Single-Handedly Pitching 'An Improbable Life'

Apr 29, 2012
Originally published on April 30, 2012 11:31 am
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In the history of Major League Baseball, one of the most emotional moments came in the summer of 1993. The week didn't begin well for New York Yankees pitcher Jim Abbott. He was pitching terribly against the Cleveland Indians. His manager took him out, so...

JIM ABBOTT: I ripped off my Yankee jersey, put on my running shorts and shirt and shoes. And I left the stadium. I just went for a long kind of get-it-out run, as far and as fast as I could, to kind of get rid of some of the anger and disappointment of that start.

GREENE: But just five days later, Jim Abbott would throw a no-hitter, an extraordinary feat for a pitcher, especially for a pitcher who was born without a right hand. Abbott has written a new memoir, along with co-author Tim Brown. It's called "Imperfect: An Improbable Life."

Abbott joined us from our studio at NPR West. And he began by telling us how he recovered from that awful game against the Indians that sent him on an angry jog out of the stadium.

ABBOTT: Coming off of that terrible game in Cleveland, I had to go up against the same exact team in my next start back at Yankee Stadium. Needless to say, I knew they were going to be confident. It was getting my own confidence back up for, you know, to go out and face that team began. So, I had a great meeting before the game with my pitching coach, Tony Cloninger and my catcher, Matt Nokes. And we decided on a game plan. We'd throw a little bit more off-speed pitches and trust it. Most of all trust it. If we were going to get beat, we were going to get beat with our best stuff. And went out there in the first inning in Yankee Stadium, a nice crowd was gathering. It was a gray overcast day.


ABBOTT: I promptly threw the first pitch to the backstop...


ABBOTT: ...walked the first batter, Kenny Lofton, which isn't a good idea. He was the fastest runner in the league. But from there, the confidence started to come back. The ball went the right way and it ended up being just a magical day.

GREENE: And we'll certainly hear more of that day. But, you know, as you talk about the uncertainty at the beginning of that game and the need to build confidence, that those are themes of really your entire life. But I want you to take us back to your early years. Your parents had to face the reality of seeing a newborn son who was missing most of his right hand. And tell me how they reacted to that.

ABBOTT: Well, that was one of the real interesting discoveries for me in the process of this book was hearing that story. And they had me at a very early age. There was uncertainty in their life without the fact of me being born missing my right hand. And to hear their story, to hear of their anxiousness and their nervousness, and their concern over the future, it's been an incredible thing.

And I admire them. I think they went about it in an instinctual way. They looked, you know, at various prostheses and different things that would help me to gain more flexibility in my right hand. But ultimately, they came to this realization that a lot was given to me. And I might be missing my right hand but I was also given a lot. And that's where the focus had to be, on my left hand, and the things I could do rather than my right hand and the things that I couldn't.

GREENE: Even being a Major League Baseball player and all the attention and fame, it doesn't protect you from people who will taunt you. Tell us, if you can, about what happened when a fan made a rude comment during what was a fight on the field actually.


GREENE: You were playing for the California Angels. Take us through that.

ABBOTT: One time in Chicago, in the old Comiskey Park, we got into a little bit of a scrum with the White Sox. And I wasn't pitching. I wasn't involved in the game other than just sitting on the bench. So, I ran out there to support my teammates and kind of get in the middle of things. And as I was coming back to the dugout, a fan in Chicago yelled out, you know: What are you going to do out there with one hand, Abbott?

And, you know, I'd heard that kind of thing my whole life. And, you know, it always took me back a little bit. But my teammates heard that and really kind of, for the first time in the Major Leagues - you know, my manager Doug Rader heard that and he was irate. He tried to go in the stands, and he's yelling and screaming and swearing, and it became this big scene.

I think that story goes to the type of support and that the great encouragement that I received from managers, coaches, teammates throughout my career.

GREENE: But did you want your manager, your teammates coming to your defense? I mean how did that make you feel?

ABBOTT: It was great. I loved it. I mean...


ABBOTT: ...that's why I played sports. You know, when you're born differently, you want to fit in. You want to be a part of a team and sports called to me, that kind of unique feeling of being a part of something special.


GREENE: Let's get back to Yankee Stadium, as we kind of follow the narrative of your book. You're taking us through your life and this big game. We're back in the middle of the game and you haven't given up a hit. And I'm guess I'm wondering, Jim, at what point in the game does it dawn on the pitcher that there are no hits, that there's a big zero there, that something special might be happening?

ABBOTT: About the time your teammates stop talking to you is when...


GREENE: Because they don't want to jinx you.

ABBOTT: Yeah, baseball's stupid superstition. I remember looking up at the scoreboard after the fifth inning. And I'd been a little wild that day. I'd walked a few guys and so it didn't feel like a perfect game. And I looked up at the scoreboard and I saw that they didn't have any hits. And it surprised me. And I thought, well, this is way too early to be caught up in something like this. But from that moment on every out seemed to take on a little added poignancy.

GREENE: And, Jim Abbott, you had what was an up and down baseball career. You fought to make a comeback and you talk about the struggles of trying to hold on and retiring, you know, earlier than some players did. But it was that game at Yankee Stadium on September 4th, 1993 that really stands out. And I wondered if you could take us through that final out at Yankee Stadium.

ABBOTT: In a no-hitter, every out is like a clicking off of a clock or something. There's this countdown. Starting from that first recognition in the fifth inning, after the seventh inning, you think, well, there's two more innings and six more outs. And you get another out then it's five. And then it's four. And then it's three and you're waiting in the dugout for the ninth inning to start. And you can't wait to get right back out there.

And you run out there in the ninth inning. And people, you know, the Yankees fans are literally jumping up and down. And you're caught up in the excitement. And you're so close. And you've been through enough baseball to know that any little thing could upend this dream.

And Matt Nokes, my catcher, sat behind the plate at Yankee Stadium. He gave me the slider sign. I threw a good slider on the outside part of the plate to Carlos Barega, who hit a ground ball to shortstop that I promise you, David, took a half an hour to get there.




ABBOTT: And there it was - a no-hitter in Yankee Stadium.

GREENE: I was struck that the announcer at the end, you know, as you're celebrating on the field, never once mentioned that you pitched a no-hitter with only one hand.



GREENE: It was just that Jim Abbott pitched a no-hitter. Is that the way you wanted it?

ABBOTT: Yes. I endeavored my whole life to move past the label. Baseball gave me that chance. That no-hitter that special day in Yankee Stadium gave me that moment, when I could change the focus away from how I played to how well I played.

GREENE: Jim Abbott's new memoir is called "Imperfect: An Improbable Life."

Jim Abbott, thank you so much for sharing your story with us.

ABBOTT: Thank you, David. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.