BASEBALL’S AMATEUR DRAFT : Abbott Was Sure He’d Play as Pro : Angels Make One-Handed Pitcher Their No. 1 Choice

Times Staff Writer

Jim Abbott was born without a right hand, but the Angels selected him in the first round of Wednesday’s free-agent draft because of the way he throws a baseball with his left arm.

And that’s exactly how Abbott always imagined it would be.

“I always thought I would play pro ball,” Abbott, a 21-year-old junior at Michigan, said. “I didn’t think about anything holding me back. I grew up playing baseball with one hand, and I just figured I’d play until someone took my spikes away and told me I wasn’t good enough anymore.

“I never thought how outlandish that was. Looking back, I realize it’s really a different situation--me having just one hand--and I guess if I had any common sense, I would have given up a long time ago.”

Instead, Abbott excelled to the point where he became the eighth player in the nation drafted Wednesday. Obviously, the Angels were convinced that his 94-m.p.h. fastball was an asset that far outweighed Abbott’s defensive liabilities, if there are any.

“We looked very closely at the fielding aspect,” said Angel scout George Bradley, who was formerly Detroit’s director of scouting. “We analyzed it and cross-checked it. We had a lot of people see him and the consensus is that he handles it very well.


“He can field bunts and defend his position and when we concluded that fielding was not a factor, we decided he was the left-hander in the draft. He has the best fastball we’ve seen. He’s the best all-around pitcher we’ve seen. And we felt he was far enough along that it won’t take him as long to get to the majors as some of the other pitchers available.”

Abbott balances his glove on the nub of his right arm during delivery and then shoves his left hand into the glove on the follow-through. He has been adept at switching the ball from the glove to his bare hand and throwing since high school.

Two years ago, a college coach ordered a runner at third to take off for home as soon as the catcher returned the ball to the mound. Abbott easily threw him out. He hasn’t seen much of that kind of thing since.

“They don’t bunt on me any more than any other pitcher,” Abbott said. “I don’t know what they’ll do on the next level up, of course, but I’m looking forward to the opportunity to prove that there isn’t much difference.”

Abbott says he thinks of himself as a baseball player and never a handicapped baseball player, but he understands the public’s fascination. He admits that all the attention once bothered him but that he has reached the point where he hopes his achievements will help others.

“I pitch to win, not to be courageous,” he said. “But I’ve grown up enough to know that being called a one-handed pitcher is not an insult. If it helps a kid or the parents of a kid in a similar situation, then I guess that makes my playing even more worthwhile. That goes beyond just baseball.”

Abbott first drew media attention as a 15-year-old with an 80-m.p.h. fastball playing for a Connie Mack team in Flint, Mich., his hometown.

The Toronto Blue Jays drafted him in the 36th round after he graduated from Flint Central High School. His fastball was up to 90 by then, but, because of his handicap, most scouts felt he had to prove he could play on the college level.

In three seasons at Michigan, Abbott has a 26-8 record with a 3.03 earned-run average. This year, he was named Big Ten player of the year. Last summer, he was 8-1 with a 1.70 ERA for the U.S. national team and pitched 13 scoreless innings to help the U.S. win a silver medal in the Pan-Am Games.

In March, he received the Sullivan Award as the nation’s top amateur athlete. He also won the 1987 Golden Spikes Award, given to the top amateur baseball player in the country.

Heady honors, to be sure, but Abbott sounded genuinely excited Wednesday from his home in Flint.

“If I had made a list of the organizations I’d like to play for, the Angels would have been very high on it,” he said. “And being the eighth player picked is an honor. It’s personally gratifying because these are the pros and I was picked in the first round solely on my ability.”

Abbott relies on his fastball, but Bob Fontaine, the Angels’ director of scouting, thinks Abbott’s cut fastball--a sort of very hard slider--will be especially effective in professional ball.

“He’s actually more suited to the pro game than the amateurs with the aluminum bats,” Fontaine said. “He’s going to be breaking off a lot of these wood bats with that cut fastball.”

Abbott, one of about 40 players who has been invited to try out for the Olympic team, has a good chance of making the squad, which means he can sign with the Angels, but cannot receive any money or pitch in the minors until the Games are over.

“The Olympics are something I’d really like to do,” Abbott said. “We had a lot of fun (on the national team) last summer and it’s a whole different feeling when you’re representing your country.”

A trip to Seoul will make Jim Abbott an international media star. He understands and will field all the questions with the same poise he fields bunts.

Someday, though, Abbott hopes he’s recognized for his numbers--won-lost record, ERA and strikeout totals--not the number of hands he has, or lacks.

"(The questions) will never disappear because it’s a story,” Abbott said. “It’s drawn a lot of attention to me, but my goal is to make the major leagues and I’ll certainly give it my best shot.”

His dream has always been to be the next Nolan Ryan, not the next Pete Gray. He says he wants youngsters to look up to him because he’s a good pitcher, “not because I can field a bunt and throw to first.”