He is the Rookie of Spring, an unofficial title the world bestows each March upon one unsuspecting kid.
The title is both an honor and a potential curse, and the honoree receives, free of charge, a small army of reporters and photographers to follow him around Florida or Arizona with relentless zeal.
This spring he is Jim Abbott, left-handed pitcher, California Angels.
Abbott is nervous and embarrassed, conditions he covers with his poise.
He is nervous because he is facing professional batters for the first time. The Oklahoma Sooners and the Japanese Olympic team had spunky lineups, but they didn’t come at you with sides of beef named Jose Canseco and Dave Parker, who all but wag their bats in your nose when they dig in.
The kid is embarrassed because his media army tramples his teammates. He could understand being the center of attention when he pitched for Michigan or for the U.S. Olympic team, because he was a star.
But now he looks around the clubhouse and sees Bert Blyleven and Lance Parrish, Wally Joyner and Kirk McCaskill, a roomful of men who have proved they belong.
You watch the Rookie of Spring deal with his army and wonder what it will take to make him snap, to cause him to throw down his glove and say, “Look, can’t a guy freaking breathe? Can’t all this stuff wait until I retire at least one batter in one real game?”
Apparently it will take a lot. Not long ago, Abbott asked the Angels’ PR staff if he might have a two-day moratorium on interviews, so he could focus momentarily on the business of being a nervous rookie hopeful. He got his two days, then welcomed back his army, with a smile.
His patience runs deep, his niceness seems unshakeable. He is the neighbor kid who mows your lawn to earn money to send his puppy to obedience school.
You want to find Abbott’s mom and dad, confront them and demand they tell you about the time they caught little Jimmy smoking a cigarette out behind the barn, or watching cartoons when he was supposed to be doing homework. Something. Anything.
The last guy who came to Los Angeles with this kind of natural style and likability was a basketball player named Earvin. Something about those Michigan boys.
Jim’s teammates call him Abbie, and they know that he doesn’t ask for the attention.
“Maybe our guys here like him getting all the ink,” says one Angel veteran.
Maybe they would welcome a new left-handed starter with a live heater. Maybe they’re as eager for the kid to succeed as are the fans who, even at enemy ballparks around the Cactus League, cheer his every pitch.
Personality won’t put Abbott on the big league roster. When was the last time Miss Congeniality strolled off with the crown?
Doug Rader, the new manager, mentions to a sportswriter that one mistake Rader made when managing the Texas Rangers was placing too high a value on spunkiness over raw ability.
Rader will not bring a kid to Anaheim because the kid has a big heart and a nice smile. This is the big leagues, not a Walt Disney movie.
If Abbott is going to make Rader’s five-man starting rotation, now or later, he’ll have to show more than an Olympic gold medal from a demonstration sport.
Rader wants to know if Jim Abbott can pitch. Tuesday Abbott faced a big league lineup for the first time. In fact, he faced the biggest big league lineup there is, the Oakland A’s, and pitched very well for most of three innings.
When Abbott struck out Canseco with runners on second and third, the A’s home crowd cheered. When Abbott momentarily bobbled a comebacker, costing himself a double play and a run, the crowd still cheered Abbott, not the run.
So he won another popularity poll, but how did he pitch?
“He was trying to overthrow (to) the first couple batters he faced,” says Lance Parrish, who was catching. “His second inning was much better. I’ve been impressed with him ever since he’s been here. He has as live a fastball as I’ve caught in quite a while.
“I like him. I like the way he comes right at guys. He has a good cutter (cut fastball), a decent curve. (Tuesday) wasn’t a fair viewing. It was his first time. He was a little nervous. I’ve caught him in the batting cage several times and he’s almost torn the glove off my hand. He throws as hard as anyone in camp.
“He has good movement on his fastball, good command of pitches. He’s definitely got the ability.”
Abbott also has a handicap. Because he was blessed with such a marvelous left arm, he has never taken the time to develop a good changeup.
I ask Rader what Abbott will have to do to make the team, other than improve his changeup. Rader says it will depend in part on the status of the veteran starters. “I think Abbie is the kind of guy who, emotionally and physically, could probably pitch in the big leagues right now,” Rader says.
There is no reason to ask Abbott. He hasn’t pitched enough to form any real concept of how good his stuff is against major league hitters. He knows you don’t go to the Hall of Fame, or to Anaheim, for punching out Jose Canseco in the desert.
Abbott, No. 60 in your program, pitches again Saturday. His army is mobilizing for the invasion of Chandler, Ariz., spring home of the Milwaukee Brewers, and the next appearance of the Rookie of Spring.