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The season of perpetual hope (Pt. 2 of 3): Jim Abbott

A lanky lefty scoffs at limitations

MLB Photos Archive Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Part 1: Zack Greinke cleanses his mind and crafts a potential HOF career.

From a fan’s perspective—especially in the upper deck with a bird’s eye view—baseball can sometimes look easy. The pitcher gets into a rhythm, runners glide around the bases, and fielders lope after balls that seem to lazily settle into gloves.

But sit a little closer—or take a stroll on the playing surface itself—and the truth is quickly revealed: baseball folk are “1%-ers” in athletic ability. Truly the “best of the best of the best”. Most HS players wash out of college, the best collegians largely wash out of the minors, and only a fraction of MiLB experiences The Show. It takes perfectly-tuned bodies and insane fast-twitch muscle precision to even have an opportunity to succeed.

Minnesota Twins fans try to stay warm on opening day in the upper deck at Target Field , Monday April, 01, 2013 in Minneapolis, MN. ] JERRY HOLT • jerry.holt@startribune.com
It all looks so easy from up there
Photo By Jerry Holt/Star Tribune via Getty Images

This all makes what Jim Abbott accomplished even more remarkable.

You see, Abbott was born with a right arm that ended about where your wrist is. Just to execute the basic mechanics of baseball required a delicate dance of releasing the horsehide with his left arm while balancing his globe on his right nubbin—then almost instantaneously slipping his southpaw into the leather to field. A throw required? Off with the glove again—this time wedged under his right forearm—to pluck the sphere and fire.

But execute he did. At Flint Central HS in Michigan, he was a star pitcher (and QB!). Then, it was on to the Michigan Wolverines, where he won the James E. Sullivan Award in 1987 as the top amateur athlete (all sports) in the country. The next year? A berth on the Team USA Olympic squad and being selected in the first round (eighth overall!) of the ‘88 MLB draft.

Somehow—don’t ask me how this is even possible—Abbott jumped to the Halos in ‘89 without pitching in a single minor league game. Not only that, but by ‘91 he was posting this line: 34 GS, 18-11, 5 CG, 1 SHO, 243 IP, 2.89 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 142 ERA+. That was good for a third place AL Cy Young Award finish—with 25% less brachial real estate than competitors. Amazingly, his best singular moment was yet to come.

On September 4, 1993, Abbott—now a Yankee—matched up against Cleveland in the Bronx. Digging into the batter’s box that afternoon were the likes of Kenny Lofton, Carlos Baerga, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Albert Belle, & Sandy Alomar. Abbott scattered five walks, three strikeouts—and absolutely nothing else...

Towards the end of his career, Abbott played in the National League and thus had to bat for himself. You might be wondering “hmmm—how would that work?”, but if so you haven’t been paying attention...

All told, Jim Abbott finished his career as a league-average MLB pitcher: 87-108, 4.25 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, 99 ERA+. But there was absolutely nothing average about him. Strictly from a numbers perspective, such a line would stick out in Cooperstown. But considering the long odds against Abbott even stepping foot on a major league diamond, I’m a little surprised he’s not enshrined. I can’t think of too many other players who have overcome more physical adversity and shined as superstars.

Californina Angles v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images