received while growing up, Abbott was more than willing to share hope and encouraging words with others.
“There was a lot of forgiveness out there,” he writes. “For every five sneering kids on every sandlot field who couldn’t imagine how I could possibly help their team, there was a man willing to teach me to tie my shoes.”
These anecdotes are the best parts of the book. Certainly, baseball fans will enjoy the play-by-play, and Abbott’s dealings with agent Scott Boras and sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman. But what makes this book interesting is Abbott’s candor about his life, his upbringing and the people who made the biggest impact. At times the reader can feel his anguish when Abbott realizes his playing days are over, or his anxiety over whether his children would be born with the same condition as him (they weren’t).
It helped that Abbott had people to guide him through his times of uncertainty.
“I searched the length of my right arm and saw emptiness. (My parents) saw potential,” Abbott writes. “I suspected limitation. They saw an opportunity for resiliency, of body and spirit.”
Abbott refused to accept limitations. That’s why this uplifting book is such a strong and inspiring read.