Jim Abbott had finished pouring his head, heart and soul onto a tape recorder, and now it was bound in a manuscript.
The former Angels pitcher sat in a room with a group of publishing professionals who had just read what would be his autobiography.
What should the title be?
“We really struggled with that,” Abbott explained the other day. “Our editor mentioned how the word ‘imperfect’ kept coming up in the book. There’s so many levels how that word works, in my career, in my life, in everyone’s life.”
So that’s how “Imperfect: An Improbable Life,” chronicled with the deft reporting and writing by Yahoo Sports’ Tim Brown, and released earlier this week, came to have the perfect ending.
Abbott’s journey that most may know of only as “One Handed Pitcher Jim Abbott” starts here with a story about his pre-school aged daughter Ella asking him: “Dad, do you like your little hand?”
Talk about a loaded question.
The 44-year-old Abbott, whose 10-year career in the big league straight out of the University of Michigan included an 18-win season, a heart-breaking trade from the Angels to the Yankees, a no-hitter in 1993 with New York, and an 18-loss season back in Anaheim, reflects more on why this needed to be written from his perspective:
Q: What was the process in getting a book like this started with Tim, who has known you since the early ’90s when he was covering the Angels for the Daily News and you were just starting your career in Anaheim?
A: We really started from scratch. I just kind of pulled him. I asked if he was interested, he said he was, so we just started talking and trying to get a framework and let us carry us where it may. I got to give a lot of credit to him for the direction it took and the points of emphasis it took throughout the chapters and the way it would flow.
Q: The word that is used most often in these kinds of projects is “cathartic.” You get to release all kinds of memories and emotions, good and bad, and feel a burden of sorts lifted. But that’s just part of the process. Now, the book comes out, and others read it, they react. Where are you in that stage?
A: The past few weeks have been nervous (waiting for the book to come out). I’m still kind of in the middle of it. There were definitely parts that were difficult to go back through and revisit. The struggles in my career, the disappointments, some people I feel I let down. That was very tough. And also some of the family elements, the struggles and uncertainties my mom and dad went through. I discovered things about my family that I never knew. I think about my own story and history I had never known. Yeah, that was tough, and the last week, all of that has hit home. When you write a book and think you’re just telling your story, you do drag a lot of people along with you. So you want to do it right and hope to do them proud.
Q: There’s a lot of digging into your family history, especially with your relationship with your dad, you trying to figure out what made him tick, how he had a career as a high school athlete that ended when you were born, some of life’s missed opportunities. Is he good with how it came out?
A: I think he is. He poured over it word by word. But I think it means a lot to him. Tim really spent a lot of time talking to my mom and dad. They were incredibly open about the things they went through and they admitted they’d never talked about some of these thing. But that’s just the way our family was. You take what you have and press on. They feel as though it’s brought them closer together after all these years, to relieve some of what they went through at so early of an age.
Q: Once you get it out, it opens a conversation about things families never really wanted to talk about, and maybe there’s a point where you’re ready to talk, but they aren’t. You have to figure out how to give them the time. Maybe when you talk to them later they’ll have more to say since the process is so fresh.
A: Yeah, there’s almost an acceptance that comes out when, to use that clich, you break the ice. All of the sudden, you really sort of come to grips with it. I’m not sure how to describe it. But there’s almost pride-taking in things you didn’t want to discuss. You appreciate more that gift of adversity that in a lot of ways pushed you forward.
Q: I wondered that if, in dealing with so many people now in and out of baseball, have you figured out that most, if not everyone, is imperfect and may be leading their own improbable lives?
A: Yes, yes. That’s a great observation. It goes back to the title, and how the no-hitter (in ’93 against Cleveland) was far from perfect. There were five walks. There some hard-hit balls. It was a struggle and a fight. And it encompasses my family story, physically how I grew up.
Really what’s striking to me, in talking to friends and people close to me who have read it: everyone deals with imperfection and how we sometimes look back on things and our lives and have these harsh tones. That was the discovery for me with being ‘imperfect,’ you know, sometimes I just kept moving on with the experience and thinking back on my career as being less than what I wanted it to be.
The no-hitter was great, but not perfect. And examining it even closer through the book, it was worth looking at in a more gentle way. A more accepting way. The effort was there, and I did my best.
Q: And in the end, who really is perfect? No one.
A: Exactly. Aren’t we all?
Q: But in reading the book, in getting a better prism in seeing how you experienced life, it’s easier to understand how you must have felt having all these honors given to you, people always referring to you as “courageous” or “inspiring,” but how that could get tiring of having to live up to that kind of label stamped on you.
A: Since I was a kid, they described my play in these flowery terms. Inspirational or motivational. Courageous. I was none of those things. I just loved to play sports. It called to me to be on a team. I had great people around me to find ways to play and get into the game. It was as simple as that. Maybe because of the expectations … Major league baseball seemed so far away from Flint, Michigan, it was always just about the next level. Making the Little League team, the JV team. Could I play on the varsity? Those were the questions I kept asking myself.
Q: You can probably see a player like Albert Pujols, who a lot of people may call the “perfect player,” the five-tool player, and there are likely some flaws in his game, in his life, that just get overlooked. Or he hasn’t discussed. You might be able to see what a fine line there may be perceived as “perfect” and “imperfect.”
A: If you talk to him, he’d describe very clearly what he knows are his weaknesses. You know, it’s funny, we didn’t talk a lot about steroids (in the book), Tim and I. But that was how we originally we came together, when he did a story about steroid use, how these really, really talented baseball players ultimately decided that wasn’t good enough for them, they had to be even more “perfect.” They wanted the added enhancement of what that could provide. It seems like we’re never quite satisfied with what we have.
