8A - Thursday, September 12, 2013
The Michigan Daily - michigandaily.com
Jim Abbott still inspires, 20 years later
By JEREMY SUMMITT
A 16-year-old high school stu-
dent walked up to Jim Abbott to
ask him about the no-hitter he
tossed for the New York Yankees.
Looking up, their eyes met, smiles
were exchanged and the connec-
tion was instantaneous. The kid
reached for a handshake with his
"When I finally met him, there
was a bunch of other people in
the room, but it seemed like it was
onlyme and him," said Joe Rogers.
"He had an aura about him that
was really inspiring."
It was just another passionate
performance delivered by Abbott,
who pitched for Michigan from
1985-88 before being drafted by
the California Angels in the 1988
Major League Baseball draft.
But this time, no sliders or slow
curveballs were involved - just a
smooth speech full of encourage-
ment and inspiration. Rogers was
directly in front of Abbott, pressed
between his uncle and family
friend, after one of Abbott's speak-
ing sessions in Detroit.
Rogers found solace in some-
one who knew what he was going
through, how he felt and what
other athletes might have thought.
Like Abbott, Rogers is missing his
right hand, leaving the left-handed
gesture inevitable. Both were born
with the same birth defect. Rogers
askedAbbott how he pulled off the
no-hitter as he itched for one last
ounce of motivation from a living,
breathing example of how to defy
the highest odds.
Rogers grew up in Marysville,
Mich., just 64 miles east of Abbott.
He fell in love with hockey and
was crazy enough to sign up for
goaltender. He excelled at the
position with one hand.
Abbott hasa similar story.
He would pelt a bouncy ball off
a wall with his left hand and field
it, again and again with the same
body part. When he got sick of
that routine, he'd pick out a single
brick on the wall and pitch a rub-
ber baseball right at it. He'd aim
for the brick in the bottom corner,
and then the one in the top-left.
He rarely missed.
Abbott didn't always dream of
playing baseball professionally,
even collegiately, but he always
wanted to attend Michigan. What
was taken away from him at birth
was given back in more ways than
he could have imagined.
Bo Schembechler once
told Abbott that he could
play quarterback at Michi-
gan. Instead, his retired
baseball number, 31, is dis-
played on the outfield wall (
at Ray Fischer Stadium.
Abbott's wish became
reality when he was
offered a scholarship to
play baseball for the Wol-
verines in 1985 by former
Michigan coach Bud Middaugh.
He helped lead Michigan to Big
Ten Championships in 1986 and
1987, and was named Big Ten Ath-
lete of the Year in his senior sea-
At Flint Central High School,
Abbott took snaps under center at
football practice and got a chance
to play in several games his senior
year as a backup to Randy Lev-
els, who went on to play at Cen-
tral Michigan. His performance
at quarterback prompted a CBS
sports crew to interview Abbott
for a halftime broadcast during an
NFL Thanksgiving Day game. He
played basketball too, but baseball
became his first love long before
his high school days began.
Abbott pitched lights out. His
first start as a little-league pitch-
er resulted in a no-hitter, and he
boasted a six-game stretch with
exactly a0.00 earned run average.
But baseball was about much
more than wins and strikeouts.
"I started training for (base-
ball) and it was the one thing
where I really felt like I could be
who I was, and battle back and try
to prove myselfin alot of ways that
I looked for as a kid," Abbott said.
"It really was myoutlet."
Chuck Johnson noticed. As
a sports reporter from the Flint
Journal, Johnson came to watch
12-year old Abbott in alittle league
game when word had spread about
a young pitching phenom in the
The encounter ended with a
small, quarter-of-a-page article
in the Sunday sports section. But
the lasting effects of beinga semi-
famous pre-teen, just for a day,
re-energized the dream to play
baseball at the highest level.
"It was the first time I really felt
like I was doing something note-
worthy or that people were notic-
ing," Abbott said. "It was a small
human interest story but it really
changed my perspective on how I
looked at myself."
And at age 12, Abbott started
to realize a lot more about him-
self than the average high school
student. His gifted left arm and
only hand was blossoming right in
front of him, and everyone around
him began to catch glimpses of
what could be the beginning of an
Rogers now plays hockey at
Notre Dame as a backup goalten-
der. Another kid without a right
hand, from north metro-Detroit,
participating in Division-I athlet-
ics. The inspiration he received
from Abbott never died. They
still speak with each other every
month just to check in on one
What he took away from
Abbott's speeches the most, he
said, was how to handle all sorts of
situations. Life throws a lot at you,
and Abbott tells people they have
to know how to hit it.
"You have to hit the curveballs,"
Abbott's disability gave back to
him on Sunday, Sept. 4,1993, when
he was the one throwing all the
curveballs.The New York Yankees
defeated the Cleveland Indians,
4-0. Abbott captivated an entire
nation, rather than a few hundred
kids, when he pitched one of the
most improbable no-hitters in
major league history that day.
In his previous start, Abbott
was rocked for seven earned runs
in 3.2 innings against the Indians.
"The next few days, leading up
to the (Saturday) start, there was
a lot of anxiousness and trepida-
tion," Abbott said. "I was really
excited to get back on the mound
and try to redeem myself."
What a difference a day makes.
Abbott loved day games. That
overcast, rainy Saturday morning,
he took ascab to the ballpark from
Manhattan, got to the "nice and
cozy" old Yankee clubhouse and
began his pregame routine.
