The book: “Imperfect: An Improbable Life”
The author: Former Angels pitcher Jim Abbott, with Yahoo!Sports’ Tim Brown
The vital stats: Ballantine Books (Random House), 283 pages, $26
The pitch: Odds are, you’ve seen some books written about Jim Abbott.
There’s been “Jim Abbott: Against All Odds” (1995), “Jim Abbott: Overcoming the Odds” (1996) and “Jim Abbott: He Beats the Odds” (1999). Not to mention “Jim Abbott: Major League Pitcher” (from the “Lives of the Physically Challenged” series, 1994), or even “Nothing To Prove: The Jim Abbot Story,” with Bob Bernotas (linked here).
All were written mostly for kids or young adults — meaning, any 10-year-old could figure out the inspirational storyline about how this Flint, Mich., native overcome the handicap of not having a right hand to be a success in the big leagues.
Now’s the perfect time for “Imperfect.”
Abbott admits early in the book that he loves his job “mostly” — pitching in the big leagues for 10 seasons, first with the Angels, then the Yankees, back to the Angels, and a return through the minor leagues to get a few last throws in with the White Sox and Brewers. “But sometimes (I) got to wondering why it didn’t always love me back.”
His cut fastball is having what he describes is “a midlife crisis” in September, 1993, as Abbott details heading to Yankee Stadium to pitch against the Indians, who five days earlier had knocked him out of the game and sent him on a soul-searching walk through downtown Cleveland, during the contest, to the dismay of manager Buck Showalter.
Abbott is long past being frustrated as just being known as “One-handed pitcher Jim Abbott.” He was tired of being judged “on a scale that modified those measurable qualities with the leniency of, ‘Hey, look at what the one-handed guy did’.”
When he’d win honors in high school and college — including the Sullivan Award, as the nation’s top amateur athlete while at the University of Michigan — he kept hearing people telling him how “courageous” he was. He says he longed to “be more than a human-interest story … I was a ballplayer … People called it more. I didn’t see it. They said what I did was heroic. No way. I searched for a defining sentiment. Was I mad? Was I bored? Was I impatient? I settled on sad.”
How sad. Especially when he was accomplishing so much, whether he realized it or not.
They were doing stories about him as early as when he was 12. By the time he was 17, he would be asked to visit other handicapped kids, but he’d be left speechless. “How was I to articulate to them what I didn’t understand myself?” he asked.
Today, he’s pretty articulate. Especially with the help of Tim Brown, who covered the Angels while working with the L.A. Daily News in the 1990s, and went onto the L.A. Times before landing at Yahoo!Sports.
Abbott puts it all out there — the good times, and the times when he couldn’t stay happy in good times — wrapped around the imperfect no-hitter he threw for the Yankees on that day in ’93, which kind of feels like the Kevin Costner movie, “For Love Of Game.”
The excerpts: From page 58:
“The thing about a disability is, it’s forever. And forever might not end, but it has to start somewhere. For me, it began with the realization that I was different, except it did not arrive with a single unpleasant thunderclap. It arrived in nagging episodes over the course of every day, and what followed was the routine fight back from them, and the desire to be accepted.”
From page 77: “Years before I’d worn down my parents on the subject of the prosthetic limb, so by my freshman year I couldn’t have said whether it was in a box in the garage or in a hospital storeroom or in a city landfill or on some other kid’s arm. As I’d neared the end of elementary school, the last place I saw it was on the floor of my bedroom closet, there with five sneakers that were too small or tattered, toys I’d outgrown, a pair of snow pants and a plastic bat split along its seam that one day would be brought back to life with duct tape. … Eventually, gloriously, there was no more tomorrows for my right arm, though 25 years later a man I didn’t know contacted me, said he was in possession of my arm — guaranteed it — and asked if I would like to buy it back. I was mortified, thou less so when he described what he had, and it turned out what he was hoping to sell could not have come from my closet. It was a left arm.”
Page 209, after negotiations cut off with the Angels in his first go-around with the team, and fearing fans would think he had become too greedy with Boras as his agent: “Swallowing potential issues until they became full-blown crises was a lifelong habit of mine and on this occasion it got me traded to the Yankees. While I was sure Boras and I viewed the world differently — very differently at times — he was incredibly loyal.”
Page 274: “I was driven only to be the best pitcher I could be. If there was something to be gained from that by others, then that was a fortunate — yet accidental — consequence of my efforts, which were minimal beside theirs. I did come to see there were peripheral benefits to what i tried to do, but they never drove me, and never impaired me, either. Instead what I learned was that there will be another like me, another like them. And they won’t owe themselves to anyone for it, either … 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.”
How it goes down in the scorebook: Perfecto.
Brown says of the process in doing the book: “This, to me, is one of the great sports stories of our lifetimes. It could only be told once. I didn’t want to screw it up.”
No worries. The reporting Brown does on top of Abbott telling his story adds the richer context to the whole narrative. Brown, whose first year on the Angels beat was in 1990 during Abbott’s second year on the team, had extensive conversations with Abbott’s parents, former teammates, managers and friends, generating material and insights that Abbott could not have got on his own.
The relationship that Abbott has with Brown is not such an obvious element of how the book was done, but without it, it could have been told far more what a “normal” jock autobiography could have been.
Again, whatever “normal” means these days.
Today’s edition of “CBS Sunday Morning” did a piece on him (printed version linked here). Here’s another one recently from the Orange County Register (linked here), the L.A. Times (linked here), from Dennis Miller on his radio show (linked here), and one more from Boomer Esiason’s WFAN radio show (linked here).
Coming up: Abbott will be signing the book at Barnes & Noble in Huntington Beach (7881 Edinger Ave.) at 3 p.m. on Saturday, April 14.