Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 12:27 PM
In the summer of 1985, Don Welke, a baseball scout for the Toronto Blue Jays, drove to Flint, Mich., to check out a high school pitching prospect. After silently observing the player for a few hours, he summarized his thoughts in his notebook as follows:
"Left-handed pitcher. 6-3, 180. Great arm. Good change-up. Makings of a breaking ball. Natural cutter. Big competitor. Good athlete. Plays football. Good hitter."
Then he added a final line: "Has no right hand."
Jim Abbott was born without a right hand. He taught himself to pitch while wearing a right-handed fielder's glove over the end of his deformed arm. After releasing his pitches, he would deftly switch the glove to his left hand and be ready to field. Throughout his career, batters would try to take advantage of his situation by bunting in circumstances where they normally wouldn't.
Welke's report went to the Blue Jays scouting director, who shared it with the team's general manager (and future Phillies architect) Pat Gillick, who drafted the pitcher in the 36th round of the 1985 draft. Before playing professional baseball, Abbott would first be an all-American at the University of Michigan, the first U.S. pitcher to beat the Cuban national team, and an Olympic gold medalist. Then, in the course of a 10-year pro career, Abbott would fulfill every schoolboy's dream by pitching a no-hitter at home while playing for the Yankees.
Through it all, one thing remained consistent about Abbott. He never wanted sympathy and rejected those who sought to evaluate his performance only in the context of his disability.
Assisted by Tim Brown, Abbott has just penned a candid, self-deprecating, and inspirational memoir, Imperfect, An Improbable Life. I hosted him on my radio program Tuesday, the day of the book's release, and asked him for the takeaway.
"I would like people to know that they're not bound by the circumstances of their life," Abbott told me. "You know, you're not bound by the situation that you may find yourself in right now. With optimism and belief and hard work, amazing things can happen in this world. So many things in my career -- one of the great things about this book -- it showed me that so many of the great experiences and triumphs of my life immediately followed dark times and times that I didn't know that good things could happen."
Abbott and I share a mutual friend, a former Philadelphia roommate of mine named Bruce Fiscus, whose wife is in business with Abbott's spouse. After our interview, Abbott signed books Tuesday night at a Barnes & Noble in Manhattan. Fiscus was there, and he told me of the emotional scene that unfolded when several youngsters with disabilities, one with an artificial limb, wanted Abbott's autograph. After the signing, Abbott joined us for a drink in Midtown. I was eager to buy him a beer and could not stop thinking about a vignette in his book.
In the season that he would throw the no-hitter, he went out one night with two old friends who were visiting players from the Chicago White Sox. They headed for Elaine's on the Upper East Side. The bartender interrupted the three men with a request of Abbott -- would he sign a baseball?
"I accepted the baseball he offered and turned it in my hand. It had been signed by one other player, in faded ink. The name: Pete Gray. I sighed," he writes in Imperfect.
Gray played 77 games in the outfield for the St. Louis Browns in 1945. He had no right arm. Abbott refused to sign the ball.
"I had endeavored to uphold a life above brands that began 'one-armed' or 'one-handed,' and detested the notion of someone displaying or hawking the Jim Abbott/Pete Gray Two Good Arms Between 'Em ball. How awful."
He offered to sign anything else, an offer the bartender refused.
Good news. Tuesday night our bartender in New York City wouldn't let me buy Abbott a beer. The bartender himself beat me to it.
Michael Smerconish writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may contact him via www.smerconish.com.
Sign up for e-mail news updates.