SPRING TRAINING '89 : Nothing Throws Jim Abbott : Despite Hoopla, Wind, He Shines in Angel Debut

Times Staff Writer

Jim Abbott got his sense of Yuma Friday morning, along with a sense of everything else that awaits him during his spring tour of cactus, cameras, curiosity and can-he-do-it?

This was Abbott's professional debut, pitching for the Angels against the San Diego Padres in a B exhibition game, spring training's equivalent to the junior varsity. Normally, this is scrub land, of interest only to coaches and close personal friends, but Abbott's presence elevated it to headline status.

First, they moved the game from the hinterlands of some side practice field to the main stadium, to accommodate all those eager for a glimpse of the Angels' one-handed, Olympic gold medal-winning, Sullivan Award-winning No. 1 draft choice from the University of Michigan.

Then, they scheduled a mid-game press conference, to be held 45 minutes after Abbott's final pitch, to accommodate the 20 or so reporters present to chronicle the event.

Then, they let Abbott pitch.

And, on a windy day that sent sand and dust sweeping across the pitcher's mound and home plate, Abbott blew them away.

Eight of the first nine pitches he threw were strikes. Thomas Howard, the first Padre to step in against Abbott, was caught looking, taking an inside fastball for Strike 3. Gary Green, the next hitter, also struck out--on three pitches.

Abbott was one pitch away from striking out the side when Joey Cora, on an 0-and-2 count, bounced a grounder to Angel shortstop Kent Anderson, reaching base when Anderson bobbled the ball for an error.

Abbott came back to retire the next four Padres he faced, including a strikeout of Carmelo Martinez, and didn't allow a hit until his third and final inning of work.

His pitching line for the day: three innings, two hits, four strikeouts, no runs, no walks.

Handicap? What handicap?

"He's a great competitor, just to get here," said Padre infielder Tim Flannery. "But after three pitches, you forget all about that.

"You're just looking for the ball--and on that, he doesn't do anything different than anybody else. . . . He's got a fastball that just takes off. One just sailed and even the catcher couldn't catch it."

Added Martinez:

"Everybody in the dugout's going, 'Yeah, check this guy out' and for my first at-bat, it was hard to concentrate. But then you realize that the ball comes from the same place and goes to the same place.

"If you're looking just at his arm, he's got you."

The Padres were guilty of that, at least once, when Martinez attempted to bunt. Because of Abbott's unique delivery--he rests his glove on his right arm, throws left-handed and then flips the glove onto his left hand--he is perceived as a vulnerable fielder. All his life, the scouting report on Abbott has been: Bunt away.

Martinez tried. He fouled off the attempt.

Soon after, he became Abbott's third strikeout victim.

"That could turn out to be a plus for me," Abbott said afterward. "I think (Martinez) was the No. 3 hitter in their lineup. If it's a windy day and he wants to try and bunt . . .

"Hopefully, I'm efficient enough to make the play. If they're thinking that much about my weakness, that can only help me."

Abbott spoke while seated at a picnic table behind the Padres' dressing room, surrounded by microphones, tape recorders, television cameras and autograph seekers. Simply standard procedure for your basic rookie pitcher, working middle relief in your basic B game.

Is all the attention starting to overwhelm? Abbott was asked.

"It hasn't been this bad," he replied with a laugh. "I try to handle it the best I can. It's a lot of attention, but as long as it doesn't interfere with my pitching, it doesn't bother me."

It comes with Abbott's own unique parcel of territory, he says.

"Some of it's nice," he said. "I think it's an acknowledgement that there is some talent there. If I wasn't doing well and if I wasn't at this level, then me being born with one hand wouldn't matter.

"But at the same time, if I had two hands, there wouldn't be all this attention. I'd just be another left-handed pitcher. So, it's a double-edged sword."

Abbott then proceeded to field the usual brand of Jim Abbott questions.

Question: Was Pete Gray, the one-armed outfielder for the old St. Louis Browns, a boyhood idol?

Answer: "Pete Gray did what Pete Gray did. He's not my hero. But, I respect what he did. If we could changes places, I don't think Pete Gray would necessarily be a fan of mine. It's just something you have to deal with on your own."

Q: Does Abbott consider himself an inspiration to handicapped youngsters?

