SPECIAL DELIVERY : Rookie Pitcher and Role Model Jim Abbott Handles the Ball and Publicity With Aplomb

Times Staff Writer

The tighter the camera zooms in on Jim Abbott, the more of the story it loses, because no portrait of Abbott, the Angels’ one-handed rookie pitcher, can be considered complete without considering the people around him.

Take a look at the little one-handed boy in the Angels cap, sprinting alongside a practice field at the Angels’ Arizona training camp because he just spotted Abbott warming up at the other end.

Watch the youngster growing up across the street from Abbott’s family home in Flint, Mich., who stopped playing catch with two hands and learned how to do it with one because that’s how Abbott does it.


Read the letters from the dozens of parents of handicapped children who write Abbott every week congratulating him--and thanking him--for making it to the big leagues.

Follow the four Japanese TV crews that traveled to Anaheim Stadium to document Abbott’s major-league pitching debut against the Seattle Mariners April 8 because in Japan they still can’t get over what Abbott can do.

Sit among the 46,000 spectators who witnessed that game, who cheered every strike Abbott threw, booed every Angels error made behind him and stood applauding when Abbott left the mound on his way to a 7-0 defeat.

Then cast an eye at the big-league baseball establishment, which has been plainly ambushed by Abbott and still is not quite sure how to deal with the concept.

Lacking any other point of reference, baseball people feebly compare him to Pete Gray, the one-armed outfielder who played for the St. Louis Browns during the 1940s. Lacking the proper articulation, they hang bumper sticker slogans on him--America’s Phenom, America’s Pitcher. In some cases, lacking the proper insight, they cynically write him off as a publicity stunt, a major leaguer by way of box office appeal over baseball skill.

Abbott the Angel, the 1988 Olympic gold medalist, has become a major major-league issue--not only because he was born without a right hand, but also because he made a rare jump from college baseball to the big leagues, without spending a day in the minors.


It has all served to create a conundrum for Abbott, who knows that his disability has helped him emerge from the crowd but who longs openly for the day that he will be recognized mainly for his ability.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Abbott says. “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.”

The attention, Abbott concedes, can be daunting. One day Time magazine is calling, the next it’s Newsweek. Sports Illustrated has profiled him once and is coming back for more. Life recently spent 3 1/2 hours on the beach with Abbott for a photo shoot, scrounging for any possible new angle.

Abbott, in his second month with the Angels, already leads the club in fan mail. He receives hundreds of letters a week. Tim Mead, the Angels’ director of publicity and Abbott’s personal press liaison, says: “Jim has received more attention than any Angel I can remember--more than Wally Joyner when he was a rookie, more than Reggie Jackson, more than Rod Carew.”

The national publication “Baseball America” took it a step further, ranking Abbott’s debut, in terms of eagerly awaited baseball debuts, behind only Jackie Robinson’s breaking of baseball’s color barrier in 1947.

Abbott is 21 years old. The ink on his last University of Michigan term paper is barely dry (he left in his senior year but plans to finish someday). He rooms in Newport Beach during the season with another Angels pitcher, Chuck Finley. Home in the off-season is still Flint, Mich., where he lives with his parents, Mike and Kathy Abbott, and brother Chad, 17.


He looks, seems and is awfully young to be thrown into such a maelstrom.

Yet Abbott endures awfully well, tapping a seemingly endless reservoir of patience. Although he’ll occasionally dash off an interview by rote--”Sometimes, I feel like I’m reading answers off a mental notebook,” he says--Abbott is consistently upbeat and cordial with all those scrambling for a piece of his time.

“He is the most mature, resilient 21-year-old I’ve ever seen,” says Doug Rader, the Angels’ manager. “He’s a well-rounded guy. He’s stable, well traveled, well educated. He’s been prepared for this.”

From a very early age too, according to Abbott: “When I was little, my parents always encouraged me to be outgoing. My dad was always pushing me, when I’d see someone new, to walk up to the kid, shake his hand and say ‘Hi, my name is Jim Abbott.’ He really encouraged that.

“Looking back at it now, I know the reason for it. My dad never wanted me to feel out of place, he never wanted me to be held back, just because of my hand. He wanted me to have as normal a life as I did.”

And was it normal?

“Yeah, I think so,” he says. “I think I had a very stable childhood. I still have friends that I’ve had since the fourth grade. Right away, they accepted me and I accepted them.”

Sure, Abbott says, he received the expected teasing growing up but nothing devastating, nothing he and his family could not deal with.


“Maybe I blocked it out in my own mind, but I don’t remember anybody being cruel,” Abbott says. “Maybe there was something here and there, but it was more like calling someone wearing glasses ‘Four Eyes.’

“Everyone is dealt a problem in life. Mine is missing four fingers.”

Growing up in an athletic environment--his dad was a high school football star who had to forsake a college career when he fathered Jim at age 19--Abbott took an early interest in sports and tried many. In high school, he quarterbacked the football team, started at forward for the basketball team and, as a senior, batted .427 while playing first base, left field and even shortstop for the baseball team.

But pitching was what Abbott always did best. “I was born with a strong left arm,” he says, and one arm is all it takes to pitch a baseball--be it Little League or the American League.

Fielding a baseball provided Abbott a greater challenge. Beginning at age 5, when he played catch by himself by throwing a ball against a wall, Abbott developed a fielding technique that is startlingly smooth for all its intricacy.

As he delivers a pitch with his left hand, Abbott rests his glove on his right wrist, then slips his left hand into the glove. He can then field or catch the ball from the catcher and transfer the ball back to his left hand--all in one split-second motion.

The process never ceases to amaze people, and Abbott spends much time during interviews across the country explaining and demonstrating how the glove exchange is done.


