The inspiration of Jim Abbott

Former Major League Baseball pitcher Jim Abbott was one of the award recipients at The 2016 Thurman Munson Awards in New York City on Tuesday night. The award which remembers the late, great Yankees captain and catcher, was given at a gala event for the AHRC New York City Foundation, which assists children and adults with disabilities. The Thurman Munson Awards Dinner has raised more than $14 million for programs that serve New York City children and adults who have intellectual and developmental disabilities.

I remember Jim Abbott mostly for his on-field performance on September 4, 1993 when he tossed a no-hitter against a very solid Cleveland Indians lineup that included the likes of Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Kenny Lofton, and Carlos Baerga. To throw a no-hitter is one thing: to do it when you don’t have a right hand is quite another. Abbott’s right arm ends about where his wrist should be. He doesn’t have a right hand, just a loose flap of skin at the end of his underdeveloped arm. Watching him on the mound was one of the truly most extraordinary things I had ever seen. Seeing him succeed at the level he did was mind-blowing.

When preparing to pitch the ball, Abbott would rest his glove on the end of his right forearm. After releasing the ball, he would quickly slip his hand into the glove, usually in time to field any balls that a two-handed pitcher would be able to field. Then he would secure the glove between his right forearm and body, slip his hand out of the glove, and remove the ball from the glove, usually in time to throw out the runner at first or sometimes even start a double play. The remarkable hand-eye coordination that would allow him to do with one hand what others did with two is remarkable.

Abbott faced the typical challenges that any child with a disability would encounter. The stares and questioning would be endless. An early love for sports turned into an unlikely drive to play baseball. Abbott would have success on the diamond from the beginning, pitching a no-hitter in his first Little League game. A solid high school career landed him at the University of Michigan, where his development eventually led to winning the Golden Spikes Award, given annually to the top amateur baseball player.

Abbott would add to his list of accolades with a complete game victory over Japan for the U.S. Olympic Team, which he still lists today as the greatest thrill of his career. He then set his sights on the professional ranks, being selected by the California Angels with the eighth pick in the first round of the amateur draft in 1988. Every time he moved up a level, the skeptics were out in droves questioning whether a one-armed player could keep performing at the next level.

Abbott wasted no time quieting these critics by making the Angels opening day roster the following spring, completely forgoing development time in the minors. Up until that time, only 15 players had made their professional debut in the major leagues since the establishment of the amateur draft in 1965. Abbott was suddenly put into the spotlight as everyone rushed to see him pitch. Now those stares from his youth were in awe and amazement. The dozen victories in 1989 were the most major league wins by a pitcher in his first professional season since long-forgotten Ernie Wingard won 13 in 1924 for the St. Louis Browns.

In 1991, Abbott won 18 games, posted a nifty 2.89 earned run average, and finished third in the American League Cy Young voting behind Roger Clemens. His place was now legitimized in MLB lore not because of the odds he was overcoming, but because of his actual accomplishments on the field. He would go on to play 10 seasons, winning 87 games in the process.

Watching Abbott pitch in 1993, I remember him for his performance on the field against the Indians, not because of what he couldn’t bring to the table. Fielding the come-backers, bunt attempts, starting double plays all looked routine. Abbott made it look easy and showed everyone watching that anything you set your mind to and put an honest effort towards can be accomplished. The only obstacles holding you back are self made.

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