A career worth remembering: Jim Abbott

May 13th, 2020

As part of our look back at classic games while we wait for baseball to return, MLB Network aired 's no-hitter on Tuesday, and MLB.com will stream it on Thursday. The no-hitter came on Sept. 4, 1993, against the Indians when Abbott was pitching for the Yankees at the old Yankee Stadium. There have been only 10 Yankees pitchers to throw a no-hitter. What makes Abbott, a left-hander, so special is that he managed to do it despite being born without a right hand. It is why he remains one of the remarkable figures in baseball history. We've been doing a lot of remembering lately in baseball. Jim Abbott's career is worth remembering.

Pete Gray played a year in the big leagues for the St. Louis Browns despite being born without a right arm. Monty Stratton, who'd had such a promising start to his own big league career with the White Sox in the 1930s, came back in the '40s after losing a leg in a hunting accident and pitched for nearly another decade.

Abbott, out of Flint, Mich., pitched 10 years in the Major Leagues, finishing third in the American League Cy Young Award voting for the Angels in 1991 before he got to New York and threw that no-hitter. He pitched the final game of the '88 Olympics in Seoul when baseball was a demonstration sport, and helped the United States win a gold medal. Abbott was the first baseball player to win the Sullivan Award as the best amateur athlete in America. If the baseball season of '94 hadn't been called off in August because of a labor dispute, he might have pitched for the Yankees in the World Series that year.

There's more. Abbott also hit .427 one year for Flint Central, with seven home runs. His right arm ended at the wrist. He placed it at the end of his bat and closed his big left hand around it. Abbott was also the star quarterback on his school's football team.

I first wrote about him when he was 18, on his way to the University of Michigan, traveling to Flint meet him and his parents, having heard about this 6-foot-4 kid who was, in all ways, trying to beat the world one-handed. And one of the things I asked him was what he couldn't do. He grinned.

"I can't button the darn buttons on my left cuff," Abbott said.

The Blue Jays selected Abbott in the 36th round of the 1985 Draft, but he didn't sign and instead spent the next three years at the University of Michigan and winning two Big Ten championships. Abbott was the eighth overall pick by the Angels in the '88 Draft. He was traded to the Yankees in '92, signed as a free agent with the White Sox in '95 and then traded back to the Angels in July of that season. Abbott re-signed with the Halos in '96, but he was released by the team one day before Opening Day in '97 and briefly retired. He went 5-0 for the White Sox in '98 and finished his career with 20 games (15 starts) for the Brewers in '99.

Abbott ended with a lifetime record of 87-108. It included a disastrous 2-18 record with a bad Angels team in 1996.

And through it all, Abbott was a wonder on a baseball field. The end of his right arm would go into the pocket of his glove. He'd throw the ball and then switch the glove to his left hand to catch or field. If it was a ground ball, the glove would be pressed to his body under his shoulder by his right arm and he'd throw somebody out. It was all done so quickly and effortlessly it seemed to be magic. Or sleight of hand.

One hand.

"One game when I was pitching in the ninth grade," he told me the day I went to visit him, a week before he left for college, "they bunted on me eight times in a row. I threw out the last seven. That was the end of that."

Here is something else Abbott told me that day:

"I hear a lot about how inspirational I am. But I don't see myself as being inspirational. Whether you're rich or poor or one-handed or whatever, your own childhood just seems natural, because it's the only one you know."

Abbott and I played catch that day out in front of his house. He stood about 30 yards away from me. As he got warmed up, the ball started coming at me harder and harder. After a few minutes, I realized that I better pay a lot closer attention to the ball than the glove switch, or risk not getting my own glove up in time. It didn't take long for me to feel the way high school hitters did against Abbott, and the way college hitters would and the Cleveland Indians one memorable Saturday afternoon at the old Stadium when he made the whole sport cheer, a couple of weeks short of his 26th birthday: I felt overmatched.

This is what Don Mattingly, who played first base for the Yankees the day of that no-hitter, would say later to Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated:

"I had these huge goose bumps on my forearms, and the hair on the back of my neck was standing up. Maybe that would have happened with someone else. Maybe I'd have the same feelings. But I think because it was Jim there was a little something extra."

Abbott would say a week later that he was still amazed at how people were still "going crazy." But he'd never thought he was doing anything crazy by pitching the way he could. We throw around the word hero all the time in sports. Abbott really was one. Jack Buck once said he couldn't believe what he just saw after Kirk Gibson hit one of the most famous home runs in baseball history. Go back and take another look at Jim Abbott, one-handed baseball pitcher. See if you can believe what you see with him.