Outside the United States, the word amaze is an understatement. Before last summer’s Olympic Games in Seoul, Abbott and the U.S. baseball team readied itself for the competition on an international tour that included games in Hong Kong, New Dehli and Tokyo.

It was in Tokyo that Abbott says he had one of the surprises of his life: “When I first got off the plane in Japan, there must have been 50 or 75 cameramen waiting there. Every kind of camera, every kind of lens.

“I didn’t know what was going on. All of a sudden click-click-click.”

Abbott’s reputation had preceded him to Tokyo. As the pitcher puts it, “They were fascinated by my playing with one hand.”

Abbott-san , as he would be jokingly nicknamed by his Olympic teammates, became an instant sensation, a sort of Godzilla in spikes.

“My picture was in the paper every day,” Abbott says, shaking his head. “There was a constant amount of attention.

“When we first practiced there, I fielded a bunt, and cameras went off by the millions. Before I left, a lady gave me a scrapbook, and there was a huge layout, frame by frame, of me turning the glove over.”


Helping the United States win the baseball gold medal at Seoul only heightened the interest. Before Abbott made his major-league debut against the Seattle Mariners in early April, four Japanese TV crews arrived in Anaheim to chronicle the event, asking him such questions as: “What will be the first ball you throw against Seattle?” and “How did it feel to strike out the great hitter, Jose Canseco?”

Such questions, along with all the attention, bring a smile to Abbott’s face. Sitting at a locker stall at Anaheim Stadium, flipping through a Japanese baseball magazine with you-know-who on the cover, Abbott turns to photograph after photograph of him standing next to an Arizona cactus, running laps, laying on a bench--doing virtually anything and everything.

“Aren’t these hilarious?” he says. “I can’t explain the fascination. I don’t know about what goes on over there, as opposed to what goes on over here.

“They ask me a lot of questions about spirit and determination and the inner kind of things. They seem to be amazed by what I do, thinking that I must have some special drive.

“They look at a Mike Tyson or a Carl Lewis the same way. I think the special kind of determination in all athletes is something that’s looked up to over there.”

Abbott looks fondly upon his international baseball experience and regards it as valuable in a practical sense, as a preparation for life in the Angels’ fishbowl.


“We were on the road from June 10 till the end of September,” Abbott says. “It was grueling. We were in foreign countries, eating food we weren’t used to eating. You couldn’t find anything. Everything was awfully hard.

“But I think it helped mature me. This year I’ve been away from home for a long time, but I’m not real lonely. It’s not like it was last year, when I wanted to go home so badly.

“I can now appreciate what it’s like to be 8,000 miles away with 3 weeks to go before you can come back home.”

Still, some things preclude preparation.

How do you prepare yourself for such questions as: “Were you born a natural left-hander?” or “Do you have any brothers or sisters who are deformed?”

How do you prepare yourself for the yoke that goes with being America’s inspiration to the handicapped?

How do you prepare yourself for the controversy that erupts simply because you are one of 24 players wearing Angels uniforms on Opening Day?


When the Angels announced that Abbott had not only made the team but also a spot in the starting pitching rotation, Abbott was unwillingly thrown into a public debate: Does he belong here or are the Angels just trying to sell tickets?

Abbott, who is earning the major-league minimum of $68,000 for his first season, bristles at talk of a publicity stunt, talk that began to dissipate as he built the 2-2 Angels record he held going into this week’s home games.

“People didn’t see all the sides,” Abbott says. “I can see where that (allegations of a publicity stunt) would be an argument, but I would hope that I’m proving them wrong.

“As long as there are any questions in people’s minds, that’ll be around. I think it’s going to take maybe a year of performing at a respectable level here. If we start winning and every fifth day I’m out there pitching, people will start saying, ‘Hey, he’s helping the team.’ That’s no publicity stunt.”

Bullpen catcher Rick Turner, who rooms with Abbott on the road, says: “His approach is, ‘I’m here because of my prowess and the contribution I’m making, not because I’m a draw at the gate.’

“If that (publicity) was the case, we’d also have a 50-year-old pitcher, a 17-year-old and a guy 3 feet tall on the team.”


Yet, there can be no denying Abbott’s popularity and what he represents as a role model. Abbott admits that he may not comprehend the magnitude of it all.

“I don’t think I have a full grasp of it,” he says. “Maybe by saying that, I do. I don’t know. . . . When people talk of me being an inspiration, there are some days when I can’t take it. I get tired of it. Anyone would get tired, being asked the same questions.

“But before, I used to kind of fight it--’I’m normal, I’m normal, I want to think of myself as normal.’ Of course, we all want to be treated as normal.

“More and more, though, I’ve begun to realize that playing with one hand is different. It’s not a negative; it hasn’t hindered me. It’s just changed a few things.

“I think I’m a lot more comfortable with that now.”

And when he reads the letters he receives from parents of handicapped children, he can understand where they’re coming from.

“I can only imagine what it would be like to have a wife who’s pregnant and expecting a baby,” he says. “There’s so much hope and praying for a normal child, for him or her to live a normal life.

“If that doesn’t happen, what a trauma that really must be--’What do we do now? What’s the right role model?’ They feel like there’s no standard for their children.”


They have one now.

As Abbott is proving, on every fifth day from April to October, the major-league fraternity is not exclusive to players with both right and left hands. Ask the Baltimore Orioles and the Toronto Blue Jays, both beaten by Abbott’s pitches, about his supposed handicap.

The other day Mead, the Angels’ director of publicity, answered the phone in the clubhouse and spoke with a man who said he had developed a prosthetic hand especially designed for Abbott.

Mead, knowing that Abbott had worn an artificial hand at age 4 before discarding it at age 5 because it was uncomfortable, told the man thanks, but no thanks.

“I said we appreciate the intention,” Mead said, “but Jim Abbott’s got everything he needs.”