To the casual observer, it might be easy to surmise that Jim Abbott was cursed from the very beginning. He was born with most of one of his hand’s missing and he spent most of his young life trying to hide this fact. As a boy, Abbott threw himself into athletics as a means of fitting in with the other kids at school. Although he was good at various sports, it was baseball where Abbott shined, especially on the mound as a pitcher.
In the GameChange podcast, Thru the Tunnel Abbott states 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, Abbott preferred that people focus on his baseball ability and not simply label him as the inspirational one-handed pitcher.
Abbott just wanted to be one of the guys on the teams that he played for. One of the ways that pro athletes build bonds is by playing cards in the clubhouse before games. However, for Abbott that pre-game ritual was often interrupted when the team was on the road. Abbott explains, “I would be with my team playing cards or listen to music and they’d say, ‘There’s somebody down by the dugout who’d like to meet you.’”
The “somebody” that was waiting to meet Abbott was almost always a family with a kid who was also born with a disability. Either as an Angel or a Yankee, in every town that Abbott traveled to when the team was on the road, a family would show up with a boy or girl who wanted to meet their hero that they had so much in common with.
Abbott explains his mixed emotions about the meetings. “It really brought back a flood of emotions, both good and bad, because I used sports to fit in. I was born different and sports called to me to be in a locker room, to be a part of something, to be with my team. That gave me great satisfaction and fulfillment.”
Although Abbott was reluctant to miss bonding time with his teammates, he never regretted the meetings with the young people who shared similar challenges that he faced when he was their age. He states, “I always never walked away uninspired or completely fulfilled.” He adds,
“I was lucky to be in that position” (to inspire them).
When asked on the podcast if the disability he was born with was Abbott’s greatest gift, he responds, “Yes, I do, I do” and he tells the story of how, when his daughter was very young, she asked him if he liked his “little hand.” Abbott says, “She asked me that exact question in a very simple child-like way.” He adds, “It’s what’s different about me and whatever experiences I’ve had. I hope that it’s added a little empathy. But I know for sure I wouldn’t have gone to the places that I went to without it, for better or worse. I’m thankful for the fight that it’s brought. Yes, I do think it has been the defining aspect of who I am as a person.”