A Chat with Jim Abbott
The word “perseverance” is thrown around a lot in the world of sports. Any time an athlete plays through an injury or attains a height they have previously failed to achieve, we laud them for their ability to endure–and rightfully so; but few have had to overcome more than Jim Abbott. In a sport that requires incredible dexterity and hand-eye-coordination, Abbott was able to succeed at the highest level despite being born without a right hand.
Abbott was born in Flint, Michigan and went on to attend Flint Central High School where he was a standout pitcher and quarterback for the Indians. He was drafted by the Blue Jays in the 36th round of the ’85 MLB Draft, but decided to forgo his entry into professional baseball in order to attend the University of Michigan. During his three years with the maize and blue he was a 2-time All-American, won the 1987 Golden Spikes Award as the top amateur baseball player in the nation, and in 1988 was both the Big Ten Player of the Year in baseball and the Big Ten Athlete of the Year. His name is peppered through the Wolverine career record book: wins (5th), ERA (6th), complete games (8th), and strikeouts (13th).
In 1988 Abbott took the mound in the gold medal game of the Summer Olympics, helping the United States earn the victory over Japan. He was selected 8th overall in the ’88 MLB Draft by the Angels and pitched for California over the next four seasons, finishing 3rd in the 1991 Cy Young vote.
Abbott came to the Yankees in 1993 where he quickly became a fan favorite. On September 4, 1993 he turned in the most memorable performance of his career, no-hitting the Cleveland Indians in a 4-0 victory at Yankee Stadium. In 1994 his 9 wins were tied for second-highest on the team as the Yanks built a 6.5 game AL East lead before the strike cut the season short in August. Though he only wore the pinstripes for two seasons, he is still fondly remembered in New York for his courage and humility as well as his inspiring gem against Cleveland.
Since retiring from the game in 1999, Abbott has received a number of honors and has continued to use his story to inspire and encourage others. In 2004 he was enshrined in the University of Michigan Hall of Honor and in 2007 he was inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame. In 2009 his #31 was retired by the University of Michigan. In 2012 his autobiography Imperfect was published and he continues to travel the country as a motivational speaker.
Jim was kind enough to briefly answer a few of my questions amid his busy life as a father, husband, and speaker.
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Carlos Baerga grounds out on September 4, 1993. What’s the first thing that goes through your head?
It’s hard to describe my feelings. There was just this huge rush of adrenaline along with a disbelief that this could actually be happening! It felt like an electrical current was going through my body.
What was your favorite part about your time in New York?
Playing in Yankee Stadium in the pinstripes with a sold-out crowd.
What teammate were you closest with during your time in New York?
Scott Kamieniecki and Jimmy Key. Although I loved many of the great characters on those teams. [Don] Mattingly, [Paul] O’Neill, [Mike] Stanley, [Wade] Boggs, [Mike] Gallego. It was a really fun group of guys.
What did it feel like to have the strike end the ’94 season when you had helped the Yanks claim 1st place in the AL East?
I was really bummed. That team was very good. I think we would have made the playoffs and maybe started the Yankee run one year earlier.
What have you been doing since retiring in ’99?
I have been doing motivational speaking and raising a family in California. I released a memoir last year called Imperfect. The structure of the book revolves around the 9 innings of the no hitter in ’93.
What does it mean to you to be able to share your story and inspire others?
I have come to appreciate the connection we all feel to the game. The fact that I played a little differently helps me to tell the story a bit differently but in the end it is still a baseball story. I cherish my connections with the game.