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Jim Abbott: Don’t Listen To What You Can’t Do
As a senior at Michigan’s Flint Central High School, 17-year-old high school pitcher Jim Abbott threw four no-hitters, struck out 148 batters in 74 innings, and had an Earned Run Average (ERA) of 0.76.
(If you don’t know what ERA means, that’s ok. Just know that a 0.76 ERA is roughly six times better than the 4.5 average. In other words, it’s insanely, almost impossibly, good.)
Jim Abbott went on to a sterling amateur career, winning Olympic Gold and even pitching a 4-0 no-hitter for the New York Yankees against the Cleveland Indians in 1993. Abbott played for 10 seasons in the big leagues, on 4 different teams, and retired after the 1999 season.
Yes, Jim Abbott was a terrific pitcher and an all-round great ball player. But he was (and still is) a whole lot more than that. Jim Abbott was born without a right hand – his right arm ends at the wrist. It’s not a stretch to imagine such a child aspiring to an athletic career – you don’t need two hands to run, or jump, or even throw something.
But baseball? It’s difficult to imagine. How or why would Abbott aspire to a career in baseball? Everything is done using both hands – catch in the glove, throw with the other hand, and grip the bat firmly with both hands to hit a ball coming at you at 90 miles an hour.
But baseball was it, from the first time he played catch with his dad. Abbott’s transition from a kid with a disability to an international amateur and professional baseball star was all about following a dream, and never letting the doubts take over.
“I loved throwing a baseball. It is so important to find something in life you feel crazy about,” Abbott says. “Because you are so passionate you naturally practice, the hard work that it takes to do something well will come easily.
“As a kid I was pretty coordinated, and growing up I loved sports. I learned to play baseball like most kids, playing catch with my Dad in the front yard. The only difference was that we had to come up with a method to throw and catch with the same hand. What we came up with, is basically what I continued to do my whole life. I used to practice by pretending to be my favorite pitchers. I’d throw a ball against a brick wall on the side of our house, switching the glove off and on, moving closer to the wall – forcing myself to get that glove on faster and faster. I imagined myself becoming a successful athlete.”
When he pitched, Abbott held the glove on his right wrist and threw with his good left hand. After delivering the pitch, he instantly switched the glove onto his left hand so he could field any balls hit back to him. If one came his way, he caught it with the glove, then whipped the glove off and trapped it against his body with his right arm, got hold of the ball and threw it to make the play.
Opposing teams tried to take advantage of the situation by bunting at him, but they never got the better of him. This was what he had drilled endlessly against the side wall of his house. Abbott could field the ball and throw a batter out at first base as fast as any pitcher. He was, in a word, amazing.
In 1985, just out of high school, Abbott was offered an instant ride to “The Show” – what pro ball players call the big leagues – by the Toronto Blue Jays. It is rare, to say the least, for a player out of high school to skip both college ball and the minor leagues and make it straight to the show. Abbott respectfully declined, however, opting instead for the University of Michigan and the Wolverines, with whom he played for three years, leading them to two Big Ten championships.
In 1987, while still in college, Abbot became the first baseball player ever to win the James E. Sullivan Award in its 57-year history. The Sullivan Award, founded in 1930 and often called the “Oscar” of amateur sports, is presented annually by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) to the outstanding amateur athlete in the United States. It honors such qualities as leadership, character and sportsmanship which go “far beyond athletic accomplishments”, acknowledging those “who have shown strong moral character.”
Abbott was in good company. Other Sullivan Award winners have included luminaries such as runner Carl Lewis, diver Greg Louganis, sprinters Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Florence Griffith-Joyner, quarterback Peyton Manning and swimmer Michael Phelps.
Abbott pursued his great love affair with baseball outside of college, too. He helped the US team take a Silver Medal at the 1987 Pan American Games in Indianapolis, and another at the 1988 Baseball World Cup games in Rome. He also pitched the entire final game of the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, leading Team USA to a Gold Medal.
After college and the Olympics, he was selected by the California Angels in the 1988 draft, and his big league career began. And was there ever any doubt he’d make it to the Show? Not in Jim Abbott’s mind. But he acknowledges that the help he received from others along the way was crucial.
“There were just so many people who took the time, so many people that helped me – coaches, my parents and teachers.
“My second-grade teacher taught me how to tie my shoes. I imagine him with a clenched fist trying to figure out those laces. It was that kind of generosity that I had surrounding me. I’m so thankful for the people that took the time out of their schedules to say, ‘Alright, let’s figure this out. I see potential in this guy.’ I really was the beneficiary of that spirit.”
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. Today, in addition to being a Guest Pitching Instructor during Spring Training for the Los Angeles Angels, Abbott is a sought-after motivational speaker.
“I’ve learned that there are millions of people out there ignoring disabilities and accomplishing incredible feats,” Abbott says. “I learned that you can learn to do things differently, but do them just as well. I’ve learned that it’s not the disability that defines you, it’s how you deal with the challenges the disability presents you with. I’ve learned that we have an obligation to the abilities we do have, not the disability.
Jim Abbott was presented with the United States Sports Academy’s Mildred ‘Babe’ Didrikson Zaharias Courage Award for his courageous action in overcoming adversity to excel in sports. In addition to the awards mentioned above, he has won the Hutch Award, the Golden Spikes Award and the Tony Conigliaro Award, and was elected to the Michigan Baseball Hall of Fame and the College Baseball Hall of Fame.
“Never allow the circumstances of your life to become an excuse,” Abbott advises. “People will allow you to do it. But I believe we have a personal obligation to make the most of the abilities we have.
“No matter where the road takes you, don’t give up until you know in your heart you have done everything you possibly could to make your dreams come true. You owe nothing to disability, ignore it. When you fail, get back up and try again. Leave no room for an excuse. Don’t listen to what you can’t do.”
Here at Novus, our patients are faced with the tremendous disability of addiction and dependence. But they have decided not to let that condition define who they are, refusing to listen to any doubts. And we are proud to help each of them find their way to a life free from substance dependence and abuse.
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