By Paul Post
Jim Abbott’s memorabilia collection has all the typical highlights – autographed bats, balls and jerseys of players he competed with and against.
However, there’s absolutely no question about his favorite piece, which might be one of the most unique items any big league player has ever acquired.
It’s the pitching mound rubber autographed by every Yankee teammate from the no-hitter Abbott hurled against the Cleveland Indians on Sept. 4, 1993.
“I’m blessed and I cherish that day,” he said during a speaking engagement in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. “Yankee fans, whenever I come back to this part of the country, remember that game and connect with it. That’s a really cool thing. I’m really glad to have that connection with the Yankee organization.”
The southpaw moundsman has inspired countless admirers by overcoming a tremendous obstacle – he was born with no right hand – to not only reach the big leagues, but have an amazingly successful career, as well. Today, he travels throughout the country as a motivational speaker, his message focused on the importance of hard work, determination and belief in one’s self.
“Find something you love, and go after it, with all of your heart,” he says.
A Flint, Mich., native, Abbott dismissed naysayers every step of the way on his path to the major leagues. It was evident, even in high school, that big things were in store for him.
The Toronto Blue Jays drafted Abbott in 1985, but he opted for the University of Michigan instead, where he was an All-American, posted a 26-8 mark and 3.03 ERA in three years. He was named USA Baseball’s 1987 Golden Spikes Award winner and became the first baseball player to win the AAU’s Sullivan Award as the top amateur athlete of the year, also in ’87.
A year later, the California Angels made Abbott their No. 1 pick, eighth overall, in the June draft. Before joining them, however, he hurled a complete game victory over Japan to lead the U.S. to a gold medal in the Summer Olympics at Seoul, Korea.
After four seasons with the Angels, including a career-best 18-11 record in 1991, the 6-foot-3 lefty was dealt to the Yankees in December 1992 for J.T. Snow, Russ Springer and Jerry Nielsen. Fans in New York quickly embraced Abbott, and he returned the favor by hurling the 11th no-hitter in Yankee franchise history.
Abbott, a Southern California resident, relived some of the emotions from his no-hitter while watching Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw throw the first no-hitter of his career this past summer.
“He’s got such great stuff,” Abbott said of Kershaw. “A no-hitter is a countdown of outs. I watched the game . . . and you get caught up in that happening again. You relate to the feelings he’s feeling and the catcher’s feeling, the fielders are feeling and the fans are feeling. It’s nice to have that connection.”
Abbott keeps the autographed pitcher’s mound rubber in his office. The most important signature on it was from Matt Nokes, the Yankee backstop who caught his masterpiece. His only regret is not saving more memorabilia along the way.
“I wish I would have collected more to be honest,” he said. “It’s amazing how fast it went by.”
His no-hitter feat was a culmination of the trust that Abbott had built up in himself over the years, and in Nokes, his batterymate.
Trust is the most important word in a speech that Abbott gives regularly about five core values found in the acronym A-D-A-P-T that stands for adjustability, dependability, accountability, perseverance and trust. (See: www.jimabbott.net)
“To achieve great things in this world you must be able to adjust to what is being asked,” Abbott says. “My dream wasn’t to play in the major leagues. My dream was to play baseball at all. In order to do that, I had to develop a new way of doing things. I really wanted to join in with my friends, but to do that I needed to learn to play in a much different way than they did. When you need something, you find a way.
“Once you’ve found your way, you have to work it make it happen,” Abbott says.
That’s determination. Then comes accountability.
“Basically, accountability says that we are responsible for the abilities we’ve been given,” he says. “When we look in the mirror, can we say that we’ve made the most of our talents, no matter how big or how small? Are we making the most of the potential we have in all aspects of our lives?”
Perseverance is all about sticking with things in difficult times. Sometimes, opponents tried to take advantage of his physical disability by laying down bunts that would be difficult to field. But Abbott never gave up.
“Life is full of ups and downs, and how we respond to adversity makes us who we are,” he says.
The last word – trust – was epitomized by his no-hitter.
“Throwing a no-hitter was one of the most exciting things that ever happened to me,” Abbott says. “To throw it in Yankee Stadium made it even more dramatic. That game is the greatest illustration I can think of to demonstrate the importance of trust. During that game the pressure started mounting in the sixth inning. Pitch by pitch the fans were getting excited, and the atmosphere was becoming electric.
“The challenge was to bring it back to laser-like focus. This pitch to that spot. Come on, now trust it. Throw this pitch with confidence. You see it’s that trust, that last little oomph in the delivery that makes all the difference. It all comes back to trusting in yourself and the work you have done; you’re ready for this, bring it on.”
After his speech, fans flocked to meet Abbott, who willingly took time out for photos and autographs. When signing autographs, he enjoys sharing tips with fathers and sons, alike, about how to achieve success on the mound.
“The best pitch in baseball is a strike,” he said matter-of-factly. “If you can change speeds, that’s important. Kids gets so caught up with the fastball. I always thought the changeup was the best pitch to have.”
Abbott does his best to oblige all autograph seekers in the midst of a busy schedule that keeps him traveling throughout the country.
“I try to respond, but it’s hard,” he said. “The more you sign and send back, the more you get.”
After two years in New York, Abbott closed out his career with the White Sox, Angels and Brewers, retiring after the 1999 campaign. In addition to motivational speaking, he is a guest pitching instructor for the Angels during spring training in Arizona.
Also, Abbott has worked with the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) on several initiatives encouraging businesses to hire people with disabilities.
The complete story about his amazing accomplishments are found in the autobiography, Imperfect: An Improbable Life, co-authored by Tim Brown. The book’s cover shows Abbott, with arms raised, walking off the mound in Yankee pinstripes following his 1993 no-hitter.
“That day the mound at Yankee Stadium began to feel like the eye of a hurricane,” he says. “But going through life with a few extra challenges has made me a better person, not better than anyone else, but better than I would have been. I’ve learned that sometimes adversity can be a good thing.”
Paul Post is a frequent contributor to SCD. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.