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Friday, April 20, 2012
Writer Tim Brown on Jim Abbott, 'Imperfect'

By Lynn Hoppes



After a long day at ESPN's Bristol, Conn., campus Wednesday to promote his book "Imperfect: An Improbable Life," former baseball pitcher Jim Abbott -- always good-natured -- took part in a friendly wiffle ball competition with some ESPN talent. The video shows ESPN analyst and former Philadelphia Phillies player Doug Glanville trying to take some swings.

Abbott played 11 years in the majors, despite being born without a right hand. He won 87 games, and, while pitching for the New York Yankees in 1993, Abbott pitched a no-hitter against the Cleveland Indians.

Since retiring in 1999, Abbott, who is a very private person, spends his time working as a motivational speaker. He still wishes he were playing.

"Of course, I wish I were playing -- if I were still in my prime and can do things," the 44-year-old Abbott said. "But I'm proud of where I am now and what I've accomplished. And I'm proud of this book I wrote and I really hope it reaches people."

Abbott's autobiography was really personal. "It exposes yourself to so much in the book, more than you can imagine," Abbott said. "Over the years, I was asked several times to write a book. But I had to wait until the feeling was right. And it was right ... now."

So Trending decided to reach out to Tim Brown, the national baseball writer for Yahoo, who worked with Abbott on the book that was years in the making and asked him 5 Questions.

How did you connect with Jim to write this book?

"I’m not exactly sure why, when Jim began to have ideas of telling his story, he came to me. I’d covered the Angels as a beat writer beginning in 1990, his second big league season. We had a good relationship, though perhaps no better than he had with the other writers at that time. We stayed in touch on occasion after he left the Angels and then retired, but generally he was doing his thing and I was doing mine. We reconnected six or seven years ago, during a time when -- as the national baseball writer for the L.A. Times -- I was knee-deep in baseball’s steroid controversy. It seemed no matter where I turned, the story was steroids. The notion of all these cheating players sickened me. One afternoon, I walked into the press box at Angel Stadium. A photo of Jim in mid-windup was on the wall. And I wondered how all these guys born with perfect bodies, the players who’d sat in their living rooms and made the choice to cheat, could look Jim Abbott in the eye. I called Jim."
What happened on that call?

"We had a long conversation about what he thought of those players, who couldn’t be satisfied with themselves and their place in the game no matter their gifts. That led to a discussion about his experiences, how he felt about his career. I remember him saying something like, 'I think I could have done more with my left arm,' as though he were dissatisfied. It wasn’t long after that when he called and asked if I’d be interested in taking on the book. Ella, his daughter, had asked him that question in class -- “Do you like your little hand?” –- and Jim was sorting through his answer. It sounded like he was considering not simply his baseball career, but his life, through the prism of his birth defect. I’d for so long admired Jim. I knew him to be a fiercely introspective athlete. And I believed if he were willing to broaden that introspection to every part of his life it would make for a fascinating read."

He is such a private person. How did you coax out so much detail from him?

"Jim’s intention was to be honest, so that actually made it easy. My job, I guess, was to be curious about it all. He opened up his entire life to me. To us. From his parents to the elementary school teacher who taught him to tie his shoes to the files kept by sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman, nothing was off limits. He is humble enough to know he was neither above the failures nor beneath the victories, which gave me great freedom to explore every part of who he was and who he became. As we explained in the acknowledgements, we didn’t want to turn on a tape recorder, have Jim tell his story, then transcribe the tape into a book. Instead, we spoke to dozens of people who saw Jim at his best and his worst, and tried to form a narrative as honest as that. That process provoked more memories from Jim, and then further conversations with sources other than Jim, and we just kept circling until we settled on what we thought was the true Jim."

And where was that?

"Where it got interesting, I think, is when Jim felt compelled to consider the role his right hand played in his life. Sword or shield? Did it limit him or propel him? Would he have been a better pitcher with two hands? Would he have worked as hard, and with such desperation, had he been born with a right hand? We spent a lot of time talking about that, about things that have no real answer, but that held great significance in his development as a person and a pitcher. Again, Jim’s honesty, and his willingness to voice what were –- and continue to be –- murky feelings about his condition, pushed the process. It allowed me to ask a lot of questions that during his career would have been considered disrespectful and even crass, and I still took deep breaths before asking them, but Jim never took exception."

What did writing the book with him mean to you?

"It was humbling. First, that Jim would trust me with his story, which could only be told once. Second, that he would be patient enough to watch me stumble around through my first experience organizing and producing a project of this size. It was scary. I had no concept how to write a book. I sometimes doubted I had the writing chops to lay 90,000 words, one after another, across a cohesive and compelling narrative. More, I wanted Jim, his wife, his parents and his children to be proud of it. My greatest responsibility was to them. It was rewarding. If my small part in this book is the best thing I’ll do in my career, and I have a feeling it will be, I’ll be more than satisfied. I think we’ve told a story people can relate to, that can contribute to a more positive conversation, and that might actually help some people. Jim had to live that story first. I am honored he allowed me to help tell it."