Jim Abbott spent his entire life trying to forge an identity that went beyond the fact that he was born with a hand missing. As a boy, he threw himself into athletics as a means of fitting in with the other kids at school. Although Abbott was good at various sports, it was baseball where he most shined, especially on the mound as a pitcher. He taught himself a technique where he balanced his glove on the nub of his missing right hand and after throwing a pitch would seamlessly slide the glove over and slip his left hand into it.
In the GameChange podcast, Thru the Tunnel Abbott explains what playing baseball meant to him. “When I had those uncomfortable moments of being different, that was my chance to fight back, I could always revert to that. Well, I’m a pretty good pitcher.”
As Abbott progressed through his baseball career from high school to the University of Michigan, the USA Olympic baseball team, and finally getting drafted into the major leagues by the California Angels, Abbott preferred that people focus on his baseball ability and not simply label him as the inspirational one-handed pitcher. However, after getting traded to the New York Yankees, and having the first long slump of his career, Abbott’s attitude of “just judge me for my performance” somewhat flipped and he was not happy with himself when he realized it.
During that season Jack Curry, a Yankees beat writer, graded all the New York players and reported that Abbott was underachieving. Abbott explains his reaction. “I took it to heart. I was like, ‘Whoa, you can say that I haven’t pitched well, but I don’t know how you can say I’m an underachiever.’”
Abbott had spent an entire life being labeled as an overachiever, so he took umbrage with the writer’s story and confronted him about it. Curry’s response stopped Abbott in his tracks. He recalls what Curry told him. “He said, ‘Well, I don’t think of you as a one-handed pitcher. I think of you as a quality left-handed pitcher, and to this point, you have underachieved that talent.’ And he was exactly right.”
Abbott was disappointed in himself for allowing himself to slip into the narrative of the inspirational one-handed pitcher, a label he long tried to avoid. He explains, “In that moment, in some small way, I had almost looked for the excuse of having one hand. Protecting myself from the scrutiny.”
As Abbott struggled on the field, he came to realize that he had become too caught up in his previous achievements. He says, “It seemed to fill these, I don’t know if there are holes in our self-esteem, and sort of who we are, I think it glosses over some things.”
Ironically, the personal identity of being a baseball player, which allowed Abbott to fit in as a kid, had now morphed into becoming too much a part of how he judged himself. The trap that athletes, and other high-achieving individuals, have of wrapping their entire personal identity around the success of their performances is one that Abbott acknowledges he fell into. This became more of a challenge when his baseball career ended. Abbott asks, “When all your eggs are in that basket and then that basket’s empty, where do you turn?”
So, where did Abbott turn to climb out of the rabbit hole of having “all of his eggs” placed into one basket of being just a baseball player? He answers his own question. “I read a lot and I really tried to make sense of blessings. I really tried to focus on what I had rather than what was gone. My family, my daughters, their achievements, their goals, their lives, which ultimately means so much more to us than anything we ever did. Right?”