The routine was nothing dif-
ferent from last time he battled
through Cleveland's lineup
with the likes of rookie Manny
"U/hat is taken
iway once is give
Ramirez, Jim Thome, Kenny
Lofton and Albert Belle staring
back at him. He'd first go to the
training room and get to a quiet
place. There, he could browse the
lineup and visualize how exactly
the game might go, batter by bat-
ter. Surely, he thought, what hap-
pened last time on the hill would
be avoided this time around.
Uneasiness and nerves almost
got the best of Abbott that Satur-
day, and he'd be the first to admit
"I think I was effectively wild,
to be honest with you," Abbott
said. "I didn't have spot-on, pin-
point control that day."
Abbott, in fact, walked five bat-
ters and struck out just three that
Saturday. What made the differ-
ence all afternoon was his aggres-
"I think that was part of the
key to having some success that
day," Abbott said. "I was aggres-
sive, I was trying to really trust it
and really try to let it go and let the
stuff take over."
He tried something new, mix-
ing in slow curveballs to keep the
Indians' honest. Abbott credits his
catcher, Matt Nokes, with the idea
in the scouting report. With hard-
ly any strikeouts, infield ground
balls came in flurries. None more
important, of course, than the
27th out that rolled directly to
shortstop Randy Velarde, thanks
to a slider that tailed towards the
outside part of the plate. Velarde
whipped the ball over to the glove
of Abbott's best friend, first base-
man Don Mattingly.
Game over. Let the party in
New York begin.
Abbott described the feeling of
watching the ball hit Mattingly's
glove as "elation."
"The excitement of the stands
and the excitement of your team-
mates, the unbelievably, stunning
suddenness that it's over," Abbott
said. "That countdown is over and
there it is and it looks like it might
happen, you just can't believe it.
You just can't believe it and you're
Two decades later, it still gets
Mattingly took Abbott out to
dinner that night at Cronie's, a
popular place for New York ath-
letes. Abbott's meal was paired
with a bottle of champagne at
"That's what a no-hitter is all
about," Abbott said. "It's a person-
al achievement, but it's a shared
moment with your team who had
so much to do it with. Guys like
Donnie made it all the more spe-
Abbott's dad was the one that
inspired the phrase, "What is
taken away once is given back
His parents were just teenagers
when Abbott was born, but that
single sentence was repeated as
far back as he can remember.
"My parents were my heroes,"
Abbott said. "They could have
gone a lot of different directions.
Yet, they didn't keep me away
from experience. They wanted me
to get out there and get involved
and not shy away from the real
world, soto speak."
And that's whatAbbott inspired
Rogers to do. Most conversations
after his speeches are quite gen-
eral, Abbott says. Butthe one with
Rogers remains the most vivid,
reminiscent of both men's unfor-
Abbott's father's phrase rings
true through the no-hitter. He
laid an egg against the Indians one
Sunday, and came back with an
uppercut that following Saturday.
It resonates with every child
with or without a disability in the
jam-packed auditoriums that he
speaks in every week. The kids
talk about what it's like to have
someone to look to and to talk to
someone who understands their
situation and scattered emotions.
"I just try to share in the idea
that so much more is possible than
we sometimes think," Abbott said.
Abbott's parents simply
allowed him to be a kid.
Being born differently,
there is no denying that
there were bumps in the
fl road. By giving back what
he received through his
parents, Abbott strives
to shatter the bumps that
similar children face every
day in sports and school.
He paved the way for
Rogers, multiple times. Rogers
was so enthralled the first time he
heard Abbott speak that he made
plans to be at his next speaking
session in Michigan. To this day,
Rogers uses quotes from Abbott's
speeches as motivation before he
takes the ice in South Bend.
It was never easy, for Rogers,
for Abbott or for anyone to fully
move past a physical disability.
"I think the most difficult part
is maintaining belief in yourself,"
Abbott said. "I think that when
you're different, you have a ten-
dency to make concessions and
try to fit in and sometimes you can
lose your way a bit in terms of who
you really are because you want
people to like you."
Not too surprisingly, Abbott's
speaking career began rolling
while he was still tossing pitches.
He estimates that he spoke with
at least one kid with a physical
disability on every road trip of his
"When I meet kids today who
have similar challenges, I just try
to encourage them to find some-
thing that they love to do," Abbott
said. "Not something that some-
body else thinks they can do or
tells them that they should do.
Find something they want to do,
and stay true to where they want
to go in life and what they want to
That was baseball for Abbott.
His dad inspired him with a single
sentence, and in return, Abbott
has given back to many more peo-
ple than the children he's talked
Former Michigan pitcher Jim Abbott was born without a right hand. His rise to the MLB continues tocaptivate audiences.
to. He enthralled the entire base-
ball nation through his stints with
the California Angels, Chicago
White Sox, Milwaukee Brewers
and the Yankees.
Teams consistently bunted to
him to test his one-handed fielding
ability, but he'd drop the glove and
record an out barehanded. Play-
ing in the American League, he
was never forced to bat with the
exception to interleague play. That
didn't matter, though.
Current Yankees closer Maria-
no Rivera, recallswatchingAbbott
hit home runs in batting practice
during Rivera's rookie year of
spring training, according to The
New York Times. Abbott chuckles
about the fact that Rivera some-
how remembers the scene.
He still says that wearing a
Michigan baseball jersey is one of
his greatest achievements to date.
That, right alongside his speaking
career, are what he calls his most
Abbott has given back what he's
received through baseball. But for
his father, himself and his audi-
ences, Abbott won't stop speak-
ing until he's given back twice as
much as he's inherited.