Abbott enjoys second career
Former Wolverines pitcher travels to deliver his inspirational story
It is a moment he'll never forget, wandering through the streets of Manhattan that night almost 19 years ago. For once, the city that never sleeps and hardly ever stops moving paused for a second.
For Jim Abbott.
He celebrated with his teammates, hugged his wife and had a glass of champagne before going out among the public. Early editions of the Sunday papers came out with Abbott splashed on the back page. In the days before the Internet and email and picture-taking cell phones, autographs were still a huge deal.
And Abbott signed a lot of them. In a city where celebrities can blend in easily, Abbott couldn't on this night. He was the toast of New York.
"It's Yankee Stadium, you're in pinstripes, it's in New York, the Yankee fans, the no-hitter," Abbott said. "Your heart has been racing for an hour counting down those outs and then you're three outs away.
"That, it's hard to describe what it is like to pick those last three outs off, that you want something so bad and yet you have to force yourself to stay in the moment."
That could describe Abbott's entire career as he learned to embrace how his difference -- he was born without a right hand -- could turn into something so remarkable.
It was something, being different, he had hoped would disappear upon reaching the major leagues with the California Angels in 1988. That the story of the one-handed pitcher would turn into merely a story about another major-league player.
It never did, and now Abbott understands why.
The inspiration he provided for others led to him writing a book with author Tim Brown, "Imperfect: An Improbable Life," which came out earlier this year. And after his baseball career ended, his story lifted him to another awe-inspiring second career.
He tells his story and people are still interested in hearing it, almost 13 years after his retirement in 1999. He travels the country giving inspirational talks -- he doesn't like the term motivational speaker -- in hopes others can learn and take from his story and have it influence their own lives.
That experience as a pitcher -- the nerves, the anticipation, the need to do well to please a crowd -- helped him when he started using his mouth in his second career instead of his arm during his first one.
"First time I did it I had no idea what I was going to talk about, no idea how to relate to people. Well, I knew how to relate to people, but I didn't know how to share this," said Abbott, one of six Michigan baseball players to have his number retired by the school. "I got out there, and I stumbled a little bit.
"But what I discovered is audiences, when you speak, are much friendlier than they are in Fenway Park. They want you to do well and they are forgiving of mistakes. That was liberating in the idea that you get up there and you're real and authentic."
His authenticity and the unlikeliness of a story started in Flint and reaching Yankee Stadium helped sell his message even more. Word spread of his second career, and the gigs started to grow.
As they did, so did Abbott's comfort with speaking in front of audiences. He learned how to connect with people in a crowd of 80 people the same way he would speaking in front of 4,000 people in Las Vegas.
The speaking led to another idea, one first broached to him when he first reached the majors. Write a book. Tell his story in a long-lasting way.
He wasn't sure at the time, so he declined and went about both of his careers. In recent years, the idea came up again.
Now with perspective and a breadth of experience to write about, he agreed and reconnected with the early part of his life. He retraced his life, and the story amazed even him.
He learned everything differently than most and had more success in his profession than almost anyone could have expected. So he felt his story would resonate.
It has, reaching as high as No. 16 on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list.
"If you're ever thinking about writing a book, wait," Abbott said. "Wait until you have some perspective. You're so close to things, especially when you're playing, that it's hard to remove yourself from things, from the experience.
"Being this far removed from my playing days, I am able to go back to that little league field and look at it with new eyes and go, 'Wow, look at that backstop; that's exactly the same as it was 35 years ago.' Trying to throw strikes, I remember just trying to throw the ball over the plate on their field.
"To think that mission would be the same and I would keep doing it for so long, yeah, it really hit me and struck me in a really profound way."