An hour after the famous one-handed pitcher had won his first major-league game, 3-2, over the Baltimore Orioles Monday night, California Angels Manager Doug Rader talked about his favorite person: Jim Abbott.
“You know what the hardest part about talking about him is? Everything sounds so cornball,” Rader said. “But you know what? It’s all true. I love this kid. This kid is 21 years old. You can’t believe what he’s gone through to get here. But he belongs here. He’s an amazing person. This kid is great.”
He didn’t throw great Monday night, Rader said, but he threw well enough to beat the Orioles. Abbott allowed four hits, walked three and struck out one in six innings. Greg Minton and Bryan Harvey teamed up to save Abbott’s first major-league victory.
Rader was instrumental in keeping Abbott on the Angels this spring, even though he never had played a day in the minor leagues. Some critics have said that putting Abbott on the major-league club was partially a publicity stunt. Rader vehemently disagrees, and he and others will tell you Abbott has the best stuff on the staff. However, it was more than that.
“Once I got to know him well, once I found out what type of kid he was, I knew we had to keep him,” said Rader. “The stuff was never in question.”
He pointed at Jimmie Reese, an Angels coach who is 83 years old and used to room with Babe Ruth (“I roomed with his suitcase,” Reese often has said).
"(Abbott’s) best friend is Jimmie Reese,” said Rader. “Anyone whose best friend is Jimmie Reese has to be an ace.”
This ace was born without a right hand. As a kid, he had a hook for a hand. He hated it; he discarded it. But he said he never thought of himself as a one-handed pitcher, but just as a pitcher.
He even went 2 for 3 as a hitter in college. He once said, “I never told myself, ‘I want to be the next Pete Gray,’ (a one-handed outfielder who played for the St. Louis Browns in 1945). I told myself, ‘I want to be the next Nolan Ryan.’ ”
Rader gets emotional talking about Abbott.
“Do you have the guts to sit there and tell me he has a handicap?” Rader said. “Do you? Well, he doesn’t. He’s the least-handicapped person I know.”
Abbott puts the stub of a right-hand into his glove and throws with his left -- “The only hand that counts,” said Orioles designated hitter Larry Sheets. In a very smooth motion after releasing the ball, he switches the glove to his left hand, putting him in fielding position.
He’s a “decent” fielding pitcher, Rader said, adding, “You’d be kidding yourself to say he’s anything more. The slower the ball is hit back to him, the more trouble he has. If it’s really hit hard back at him, he does what every pitcher does: he ducks.”
There is nothing decent about Abbott’s stuff, however. It’s all above average: Fastball 90 mph, slider, hard curveball and slow curveball. He can bore the ball in on right-handed hitters. He can paralyze left-handed hitters with his biting curveball.
“Good control,” said Orioles third baseman Craig Worthington. “And command.”
“He threw me a big, old curveball on 3-1,” said Sheets. “I wasn’t looking for that.”
“Good movement,” said left fielder Phil Bradley. “He’s got a chance to be a pretty good pitcher. We didn’t get many good swings off him. That’s a good sign for a pitcher. He is a major-league pitcher. He’s going to be one of those left-handers in the record book.”
“I’m glad I didn’t have to face him tonight,” said Orioles Manager Frank Robinson.
Monday night’s start was Abbott’s best, according to the statistics, but he said he threw better against the Oakland Athletics in his second start. He lost that one, as he lost his first (to the Seattle Mariners). In each, the Angels scored no runs and their defense caved in behind him.
After beating the Orioles, Abbott, baby-faced, shy, quiet but well-spoken, said before finally winning, “I didn’t feel like I was earning my keep. I didn’t want to just be along for the ride. I didn’t feel like I was contributing. I wanted to help our team win.”
That he did.
After Monday night’s game, Abbott was going out with Orioles pitcher Gregg Olson, his roommate for three months last year when they were teammates on the United States team in the Pan American Games and in the Olympic trials.
“He’s the greatest,” Olson said. “He’s an amazing guy. People have no idea what pressure he has had. There were the Olympics (he pitched the gold-medal game), there was the draft, there was his handicap, there was him making the major leagues this year. For his sake, I was hoping he wouldn’t make it so he wouldn’t have the pressure right away. But now I’m very glad he’s here.”
Before leaving, Olson had to wait for Abbott, who was late. Olson smiled and said, “I hope he isn’t big-leaguing me (stiffing him). Nah, he wouldn’t.”
Not Jim Abbott.