Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Abbott memoir stands apart from its peers

Jim Abbott’s wish throughout his career, dating as far back as Little League, was to be treated like anyone else. He never wanted to settle for “pretty good, considering.” But despite everything he accomplished on a mound, the stories about his hand—or rather lack thereof—never stopped.

The stands filled with well-wishers from the time he made the varsity squad as a sophomore in high school. They wanted to cheer the heroic effort of the boy who had to slide his glove from the nub of his right wrist onto his left hand after each pitch. He just wanted to win.

And win he did. In his sophomore year he led the University of Michigan to the Big Ten title and was honored with the Golden Spikes Award. A year later he was selected by the California Angels in the first round of baseball’s draft. Before embarking on his pro career he traveled to South Korea with Team USA and earned a gold medal by beating Japan in the final game. He jumped straight to the big leagues the following spring without ever playing in the minors.

And the hand was still the headline. The press had the audacity to ask if the Angels added him to the roster as a publicity stunt. After losing his big league debut 7-0 to the Mariners in front of a crowd of 47,000, Abbott had to endure a post-game press conference where he and his human-interest angle were the story and not the game itself. Little had changed from the time he was a kid in elementary school, where every year the other kids would need to get a good look at the one-handed kid until the novelty wore off.

When he won 18 games and ranked fourth in the American League with a 2.89 ERA in 1991, Abbott proved he was more than just a traveling headline. He finished third in the league’s Cy Young voting that fall and looked like a long-term fixture in the Angels rotation. But a year and a contract dispute later, he was dealt to the Yankees.

The ’93 Yankees finished second in the AL East, back when that wasn’t good enough to get you to October. Though Abbott had been counted on to anchor the staff, he struggled at times. But for one day in September, everything came together and he spun the franchise’s first no-hitter in a decade, topping the Cleveland Indians 4-0.

That gem became the framework for Abbott’s memoir, Imperfect, An Improbable Life, written with co-author Tim Brown. While the game itself is interesting, particularly Abbott’s memories of what was running through his mind both on the hill and in the dugout between innings, the larger story of his life is what makes this book stand apart from the dozens and dozens of other career retellings that have hit the shelves in recent years.

Abbott comes across as an everyday kind of guy in recounting his fears as easily as the motivations that allowed him to overcome them. At five years old he was placed in a hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich., two hours away from his home in Flint. Separated from his mother, father, and younger brother except on weekends, he bonded with other special-needs children as doctors studied him and fit him with a clunky mechanical arm. His parents realized after a month that he didn’t belong there and brought him home intent on challenging him to find his place in the world, hand or no hand.

Flint was not an easy place for anyone to grow up. Abbott tells of the day he was accosted in a high school stairwell and punched in the face by a kid trying to earn his gang stripes. Plenty of other two-handed classmates met the same fate.

The most heart-breaking tales, however, are the stories of the children who wrote and visited him throughout his professional career. Time and again he was interrupted in the clubhouse before a game by the PR guy, asking if he could spare a few minutes to talk or even play catch with a child who had been born without a hand or a foot or worse. He accommodated so many such visitors he caught flak from Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, with the Boss infamously stating that Abbott would be better off giving “100 percent of his attention to baseball.” Classic Steinbrenner.

I was surprised at how much of Abbott’s career I had forgotten, considering he was so frequently in the news. Perhaps at some point I had come to regard him as he wished to be viewed, just another pitcher. Once he lost his fastball, he stopped showing up on my fantasy league scouting reports.

I hadn’t remembered that he retired twice, walking away from the game for the entire 1997 season after posting an awful 2-18 record the year before. I have no recollection whatsoever of him as a Brewer in his final season, when he went 2-8 with a 6.91 ERA before heading home to be with his wife and family. There was no rocking chair tour, just a months- long struggle to survive with a diminished fastball and a cutter that no longer broke like it had when he was young. He realized too late that former teammate Bob McClure’s advice to develop his secondary pitches might have prolonged his career.

The book is well written almost to a fault. There were places where I started trying to picture where Abbott left off and Brown took up. For example, how many ballplayers have ever uttered two sentences such as these: “The sky was gray, a leaden touch to a yawn-and-stretch morning on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The idle observations from the uniformed lobby doorman and the waitress four blocks away at Gracie’s Corner, where the wait was manageable and the pancakes were reliably fluffy, were about afternoon rain, the prospect of which further softened the jostle of the expired workweek.”

As colorful as that is, I was relieved that most of the book did not read that way. I also wasn’t a fan of the shifting viewpoints from first-person to more of an omniscient third-person, particularly early on when talking about Abbott’s parents before he was born. It’s a minor distraction, however, and doesn’t take much away from what is a fascinating and frequently emotional journey.

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