Q: If you got a do-over in your big league career, what would that be?
A: I wish I could have learned the change-up, that’s for sure (laughing). I don’t know. I’ve run things over in my head. Maybe I would have lifted less weights or had a better training program. Maybe a few different decisions. But it is what it is.
Q: Would one of the do-overs be perhaps how you left the Angels the first time? They gave you a $16 million offer for four years your agent (Scott Boras) countered with $19 million, and it all kind of blew up and they traded you. Is that a do-over?
A: Yes, obviously that was a painful period. I don’t regret the places that decision took me, but I think it was an important lesson. There are times when you have to stand up for yourself. You have to make a decision that’s going to frame your life but they don’t always appear as distinct as that. That’s what I took away from that contract negotiation. I don’t know if it’s a clear regret, but it’s a lesson learned.
Q: You can go back to when Jered Weaver signed a contract extension last season with the Angels, and Scott Boras was his agent. Jered knew he could probably get more as a free agent, especially with Boras negotiating that for him, but Jered’s response was simply: This is where I want to be, and how much more money do I really need? You can read that chapter in your book about how all that negotiation went and think of how Jered dealt with Boras in that situation. Maybe you could relate to what Jered did?
A: I could. I saw parallels in the story and I admired Jered knowing what he wanted clearly at that age. That’s important. You have to understand what makes you happy and where you want to be. Scott fulfilled a role, in both negotiations. He did what he needed to do. He has to present both sides, what is out there, what you might be walking away from. Ultimately, it’s on you to make that decision. In my case, I let it string out and let the decision be made for me.
Q: You do put Scott in a good light in the book, regardless of how that turned out, and especially in how he turned you onto a sports psychologist named Harvey Dorfman. Talk more about how he got into your head and was unable to unlock some things.
A: Harvey had a profound effect on the way I looked at the world. I was just sort of cruising along, just enjoying things, and Harvey helped me to take a step back and understand what things I put value on. He was the first one to help me see, and I wouldn’t get it until a long time after, you aren’t what you do for a living. Baseball wasn’t me. Success on the field wasn’t where I should place all of my self-esteem. I thought I got it (laughing) but it wasn’t until I came across him that those lessons started to hit home.
Q: Did you keep a diary at all as a player? There are such rich details of things that happened to you in your life that are on the pages. Or do you just have one of those kinds of memories where you can go back and pull out things that happened after all these years?
A: I did write some things down and could call upon. I didn’t have any in-depth diary, but I would encourage anyone who plays to do that. Collect mementos, write it down and savor it because it goes so fast. Tim did a great job of invoking these images and memories and people. We had a lot of great help from people in the Angels’ organization who could fill in a lot of the blanks. All credit to Tim for that.
Q: Is it easier, out of the baseball spotlight, to lead a more “normal”
life without the attention so much on you and your athletic achievements?
A: It’s a lot easier. And in a lot of ways that helped me to write this book. I couldn’t have written it when I was playing. That major league clubhouse is so sheltered and so protective that I don’t think you’re in the frame of mind or open enough to share with people the parts of the story that they might relate to. You come off as just giving people quotes and things that they want to hear. You can’t tell the real story.
Q: Do you ever consider that if you were a kid who grew up without any noticeable physical handicap, do you think you would have treated differently those who did have a handicap? Maybe you would have used the same kind of bullying or joking or other punishment that those kids did to you back in your childhood days?
A: I hope not. I sure hope not. I know my parents would have been disappointed if I had done that. Again, I can’t say. It’s hard to know what I would have done if I was born like everybody else, instead of sort of trying to be thankful for the situation I found myself in. I guess at that age, there is a lot of fear, or simple discomfort. But I know in that being born and missing a hand, it does give me empathy. I understand the struggle and, listen, I know a lot of other people have it worse than me. I witnessed that over and over. But I know the daily fight never goes away.
Q: And then there was the media coverage of you, doing stories on you as early as 12 years old. The Flint Journal in 1979 with the headline: “Jimmy Abbott: Special in More Ways than One.” How did your sensitivity toward media coverage at that age start to impact your self esteem or self worth?
A: There was always attention on my plate (laughing). I was the human-interest story. That did help me about knowing about the media and how they’d portrayed things. It did serve me well. I’d have to say the media always treated me incredibly well and fairly. There’s a passage in the book about Jack Curry (a New York Times writer, who Abbott confronts in the locker room for calling him an “underachiever” in a front-page assessment of the Yankees’ recent struggles). He was calling me out and I was still wanting the story about the “overachiever” but having to face the fact I wasn’t living up to my abilities. That was a great realization for me, and a lesson. It had always been so flowery, and here I was being judged for really how I was, and that was always what I sought.
Q: There’s a passage near the end where you say that “baseball gave me many great blessings … But maybe the greatest gift was that it helped me come to peace with the burden of being different. The lesson had to be learned through losing, painful as it was.” In the big picture, you must realize that almost everything thinks of you today as a winner, and not a loser?
A: I hope people see that it’s not a meditation on losing (laughing). It was a realization in that talking about Harvey again, when you’re winning, that snowball keeps rolling and it’s a void that never gets filled. It just brings a want for more winning, more and more. The articles are positive and the scrutiny is positive and the experience is positive. It wasn’t until I came across struggle, and for the first time, baseball taken away as that crutch, to back off and say, “Who am I? Am I how people see me or can I be more than that?”