Virgen: Abbott keeps inspiring

Jim Abbott's story goes beyond baseball. He's seen further proof of this after writing his new book, "Imperfect: An Improbable life."

The famous former pitcher born without a right hand has served as an inspiration for many. That was seen at the Bella Terra Barnes & Noble Saturday afternoon during Abbott's book signing.

Shortly after talking about his book, Abbott, a Newport Beach resident, met a boy who was thrilled to meet his hero.

Aaron West, a 6-year-old dressed in a baseball uniform, made a simple statement in his small little voice shortly after meeting Abbott.

"I have the same kind of hand as you," West told Abbott just before posing for a picture together.

Abbott gave West pointers on how to play with the challenge, as the Little Leaguer was born without a left hand. Abbott also asked West to email him with updates on how he's doing.

"He's going to do great," Abbott told West's mother, Tina.

The boy traveled with his mother from Grass Valley, about a 10-hour drive, just to meet Abbott.

It was well worth the trip.

Tina West described her son's meeting with Abbott as life-changing.

"He's never met anybody born the same way as him," Tina West said. "For the last three years we showed him pictures of Jim. First we showed him pictures of Jim playing baseball and then we showed him pictures that showed he didn't have a right hand, and said he's just like you. For him to meet Jim is just incredible."

Abbott, 44, looked just as happy to meet Aaron.

Abbott expressed his gratefulness to all those who attended at the bookstore, where an overflow crowd stood to meet the former major league pitcher who threw a no-hitter for the New York Yankees in 1993 and won an Olympic gold medal in 1988.

Several people wore Angels gear to support the former pitcher of their team. Jeanne Ferrara, a Barnes & Noble community relations manager, told the crowd that the store ran out of Abbott's book. But she assured them they could order the book and have Abbott sign a book plate for it.

"To have so much love and support here is absolutely incredible," Abbott told the crowd. "It means everything to me."

He spent 10 years in the big leagues. Thirteen years after playing his last game he wrote his book, co-authored by Tim Brown, a former Los Angeles Times writer who's now the national baseball writer for Yahoo.

Brown met Abbott in 1990 when the reporter was working for the L.A. Daily News, covering the Angels. Brown was in attendance Saturday.

He told me that he thought Abbott made it all look so easy back then, as a pitcher and as an inspiration. Brown remembers the parents and children with similar challenges Abbott met throughout his baseball career and assuring the parents the kids would be just fine.

But after writing the book with Abbott, Brown realized more.

"I think the fascinating thing for me was that I found out that it was never really that easy," Brown said. "It was very difficult for him. There was a lot of soul searching, a lot of looking for his identity, like: Who am I if I'm not winning ball games on the pitching mound."

Both Abbott and Brown said the book was written now rather than in the 90s because the former pitcher has gained more perspective of his life.

"I had the benefit of the separation of time from my experiences," Abbott said just before signing books. "When you are playing you are in a very sheltered, protected world of a major league clubhouse. And to have the chance to look back and have that perspective was the only way you can truly write an honest book."

Abbott acknowledged that the people around him have always helped, family, former coaches and teammates, and other families he has met throughout his life. His family attended the book signing as did former Angel pitcher Kirk McCaskill.

Abbott spoke briefly about his playing days and demonstrated how he caught and threw with his left hand. He had an elderly lady from the audience throw to him as part of the demonstration.

Abbott also shared a story about his second-grade teacher, Don Clarkson, who taught the young Abbott how to tie his shoes.

"He had two hands," Abbott said of his teacher. "I imagine him going home at night with a clenched fist and tying his shoes. He came to school the next day and he said, 'I got it. I figured out how to do it.'"

Abbott closed with a story about visiting his daughter's Career Day in preschool shortly after retiring from baseball.

In the classroom his daughter asked him a question: "Dad, do you like your little hand?"

Abbott said he had never been asked that at home and it struck him.

"I do like my little hand, and sometimes I haven't liked it," Abbott said. "My little hand has taught me a lot, that life's not easy and life's not fair. But my little hand also taught me to never give up."

As Brown said, Abbott did plenty of soul searching through the book. But the book has provided unity and identity with others, Abbott said.

"I learned how it's not a personal journey," Abbott said of his experiences with the book's release. "I learned how many people you share your life with."

steve.virgen@latimes.com

Twitter: @SteveVirgen

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