SEOUL, South Korea — When the Koreans see him on the street they raise one hand and squeal, “Pit-cher! Pit-cher!” and Jim Abbott smiles as he has always smiled — despite all the attention to his handicap — because, as he keeps telling us, it’s really not a handicap at all.
“Oh, I have a little problem taking photos,” he says, laughing, and holding a make-believe camera with his good hand. “I sort of have to turn it upside down like this to snap the picture. Other than that, I don’t have any problems.”
And he laughs again. He has reached a dream, this baseball player, this hot prospect, this shy Michigan kid who makes us proud every time we talk about him. He has finally played in the Olympic Games. Got in Friday. USA-Canada. Pitched the first three innings.
Struck out seven.
I’d call that a nice Olympic moment.
“It was a thrill,” Abbott said after the game, which the U.S. lost, 8-7, although the defeat did not affect its medal chances in next week’s final rounds. “I got out there and I was forcing it a little bit. Then I told myself, ‘You’ve waited a lifetime for this. Just get the ball over the plate.’
“I did OK after that. And when I came out of the game, I thought, ‘Well, there’s something they can never take away from you. You just pitched in the Olympics.’ “
Nice. If only all Olympians had such compassion for the moment. If only all those mock-amateurs and those nutty track people who fly in two days before their event and shun the athletes’ village and want just to see their masseuse, their coach and their agent — athletes who want only to win — if they’d just look in Jim Abbott’s eyes, they would surely turn red with shame.
How perfect is this story? Born without a right hand, the kid, through love and compassion of his family, is taught that nothing is impossible if you want it. Grows up strong. Normal. Better than normal. He becomes a star athlete. Learns to work the glove on and off his good hand. Plays college baseball at Michigan, gets drafted by the big leagues, and then — whoa, we’re not finished here — the Olympics come along and his sport is on the menu.
“Everything has worked out so well for me,” he says. And now Jim Abbott, 6-feet-3, 200 pounds, is cruising through the athletes’ village with his teammates, shaking hands with gold medalist Matt Biondi and having his picture taken with tennis star Gabriela Sabatini and waving to the Korean fans on the street who know who he is and what he does but just can’t pronounce it. Happy to be here. It was a joy watching Abbott pitch Friday, it always is, because he’s a hell of a pitcher. And he will throw again next week, one of the two remaining games, quite possibly the gold medal showdown. That will be special.
But Friday was unique. Friday was the moment that every kid with any imagination has dreamed of at least once during the wash of childhood: the moment when they introduce you and you trot out there and wave at the crowd and you are . . . Olympic.
“Since they put baseball back in the Games in 1984, it was a goal of mine,” Abbott said. “You’re in school and you try and figure out if you’ll be the right age to make an Olympic team. Just to get here was a thrill — I would have chased the balls down in the dugout if that’s what they wanted.”
No. They want him to lead them to victory. And in the meantime, he has signed on for the whole package: the meals at the Olympic Village cafeteria, the tours of downtown Seoul, the wild shopping jaunts to the Itaewon district.
“Did you buy anything?” someone asks.
“A football,” he says. “All leather. Eight bucks. I bargained the guy down from $10.”
A football? Yeah. Why not? He was, after all, a quarterback at Flint Central High. NBC used some footage of his running a pass pattern on the village lawn the other night. He even followed the agony of the Michigan loss to Miami last weekend, as sure as if he were back in Ann Arbor.
“One of the guys on the (U.S. baseball) team, Mike Fiore, is from Miami. We’d been talking all week about who was gonna win. When we got back from practice I knew it was on, and I ran to the guys in the NBC truck and said,
‘Who won?’ And they said, ‘Miami 31 . . . ‘ and I said, ‘Oh no!’ and they said, ‘ . . . Michigan 30,’ and I said, ‘Ahhhh, nooooo!’ “
You can take the Wolverine out of the campus, but. . . . The hand. The hand. Wherever he goes, people make some sort of fuss over the hand — either staring, or trying too hard not to stare, or showing sympathy or trying too hard not to show sympathy. It bothers him sometimes, not because it’s a burden but because he really can’t understand what the fuss is about. Taught from the earliest that a handicap is only what you make of it, he has tried everything and skipped nothing and here he is, the Olympics — not the Special Olympics, not some handicapped division. Jim Abbott may be the most normal person you’ll ever meet.
“I just go out and play,” he explains to a group of foreign journalists who were seeing him for the first time. “I know it sounds like I’m playing it down but I’m not.
“I guess the only time it bothers me is when the other guys on the team play well, and I still get called into a press conference. That’s not fair. I was taught that if you keep harping on a disability, then you’ll start believing there is one. So I don’t.”
Better to set your sights high. Better to shoot for Olympic stars. Better to stand outside the main stadium before the Opening Ceremonies, dressed in your country’s colors, mingling with Carl Lewis and Karch Kiraly and Jackie Joyner-Kersee. “I think I’ll remember that part, as much as walking into the stadium,” he says.
The game is over. As he walks down the corridor of the baseball stadium, several Korean fans chase after him with baseballs to sign, and pictures to be taken. This has been a heady experience. The Ceremonies. The first game. And Monday was his birthday, he turned 21. So, let’s see: In the course of five working days, he became a man, an Olympian and the proud owner of a Korean football.
As usual, Jim Abbott can hardly wait till next week. CUTLINE Jim Abbott struck out seven in three innings in his Olympic debut.