Jim Abbott makes his best pitch ever
(CBS News) It's a Rite of Spring: baseball's Opening Day! When hope springs eternal for players and fans alike. Nobody's perfect, of course. But there are countless stories of baseball heroics . . . including the one Lee Cowan has to tell us now in this Sunday Profile:
Out of all the baseball games played in the last few days - this victory was especially sweet. "Nice playing! Nice playing! Colin, nice playing, bud. That was a good hit. You have a great swing!"
As Little Leaguers go, every player here is special. Each is facing either a mental or physical challenge.
"Oooh! Almost! Use that other hand to trap it in there, trap it in there. Nice toss!!"
But the man they donned their uniforms for today was here to show them that baseball doesn't discriminate.
Kid: "What happened to your hand?"
Jim: "I was born like this. I had to learn how to play baseball with just one hand."
"Sometimes it's as simple as that, just breaking the ice - Hey, I was born this way, I had to learn to do things a little bit differently, and you know what? Here I am."
An all-around athlete who did more with one hand than many players dream of doing with two.
Jim Abbott said he was never NOT interested in sports. "I never remember NOT being a fan," he said.
He also said that, despite only having one hand, he thought he could do it all. "I thought I could throw, I thought I could kick, I thought I could run, and whatever it took to get into the game, I was going to figure out a way to do it."
He's still figuring out ways to do it. His latest sport: Golf. "I'm fortunate that I have this much of my arm to work with, and this much of my hand to be able to guide the club and balance it," he said.
He's spent his life teeing up expectations and knocking them out of sight. But he thought once he got married - retired from baseball, had two daughters - that questions about his hand might stop.
Instead, it was his youngest, Ella, who innocently asked one no one else ever had. "She said, 'Dad, do you like your little hand?'" Abbott recalled. "And that took me down a path of thinking about, 'Do I like this? Do I like what it has meant to my life? Where it has taken to me?' And my answer to her was, 'Yes, I do.'"
His book, "Imperfect," is the rest of the answer to her simple question.
Abbott said it was about the time he began going to school when he became aware he was different. "I think we all do, right? When I was in kindergarten, at that point in my life I was wearing a prosthesis, I wore a metal hook that was big and clunky and cumbersome, and obviously drew a lot of attention, and so I think walking into that classroom for the first time was when I first noticed, 'Hey I'm not like the rest of the kids.'"
"Was being teased and taunted out on the playground debilitating?" Cowan asked.
"It was hard, there's no question about it," he replied. "You know, I went around a lot of the times with my hand in my pocket. I still do. Even now, in certain situations, and not that there's anything wrong with that, it's just habit."
Jim's parents, Mike and Kathy Abbott, didn't know why their son was born that way. Neither did doctors. But they weren't about to let it stand in their son's way.
"There wasn't coddling," Jim said. "You know, if I came home from a playground or a game, or something and said 'I didn't get picked,' or 'I wasn't a part of that,' I was encouraged to get right back in there. And my dad and mom would talk about walking up to people, introducing yourself, and don't shy away from that, and that was incredibly important."
He didn't want pity - like all kids, he just wanted to play: "I had a belief in what I could do if I was given a chance. If I could find a way, I felt like I could prove myself, I could do more than maybe what was being expected. And so if I was picked last, at least I was in the game, and I had an ambition to go out there and not be picked last next time."
It was the brick wall of his childhood home in Flint, Michigan, that became his teacher - and his teammate, helping him figure out the art of switching his glove to make his throwing hand his catching hand, too.
"I just had this rubber coated baseball and just throw it against there and try to get the glove back on before it bounced back at me," he explained. "I remember breaking one of these windows at some point, being in trouble with the tenant and my mom and dad!"
It soon became apparent the kid with one hand had one heck of an arm. He went from being picked last - to first.
It was on a Little League field he began to fine-tune his throw: "I could always throw hard, but I always wasn't sure where it was going!" he laughed.
By the time he got to Flint Central High School, he could hit, too - leading the team in home runs, including a game-winner he remembers to this day.
"I knew I hit it, and I knew I hit it really well," Abbott said. "I just heard everyone's reaction to it."
He was such a good athlete, the football coach wanted him, too, as quarterback. Abbot lead the team to the state semi-finals.
There were still the looks and the stares - but there were accolades, too.
In 1987 he was named the nation's best amateur athlete, and became the starting pitcher for the U.S. Olympic team. When they beat Japan in the final game, few were talking about Jim's missing hand anymore - just his gold medal arm.
"There aren't many times in your life where you have this complete sense of fulfillment, complete sense of peace," he said. "Could have retired then and there and been happy!"
Instead Jim pushed harder - skipping the minor leagues, and signing on with the California Angels.
He said he still had a long way to prove himself in the majors. "But I felt like, for that moment at least, I was being judged for how I could pitch."
But just when he felt he was like everybody else came a fan base who reminded him, he wasn't.
"Families started to come, you, know moms and dads, and little boys and little girls, facing challenges that I can't even begin to describe," Abbott recalled. "You'd be signing autographs and the hats, and everything is being thrown at you, and all of a sudden there'd just be a boy or a girl just sitting there and I'd actually hear a parent say, 'Show him honey. Show him your hand,' and, you know . . . I just saw so many stories of people, parents and kids who just weren't going to let the circumstances of their life be an excuse. They were bound and determined to make the most of what they'd been given, whatever it was. And I knew that baseball was my chance to do that, so I was inspired to be the best baseball player I could be."
And on September 4, 1993, as a New York Yankee, he WAS. Jim pitched a no hitter - something few Hall of Famers ever achieve. New York exploded with pride.
"Everybody in life should have a moment like that, walking down the streets of New York where people are yelling at you from across the street, and people are honking their horns, and running up to you with the early edition of the newspapers, for the Sunday editions for the next day - 'Will you sign this?' Fantastic!"
"Did you ever think about your hand that night?" Cowan asked.
"No I felt like being a pitcher, I felt like being a Yankee, I felt like being a teammate. My hand played ZERO role in that day."
Even though it's been more than a decade since he played, he gets new fans every day.
In proving he could be like everyone else, Jim Abbot showcased how truly special he is. Life's funny that way - kind of like baseball.
"They've described my play in these beautiful terms, you know, 'It was courageous, it was motivational, it was inspirational.' It was none of those things to me," he said. "I was doing something that I loved to do, and that's what I would like to encourage people to do: Find something you love in this world, and don't let anyone ever change your opinion that you can do it."
That's Jim's latest - and perhaps best - pitch of all.
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