A: "If someone gets a message from what I do, fine. I'm not out there to carry a message or trumpet myself. I was born without a right hand, but I was also born with a strong left arm that's enabled me to pitch.

"If it helps someone out, that goes beyond the three innings I pitch and whatever strikes and balls I throw. Maybe it might help somebody play baseball."

Q: Is fielding a problem?

A: "I don't really work at switching the glove anymore. I've been doing this since I was 5 years old. Now, it's just as natural as tying my shoes."

Recently, Abbott has begun to consider another topic: His chances of pitching in the big leagues in 1989.

Abbott is signed to a double-A contract and has yet to pitch one regular-season inning as a professional. He still needs to develop a more consistent curveball to go with his explosive fastball and the Angels' rotation, barring injury, is already set.

The 21-year-old's presence in the club's major league camp this spring has almost as much to do with public-relations value as potential.

He's a good story now, but probably doesn't project as a contender for an Angel roster spot until later.

"I don't know," Abbott said. "I've never played professional baseball before. I don't know what it takes.

"All I'm trying to do is put it in a place where somebody else has to make the decision."

Angel Manager Doug Rader will have some say in that decision. It's a long way from Yuma to Anaheim, but for openers, color Rader impressed.

"How about that first batter?" Rader said. "Wham, wham, see you later.

"The level of his maturity and his composure and his stability, I can't tell you how wonderful it is. All the accolades he's received are richly deserved."

Rader also pointed to the windy conditions, which made pitching an iffy proposition at best. Mike Fetters preceded Abbott to the mound for the Angels and did a good deal of struggling, allowing four hits and three walks in three innings.

"Mike was a little out of whack," Rader noted. "But it looked like the wind completely unfazed Abby. They were difficult conditions--and he still did a pretty good job."

For that job, Rader said, Abbott was given "a hell of a bonus."

Such as?

"I gave him a lemon drop," Rader said with a grin. "It'll be a tad more expensive for Mike (Port) down the line."

For Abbott, Friday was the start of the line. Next stop: Phoenix on Tuesday for his first appearance in an A game. After that, upward and onward into the Arizona desert.

The adventure is under way.

Angel Notes

And then they played the A game. Upstaged by Abbott and Co. in the morning, the Angels were also upstaged by the Padres in the afternoon, losing their exhibition opener, 10-6. Mike Witt and Jack Lazorko combined to pitch six ragged innings, Witt allowing three runs on five hits in three innings, Lazorko yielding five runs on seven hits and three walks. San Diego starter Bruce Hurst, the free-agent pitcher who got away from Boston last winter, worked three innings and limited the Angels to a run on three hits. Dave Leiper, who pitched the middle three innings for San Diego was the winning pitcher.

Dante (Beef) Bichette, the brawny rookie outfielder who welcomed Bert Blyleven to camp with a mammoth home run in Wednesday's intra-squad game, added two doubles in two at-bats against Padre pitching. Initially targeted for triple-A Edmonton for one more year of seasoning, Bichette, 25, could push his way into contention for a reserve outfield spot with the Angels.

"It's whatever's in his best interests," Manager Doug Rader said. "A lot depends on the health of Brian (Downing). If Brian's not OK, we'll have to give some consideration to using him here. (But) you hate to really draw too great a conclusion from a game and a half. Feel grateful that he had a good ballgame, but take it as that, for right now." . . . Claudell Washington also had two hits, a home run and a double. Dick Schofield added another home run, with Devon White, Jeff Manto and Jim McCollom each contributing a double.

As he did last spring, Angel Vice President Mike Port has bent his March 4 cut-off for negotiating contracts and will continue talking with the agents of Chuck Finley, Urbano Lugo and White, the three remaining unsigned Angels.

Last year at about this time White avoided automatic contract renewal by reaching an agreement, but he now says: "I don't know if it's going to be like that this year. I don't think my contract is being handled in good faith. It's been three weeks now and there have been no real negotiations. It's not really the money anymore--we're not that far apart. But this could've been handled three weeks ago. We could've had a happy Mike Port and a happy Devon White."

Finley will start today's Yuma rematch for the Angels, followed by Greg Minton, Bob McClure and Bryan Harvey.

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