March 2, 2010 in Sports

Abbott’s success, built on resolve, still an inspiration

By Correspondent
File Associated Press photo

As a New York Yankee in 1993, Jim Abbott pitches a 4-0 no-hitter against Cleveland.
(Full-size photo)

Baseball’s steroid apologies and PED rationalizations pile up, and we forgive and move on or we don’t and still want some karmic pound of flesh.

Or perhaps the detached, pragmatic side of our brains put the run to moral indignation a long time ago, and we never much cared who was putting what into his body and what corruption may have been done to the game’s sacred scrolls. If LASIK surgery is kosher to sharpen worn-out eyes, why not anabolics to revive worn-out muscles?

Just one question for the users/abusers, though:

If you were to bump into Jim Abbott, just exactly how could you look him in the eye and what would you say?

How do you look at that right arm of his, the one without a hand, and grasp not just the 10 years he logged pitching – sometimes spectacularly – in the major leagues, but the incredible resolve it took to get there? And not just the physical challenges that had to be overcome along the way, but the societal stigmas, the all-too-human assumption that no amount of work or courage would allow such aspirations to be realized.

How do you understand that he retired once with his career in shambles, then resurrected himself with a new pitch and came back – not better than ever, by any means, but again a capable pitcher? And how do you reconcile that with taking a injection to prolong and enhance a career and cash another paycheck, and the masquerade that it was accomplished with nothing but hard work?

Those are our questions. Jim Abbott – the left-handed pitcher with no right hand, Olympic gold medalist, who no-hit the Cleveland Indians in Yankee Stadium – will not indulge in any safaris for pity or retribution.

“I understand the game,” he said. “I know how hard everyone is pushing. It’s a life in a bubble. A lot of people who’ve done this their whole life, maybe facing failure and about to be released, the choices you make – I get it. I’m not that judgmental about it.

“Then there are the moments when you think about some of the people who have come out and admitted what they were doing, and you think of some of the home runs you gave up and you get irritated. I took losing hard. I’d wallow in it. And if guys had an unfair edge, even guys who were my friends, I’d say it to their faces.”

The steroid fallout is a whipsaw 180 from the inspirational vein of Abbott’s remarks Thursday when he speaks at the Kids at Heart Charity Lunch at noon at the Spokane Convention Center, the annual fundraiser for Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital.

Certainly there has never been a better motivational conduit for the message of achieving despite obstacles than Abbott, even if he wrestled with that role.

“For a long time, being born without a right hand was something I didn’t want to make a big deal about,” he said. “I used sport to try to fit in. As more attention came, the less fitting in I did.

“One of the lessons I took from the game was to really look at my hand and realize that it’s a huge part of who I am and how it pushed me, and that it’s allowed me to continue to find avenues to reach out to people.”

He recalled the many times he’d be in the locker room with his headphones on or playing cards “and the tap on the shoulder would come.” A family would be waiting with a son or a daughter with a disability, eager for encouragement and reinforcement or maybe just a game of catch.

“I didn’t always want to go out there,” he admitted. “But afterward I couldn’t help but be blown away by their determination.”

It was mutual. Abbott was a rock-solid starter for seven seasons, including the 18-win 1991 summer when he was third in the American League Cy Young voting. When it all went south, it went in a hurry – he was 2-18 in 1996, and left the game “just hating the feeling that I’d let the Angels down.” But within the next year, a phone call came from former manager Buck Rodgers saying, “I don’t think you’re done.” Together they worked on a split-fingered fastball that gave Abbott two more seasons.

“It was incredibly generous of him,” Abbott said, “and even though my time in the game wasn’t great after that it allowed me to take a good look around and leave knowing, ‘OK, I know where I stand.’ ”

As we’re learning, not every player can say that.

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