ANN ARBOR — This is a sad and wonderful story and it begins with a college pitcher. His name is Jim Abbott. He is tall and beach-boyishly handsome, with a shock of brown hair, a fetching smile, broad shoulders and one hand.
Only one. He was born without the other. There was probably a moment, as a child, when he looked at the stub of his right arm and wondered why he was different from everybody else. But the moment passed. The next thing he knew he was in Perry’s Drugstore shopping for his first baseball glove. He slipped it on his left hand, rolled it off onto the stub, then rolled it back.
“I like it,” he told his father.
Years later he would lose that glove in a Flint apartment complex, where he spent countless hours whipping a rubber ball off a concrete wall. He’d throw with the left hand. Switch the glove. Catch. Then switch back.
“Enough, already,” his mother would say, when the game stretched to dinner time.
“In a minute,” he would say.
Eventually, the good arm developed into a great one. By senior year in high school, Abbott was a star pitcher for Flint Central. And quarterback of its football team. Yes, quarterback. Once, an opposing team sent its players out with socks over their right hands. A mean joke. “Aw, it was nothing, really,” he says now, laughing. You can laugh when you lead your team to a 10-2 record.
He was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays. He was recruited by Michigan. Neither pursued him out of sympathy. The kid was damn good. Media keep reminding him
“Well, I can’t play the piano,” Jim Abbott said, grinning. This was Saturday afternoon, Abbott was getting dressed for a doubleheader, and someone
had asked him what he can’t do — because he can do so much. As usual, he met the question with a letter-high laugh.
Abbott is a freshman at Michigan — he chose college over the pros — with a 5-2 record and a fastball over 90 m.p.h. He has already thrown a three-hit shutout. He pitches with his glove hanging on his right arm. Once the ball is headed to the plate, he switches the glove to his left hand, catches the ball, puts the glove under his arm, takes the ball out, starts over. It’s very quick.
“Isn’t it hard?” someone asked him.
“Nah,” he said. “It’s second nature. Just like the way you probably learned how to use a glove.”
After five minutes of watching Jim Abbott pitch, you realize he’s a major league prospect. After five minutes of listening to him talk, you realize the right hand is not all that’s missing.
Where you expect self-pity, there is none. Where you expect bitterness, there is none.
“To be honest, I’d forget about it if not for the media attention,” he said, shrugging. “I don’t have it tough. I’m just missing fingers, really. There are people out there missing legs and arms.
“Besides, no one ever told me, ‘You shouldn’t be here.’ Or, ‘Why don’t you just sit this one out, pal?’ No one ever made me feel that way.”
Abbott is so nonchalant, it’s sometimes jolting. When a reporter had trouble describing the deformed hand, Abbott simply held it out and said,
“Here. Look. Just describe what you see.”
No pity. No sorrow. No embarrassment.
No problem. He makes the scene right
What is special about Jim Abbott is not only what he accomplishes, but what he brings out in others. There is a part of our hearts, a good part, just waiting to be aroused by the right scene. Jim Abbott out on the mound, flipping his glove from good hand to bad, is one of the right scenes.
When a magazine wrote that the only thing Abbott could not do was “button the buttons on my left cuff,” he received over 200 letters from around the country with suggestions. “They sent velcro, or little threads,” he said, laughing. “So now I don’t have that problem, either.”
Why do people become more patient when they deal with him? More understanding? Maybe it’s because he’s always beaming, as if a lighthouse were on inside him that never shut down.
Or maybe it’s just an appreciation for what he has accomplished. “I can’t imagine losing a hand,” we say. But by never giving up, Abbott has turned the unimaginable into the inspirational.
“I really don’t think of myself as anyone special,” he said. “I just think you can do anything you put your mind to. I really do.” He picked up a baseball and squeezed it in his left palm. He smiled. The field was calling.
And on he goes. A sad and wonderful story? Yes. But the only sadness is that there aren’t more like Jim Abbott, who proves every day you don’t need two hands when you pitch from the heart.