Making His Pitch for Major League : Mission Viejo Draft Pick Heads Into Spring Training Hoping for Place on Angels’ Roster

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Joseph N. Bell is a former freelance columnist for the Times Orange County Edition who now writes occasional features for the View section. </i>

This is going to be a big month for Mission Viejo’s Kyle Abbott. Last Saturday, he married his girlfriend of two years, Kathy Gray. And a few days after the couple return from their honeymoon, Abbott will head to Arizona for spring training with the California Angels, hopeful of catching on with a pitching staff already solid with five starters.

Abbott trained for the new season by carrying food trays.

If you happened to dine at Harpoon Henry’s in Dana Point Harbor over the past few months, you might well have been served by Abbott. But it probably wouldn’t have occurred to you that you were rubbing elbows with an incipient millionaire ballplayer.

For one thing, Abbott looks almost scholarly in glasses (“I can’t see much without them”) and his 6-foot, 4-inch frame tends to whiplash rather than beef. For another, you don’t expect to find the Angels’ top draft pick of two years ago waiting tables. Not the way baseball salaries are running these days.


But Kyle Abbott doesn’t fit very many stereotypes. For one thing, he’s courteous and thoughtful and modestly straightforward, almost a throwback in attitude to another era: It’s hard to imagine him ever charging kids 20 bucks for an autograph. And then, too, minor league ballplayers don’t make a lot of money. That comes later--if they’re lucky and very good and the timing is right.

The timing was wrong for Kyle Abbott’s father, Larry--which is one reason he wanted Kyle to be a doctor instead of a ballplayer.

Larry Abbott was a solid right-handed pitcher who was signed by the then Kansas City Athletics at the beginning of its first dynasty period 25 years ago. He never made it to the majors and finally gave up baseball to start a career in law enforcement. As a lieutenant in the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, Larry Abbott preferred that his son follow a different route. But just in case he ever decided to take up pitching, Larry made sure that Kyle was going to throw from the left side.

Kyle remembers getting in trouble with his dad when Kyle was interviewed after the Angels made him their top draft pick--the eighth, overall--in 1989.

“I said that the biggest reason I’m left-handed is that when I was growing up, my dad always took the ball out of my right hand and put it in my left. But I also said he would slap my right hand if I ever threw with it, and he thought that sounded as if he were abusing me. It was nothing like that. He just knew from his own experience that if I ever became a pitcher, I’d have a better shot as a left-hander.”

Until Kyle was out of high school, it didn’t appear that would have much of an impact on his life, one way or the other. “My baseball career at Mission Viejo High School wasn’t exactly prestigious,” he said. “I didn’t pitch very much.”

With a 3.9 high school grade-point average, he went off to UC San Diego to study premed, hanging in for two years. “But I saw how competitive the medical sciences would be, and I began to question my dedication. I was also doing well on the baseball team there.”

When his failure to make up a class through a misunderstanding threatened his athletic eligibility, he joined a summer semipro league in Long Beach and discovered a fast ball. A scout who was also a friend of his father told Kyle that he could throw much harder than he had been throwing--”and the velocity started to come.” By summer’s end, Cal State Long Beach was interested in him, and Kyle was ready to change.

“But my dad didn’t like me pulling out. He didn’t think I was good enough for the majors and didn’t want me to go through what he did. I didn’t want to go against him, so we sort of compromised. I enrolled in a tough program of biomedical courses at Long Beach State--and played baseball.”

The metamorphosis in Kyle was spectacular.

Long Beach had just come off its worst baseball season and was under a new coach. Nothing was expected of the team. “We were a bunch of misfits,” recalls Kyle, “who went out and won our first 18 games.”

Kyle was the winning pitcher in seven of them and ended the season 15-3. Long Beach went to the college World Series, winning one game before the team was eliminated. Kyle pitched--and lost--the last game, but he had some other things on his mind at the time.

