On the heels of what promises to be an exciting ALCS between the Yankees and the Angels, who better to sit down with than someone who has experienced the success and excitement from both sides firsthand?
Abbott, who was born and pitched without a right hand, was gracious enough to speak with me about his remarkable career—and where his heart lies in the upcoming series. As his words show, Jim is not only a terrific role model, but an absolute class act as well.
Q: Jim, playing baseball required quite a few adjustments for you. What were some of the most effective changes you made to your game in order to be successful?
A: Obviously, switching the glove on and off was vital to play baseball. That’s something I learned to do with my dad at a very early age, just practiced, and worked hard.
You know what, as I moved up in levels of competition—college, and international baseball, and ultimately the major leagues, the adjustment of being able to hide pitches was important, being able to change grips within my delivery so that the batters and coaches couldn’t pick up what I was throwing. That was a vital adjustment.
In the National League, learning how to hit was an adjustment—learning how to grip the bat because I couldn’t really do it the same way as everyone else. There was a certain amount of adjustability required.
Q: Your Yankees teammate Mariano Rivera said you were able to hit home runs into the bleachers during batting practice. Is that true?
A: I did. You know, I wasn’t a bad hitter at batting practice speed with no breaking balls. That was okay. I was an okay hitter in high school but didn’t hit too much after that. I do have two hits in the major leagues, and I’m proud of that.
Q: You have said that just being able to play the game of baseball at all was an accomplishment for you, let alone in the major leagues. When did making the pros become a reality for you?
A: It was always just trying to move to the next limit. I didn’t think about making the major leagues—every kid has that dream, I had it, but when I was in Little League I just wanted to make the junior high team. When I was in junior high, I wanted to make the Varsity team.
When I started to have some success in summer leagues (Connie Mack), I thought, "Well, these kids are going off to play college baseball; maybe I may have that opportunity too." It was taking it level-by-level, and it wasn’t until I played in college and played for the U.S. team that I thought I could play professionally.
When I was drafted, I knew I may have the opportunity. I didn’t necessarily believe I’d have the ability to do that until I was able to play against college players from the country and hold my own. It was taking it one step at a time.
Q: In 2007, you were elected to the College Baseball Hall of Fame. Do you ever feel as though, given the huge inspiration that you are, the obstacles that you had to overcome, and your existing success, that you deserve consideration from Cooperstown?
A: No, I want my career to be judged by what I did on the field. I appreciate the honors. The College Baseball Hall of Fame honor is an incredible feeling, but I think my career will be remembered for what it was and what it is, and I don’t need more than that.
Q: Chad Bentz was the second player ever to pitch in the major leagues without a hand. Did you ever get a chance to offer him any advice?
A: I did meet Chad while he was here at Long Beach State, and I had a chance to go see him in practice to meet and chat with him a little bit. He was a great kid from Alaska, and I was rooting for him. I thought the world of him. I don’t think he will be the last. I think there will be more kids to make it in the major leagues.
Q: You had multiple stints with two teams during your career. Did you ever feel as though teams were afraid to take a chance on you?
A: Maybe, but not because of the way I played. There were teams that shied away from me because I struggled. I couldn’t really tell you, because I wasn’t there for those discussions. I had good relationships with teams that I played for, and that accounted for the fact that I had the opportunity to play twice for the Angels and the White Sox.
Q: In 1996, you experienced the first major struggle in your career. I know that was emotionally difficult for you. Talk about how you overcame that season to further your success the next season.
A: I don’t know that you overcome it. It was a struggle and the first time where I had success taken away or run into that type of failure. You deal with it. It wasn’t easy. I’m not saying I handled it in the best way. It was a great lesson.
For so long, I had relied on baseball for my identity and used the success that I had to help bridge some insecurities that I had growing up. I had to learn that you are more than your job, you’re more than baseball. That’s just one aspect of who you are. That failure really brought that lesson home.
Q: Your attitude towards life has always been that life has given you much more than it has taken away. How difficult is it to look past your obstacles and have that mindset?
A: I think you need optimism. I believe that’s incredibly important that you be optimistic that you can do things different and still do them just as well. That’s very important to success—just to have a positive outlook. I know it’s not easy to do that.
Determination, stubbornness, not to allow a limitation to limit where you want to go or what you want to do in life. I believe that it doesn’t matter what your skills are; you can still have a fulfilling life despite the challenges you face every day.
Q: For those that don’t know, you have made a career out of being a motivational speaker. Do you have any interest in coaching?
A: I love coaching, but right now I spend a lot of time with my two daughters. I want to be with them, and coaching requires being away. I really like where I’m at right now.
I don’t know how long it will last, but in some ways getting out there to speak is like coaching. I’m not coaching baseball, but I’m talking about some of the same principles I would be if I were working with a pitching staff. I get to do some off-the-field coaching with my daughter’s team. I’m really happy that I get to reach a wider group than I would if I were coaching baseball.
Q: You had quite a few outstanding accomplishments in your career. Are there any that stand out to you as favorites?
A: The no-hitter and the Olympic gold medal are ranked side-by-side for me. It’s hard to separate the two. The Olympics were such a great team accomplishment, with 25 guys who I was really close with and was just an amazing feeling.
The no-hitter was a team thing also, but it comes so suddenly and out of the blue that it just becomes a different baseball experience. I love them both for the memories and the guys I was able to share it with.
Q: Are there teammates that you still stay close with today?
A: Oh yeah! Olympic teammates, Kurt Mackaskill, Mark Langston, Donnie Hill, Timmy Wallach, Chuck Finley, Charlie Nagy, Robin Ventura—I see Tino [Martinez] every now and then—all the guys who live in Cali. Everyone goes in different directions.
What’s cool about baseball is you don’t have to see someone for years, but when you see them, you just hustle up and give them a big hug. Those friendships endure.
Q: Now, let’s turn to baseball today. The big question for you is...Angels or Yankees?
A: I root for the Angels. I do some work for them in Spring Training, and they are just closer to home.
Q: One last thing—any World Series predictions?
A: I look at the ALCS as a World Series atmosphere. I just think the Yanks and Angels are two of the best teams in baseball. This is the one time I get jealous because I think it would be so fun to play in a city like New York or Boston and play in that type of atmosphere.