Jim Abbott was, by all statistical measures, a mediocre Major League pitcher. Over 10 seasons, his lifetime record was 87-108. He had but five .500-plus runs and, besides a fantastic 18-11 finish in 1991, never totaled more than 12 wins. Although his lifetime ERA of 4.25 is digestible, it’s hardly Gooden-esque.
And yet …
There’s something about a man, standing atop a big league mound, armed with but a single hand. That Abbott (an Olympian, a first-round pick, a thrower of a no-hitter) accomplished so much as a lefty (and only a lefty) is remarkable. That he accomplished so much as a lefty (and only a lefty) with poise and grace and humility is beyond remarkable. It’s noteworthy.
Thirteen years after throwing his final pitch with the Milwaukee Brewers, Abbott, 44, had released his autobiography. Written along with the wonderful Tim Brown, Imperfect: An Improbable Life is a truly joyful read; a powerful, uplifting saga of an athlete refusing to let a disability keep him down—even when that disability should, by all logistical measures, prevent him from playing baseball at a high level.
Here, Jim talks Angels, Yankees, hands, Swen Nater and his Young MC ignorance.
Jim Abbott, the Quaz is yours …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Generally speaking, athletes write books while they’re playing and, especially, in the aftermath of a breakthrough. You gained great fame as a rookie one-handed pitcher with the California Angels in 1989. You haven’t played in a major league game in 13 years. So why write a book now?
JIM ABBOTT: Why now? I wasn’t ready write book when I was playing and, even if I was ready, I couldn’t have. The world of professional sports is very sheltered and protective, and to have written a book as an active player would have violated something. I would have had to expose myself and open myself up. Believe me, I had plenty of offers. But I was 28. What did I know? Also, like many people, I’ve had a lot of experiences I’ve had to reconcile. That takes time and maturity. I was finally ready.
J.A.: Well, it wasn’t always constant. It came in and out of focus. There were days and weeks when I never even thought about only having one hand. It never entered my experience. Then there were other periods where it was right up front and in my face. Maybe it was a tease or taunt at a playground; maybe a coach trying to exploit something.
J.P.: There’s no dirt in your book. Like, none. Zero, Zip. I was surprised, because I can’t imagine a publisher or editor wasn’t whispering, “So what you got on Matt Nokes?”
J.A.: You know what? I was surprised, too. I expected that pressure, and it never came. I’m glad, because that wasn’t central to what I was trying to do. I didn’t want it to be, “Hey, this guy did that, and I saw him do this …” Honestly, I didn’t even see that much, and I wouldn’t have felt comfortable with that, anyhow. I wanted to tell a story—my story.
J.A.: I do. It never goes away. It’s there, it’s me and it’s always part of my experience. But it enters my thinking now in other ways than just baseball. The opening chapter of the book is me going to my daughter’s pre-school class to speak. I’m going to talk about my career, but inevitably most of the questions are about my hand. When I go to the airport and I give the TSA agent my license, they double check and look at my hand. So I can’t say it ever goes away. But I’ve more than come to grips with it.
J.P.: Your Major League record is 87-108. On the Baseball Reference website, your numbers compare with forgettables like Steve Trout and Rick Waits. It seems that your one hand has given you a voice others lack? A forum to write a book …
J.A.: That’s definitely fair, and I’m appreciative of that. As a baseball player I always wanted to be judged on the standard of my pitching. And I still want to be judged as all others are judged. The intent of the book was never to take advantage. I’ve had a different experience than others, and I thought it was worth disucssing. I still receive a lot of cards and letters and e-mails from kids and parents. I send out a lot of responses that contain three-four paragraphs and a photo. I wish I had time to write more, but I don’t. So, in a sense, I view this book as an answer to those letters and calls. This is my response.
J.P.: You’re from the same town as Michael Moore, the documentarian. He has often gone to great pains to describe Flint’s decay—and often blames that on corporate disinterest in small-town America. Was wondering if you see Flint in the same way—and if you agree.
J.A.: Flint is a tough town, but it was a great place to grow up. I grew up in a really nice middle class neighborhood. What I remember about Flint was the generosity of the parents, coaches, teachers and teammates that I was surrounded by. People who took the time to help a young kid who often felt like an outsider. Tough surroundings, but fantastic sports town and great resilient people. That’s how I think of Flint.
J.P.: How did you know, for 100% certainty, that your pitching career was over? And, at age 31, how difficult is it to accept that this dream you had … this lifelong ambition, was done?
J.A.: I don’t know if you ever think that 100 percent you are done. There is always some little voice in your head that tells you a new pitch, or a sidearm delivery, just might be the answer. But at some point reason takes over, and you know the hitters are making it clear that your stuff is short. It’s very difficult to leave the game.
J.P.: You played for Buck Showalter in New York. I’ve covered Buck, and while I like him as an interview subject, I’ve always thought he’d be a pretty miserable manager to play for. How would you describe his style? And am I right, or off?
J.A.: I like Buck. He knew how to put guys in positions to succeed especially in putting together a line up. He was very interested in guys around the league and what type of character they had. I think the disappointing seasons I had with the Yankees colored my relationship with Buck, that was unavoidable, but I have great respect for his baseball intelligence. He has a funny sense of humor—that always surprised me.
• Five most talented ballplayers you ever played with/against: Roberto Alomar, Mark Langston, Frank Thomas, Tino Martinez (most clutch), Jimmy Key (smartest).
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Joe Ausanio, your wallet, Young MC, sweet potato french fries, the city of Milwaukee, Steve Jobs, Celine Dion, ESPN the Magazine, Swen Nater, socks: Steve Jobs barely squeaks by Joe Ausanio. Any City on Lake Michigan is great so Milwaukee is next. Sweet Potato French Fries (have to be crispy), good socks, ESPN the Magazine, Swen Nater, hate wallets, Young MC (not sure who that is), Celine Dion.
• Fans want to know—what was it like to play with Donn Pall?: Don Pall—”The Pope.” Sweet man. Great teammate, very popular.
• You are the only man to ever be teammates with Claudell Washington, Eddie Zosky and Ron Karkovice. How does it feel to make history?: Saw Claudell Washington flip over the right field wall chasing a ball hit by Bill Buckner. “CW,” Claudell’s nickname, disappeared in the stands, Buckner circled the bases while Kirk McCaskill looked on in amazement from the mound. Inside the park home run. It was the funniest thing I ever saw in the game. CW finally popped up from behind the wall with mustard on his uniform. Full moon that night in Boston. Zosky was a really good defensive player and very funny, and Karko was one of my favorite battery mates. Great guy.
• How long does the buzz of a no-hitter last?: The buzz from a no hitter has lasted until this day.
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you remember?: Every time I fall asleep on a plane that first jolt of turbulence sends my heart rate soaring. Terrible feeling … that I never experienced before my children were born.
• Worst movie you’ve ever seen?: Godfather 3. Loved the first two so much. Try to pretend that the third never happened.
• Would you rather have to eat 70 slices of pizza in one sitting or write a 300-page book on the 1999 Brewers?: The ‘99 Brewers had a bunch of great guys and real characters. Would much rather write the book. Eric Plunk, David Weathers, that old Milwaukee bullpen surrounded by chain link fence, actually I think that could be a pretty funny book.
• Best joke you know …: There’s one about a plunger that I can’t repeat. I never remember the best jokes, but my former teammate Kirk McCaskill is the best joke teller I know.
• Would you rather overflow a stranger’s toilet at a party or be locked in a shopping mall for the night?: Much rather be locked in a mall. Terrifying to see that water on the rise