In the Pipeline: Jim Abbott's improbable (and amazing) life

I'm not sure I ever rooted harder for anyone in Angel Stadium than Jim Abbott. But how could you not? The handsome, fresh-faced kid with the winning smile was an Olympian, a fierce competitor and an all-round athlete. Oh, and he was born with just one hand. But that's not what made him special.

To watch Abbott pitch, win or lose, was always a positive life lesson. He did things we'd never seen before — he was someone you'd tell your kids about. Adding to his impressive gifts on the field was his well-known reputation off the field for always making himself available to encourage kids who had similar (or not-so-similar) physical challenges. Abbott represented that rare athlete who blended elite physical gifts with world-class character and selflessness that today, sadly, seems somewhat antiquated

Abbott (along with the fine baseball writer Tim Brown) has finally written his story, "Imperfect: An Improbable Life," and while the book may have been a long time coming for many fans, Abbott told me that for him, the timing made total sense.

"I'm so glad I waited until I was older," he said. "People had approached me for a long time, while I was playing, but it was such a sheltered world as a major league player. When you are in there, it is such a protected universe, it's hard to imagine opening up. But now that I am a few years out, I feel much better prepared to share the experience. I had to be brutally honest, and hopefully people will relate."

Abbott made his debut with the Angels 23 years ago. He was 12-12 that first season; two years later, he won 18 games, and in 1993, he pitched a no-hitter for the New York Yankees. Starting in 1996, though, he started to struggle, and after stints in the minors, with the Chicago White Sox, the Angels again and finally the Milwaukee Brewers, he ended his career in 1999.

The former major leaguer employs an interesting device to tell his life story, cutting back and forth between chapters that walk the reader through his famed 1993 no-hitter in Yankee Stadium, and then chapters that take us through the rest of his life. The no-hitter chapters are riveting; they create a pulse for the book that pulls the reader inside the game (in which the Yankees faced a brutal Cleveland lineup featuring Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome and Albert Belle, among other stars).

Abbott told me that he enjoyed the inter-cutting because it allowed for balance.

"There are some very emotional parts of the book, so to go back to the game was a nice break to relive the excitement of that moment," he said. "I also wanted to talk about baseball. Not just in a career perspective, but what it is like in the moment."

As for the "emotional" parts of the book, Abbott writes in great detail about the struggles his parents faced, along with the battles he faced as a youngster who was different than most of the other kids. I wondered what his family's reaction has been to the book, which vividly details as much pain as it does glory.

"When you make a decision to write a book, you carry a lot of people along with you," he said. "What I am so appreciative of is the openness of my family to participate in the story, especially my parents. Their story is one a lot of people can relate to. They had me at a really early age, there was a lot of uncertainly in their lives, and I'm sure having a child born without a hand added to that exponentially. They were great parents and they raised me instinctually. Their willingness to talk about that in the book really inspired me."

Throughout the book, Abbott also documents his close friendship with a fellow baseball class act, Angels Vice President of Communications Tim Mead. It was Mead who helped facilitate the many meetings Abbott had with families over the years, in which so many children with physical challenges got to spend quality time with an empathetic big league pitcher.

Mead told me that it was special moment in life to be working with and becoming friends with Abbott, and that it opened Mead's eyes to many things he had not thought about before.

"I've been around a lot of players and have never seen anyone more in demand than Jim Abbott," he said. "People wanted to meet him for assurance. The kids were always positively affected, but so were the parents. Thousands of people he took time to meet, and write letters to and communicate with. I personally believe that Jim Abbott was chosen to be Jim Abbott, because he could handle all of it. He is a very special individual who was put here to make a difference. And he stepped up and accepted that responsibility."

Abbott (who lives in Corona del Mar with his wife and two daughters) explained to me that his parents and mentors like Mead helped him realize that, in addition to being the best player he could be, he could give back to people and make them part of his life. So that's what he did.

He also described some recent book signings, where he was once again met by many kids who were missing hands and facing other serious challenges. He said he's a bit frustrated because he never had more than a few minutes to share with each child and family, but now, the book can serve as a longer "meeting" as it lays out his story, his beliefs and his career. "I love being able to say to people now, 'Here, this is it, this is everything — this is my story,'" he said.

I consume a lot of baseball books, particularly biographies, and this is one of the best I have had the pleasure of reading. It's an honest, inspiring, exhilarating journey told by a humble, thoroughly impressive and likable man whose mere name has come to symbolize character, courage, decency — and talent.

Abbott will be discussing and signing copies of "Imperfect: An Improbable Life" at 3 p.m. this Saturday, at the Bella Terra Barnes & Noble. I hope you'll join me there in helping to celebrate this remarkable man's story.

CHRIS EPTING is the author of 18 books, including the new "Hello, It's Me: Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie." You can chat with him on Twitter @chrisepting or follow his column at

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