In the span of two years, this lanky young man who was a second-stringer on his high school team had become one of the hottest prospects in the professional baseball draft. His fast ball was breaking 90 m.p.h., and the stands were full of scouts whenever he pitched.

The Chicago White Sox and the Seattle Mariners were courting him as well as the Angels. Both of these teams drafted ahead of the Angels, and when the White Sox didn’t take him with the seventh pick, Kyle knew that he was headed for his own back yard in Anaheim Stadium, a prospect that elated him. So did the fact that the Angels drafted him in spite of a strong, young pitching staff.

“That had just happened a few hours before I pitched my last college game,” he said, “so I was on cloud nine when the game started. I just wasn’t mentally there, and I got knocked out in the third inning.”

Kathy Gray wasn’t there, either. She and Kyle had met in a Huntington Beach bar several months earlier. Kyle was a customer, Kathy was in her first week as a cocktail waitress. Kyle was following her every move all evening, and she finally lost her cool and dropped a tray of drinks. They met while he was on the floor, helping her pick up the debris, and the romance flamed quickly. Kathy couldn’t get away for the college World Series and turned on her TV just in time to see Kyle being removed from his last college game.

Later that summer, Kathy visited Kyle in Iowa, where he was sent to pitch for the Angels’ Quad City farm club. Kyle pitched well enough to be promoted to Midland, Tex., the following season. Kathy lived with him there (“It was cheaper than paying for phone calls,” she says) and got a real taste of the armpit of baseball.

“Midland,” says Kyle, “is a tough place for a ballplayer and has a terrible reputation. It’s in the middle of a desert, and the wind is constant and strong, mostly blowing the ball out of the park. On top of that, it’s like playing on asphalt. In one game early in the season, I gave up 10 runs in three innings. I was shellshocked, and it left me questioning my ability for a month. Then I turned it around with a shutout and had 10 solid starts after that.”

They were solid enough to persuade the Angels to send Abbott to its top farm club last August, where he got pretty well roughed up after a spectacular beginning. “I learned,” he says a little ruefully, “that in Triple A you have to pitch inside and never, never get the ball up in the strike zone.”

He thinks he’s come far enough to have a clear shot at making the Angels’ roster this year. At 22, Kyle is a year younger than Angels pitcher Jim Abbott, who is no relation. “I know I still have a lot to learn,” says Kyle, “and I may have to go back to Edmonton to learn it. But I’m ready for the challenge of trying to make the Angels’ staff.”

A lot of young players prepare themselves for that challenge by playing winter ball. This past winter, Abbott chose instead to wait tables in a local restaurant. He had put in two long seasons and felt he needed the time off. He also wanted to get married.

Off-season idleness was not an affordable luxury for the young couple. They had barely broken even on Kyle’s $950 a month and meal money in the minor leagues, and his signing bonus of $190,000 was gone--part of it invested in Las Vegas real estate and the remainder--says Kyle--used to take care of some problems that arose with his divorced mother.

So they had to look for work--and Kyle went along with Kathy when she applied for a cocktail-waitressing job at Harpoon Henry’s. The restaurant ended up hiring Kyle, instead, and Kathy took a retail job in South Coast Plaza.

That’s all behind them now.

Kathy will be going to spring training with Kyle, and in two months they will know whether it is $950 a month and meal money for another season or a heady run at the big leagues.

“The biggest difference,” says Kyle, “between minor and major league pitchers is that the major leaguers have the ability to pitch when they don’t have their best stuff. Every pitcher has lulls and intervals during the season, and sometimes even during a game. I’ve learned that with total concentration, I can cruise. It’s like being in a bubble. That kind of concentration was hard last year because of some personal problems I was having. But I think I can do it now.”

Over the winter, when the schedules were made out for the waiters at Harpoon Henry’s, Abbott was referred to as “Bull Durham.” He didn’t mind the baseball tie-in, but he would point out one big difference. The protagonist in “Bull Durham” was on his way down. Kyle and Kathy Abbott are on their way up.