It was a hot summer day when I convinced my parents to let me drive to a Red Sox game at Fenway with some friends. I desperately wanted to make the 90 mile trek to cheer on one of my favorite players and to see in person his unique pitching technique. It wasn’t Roger Clemens, but Jim Abbott from the California Angels who I admired and wanted to see play.
I don’t remember all of the details of the games, but I do remember sitting at the edge of my seat every time Abbott took the mound. I was amazed at how he threw the ball, managed his glove and kept his composure throughout every inning. I remember feeling stronger, more capable and inspired by his performance. He had mastered every aspect of a traditionally two-handed game with one hand.
Recently, when I was reflecting on sports moments that have shaped my life, and I thought of that game. It led me to emailing Jim Abbott in hopes to do an interview with him after all of these years. And to my amazement, Jim agreed.
What impressed me about the interview with Jim was his humility and belief in the human spirit to grow from challenges. I gained a lot of insight about life on and off the field from this well-read, articulate and compassionate man. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to see him play, and after all of these years to speak with him about his sports story.
What is your sports story?
My story is simple, yet probably a bit complicated. I loved sports. I loved to play. I loved to compete, and I grew up in the midwest where sports were an important component of my hometown. Also, all of the people I looked up to were athletes- either at the high school, college, or professional level. And, I wanted to be like them.
I was born missing my right hand. There were a lot of aspects to being different that, maybe consciously or unconsciously, developed my love for sports. I just wanted to compete and fit in on a team. I was fortunate enough to do it for a long time and play at the highest levels. All the while, I was learning from those many experiences.
Growing up I had a lot of insecurities. I had a lot of moments that I didn’t know if I could do what was being asked of me. But, I was surrounded by great teachers, parents and coaches who put me on the teams. And when I came across a situation that I hadn’t dealt with before like maybe holding a bat a little bit differently or switching the glove on and off, they helped me find ways and devise strategies. For all the credit I have received for my accomplishments, those folks probably deserve as much or even more.
What sports accomplishments are you most proud of?
I am very proud of growing up in my hometown of Flint, Michigan. It was tough town. But, it was a great town to grow up in because I was presented with a diverse set up experiences that helped me gain many different perspectives. I am proud I played sports there. Flint has a great athletic history, and I am really proud to be a part of that history.
Going to the University of Michigan was a huge accomplishment and is probably one of my proudest affiliations. I am fortunate to have attended school there and to have been part of a Big Ten championship team. It meant a lot to me.
I am also proud to have played on the1988 United States Olympic Team. It was an incredible moment. And I am even proud of my pre-major leagues play, where you are fighting and grinding to make it. When I look back at those times, I am really proud of those moments.
You’re response surprises me. Your answer has to do more with your roots, who you are and where you come from, and it is less about your professional career or the fact that you pitched a no-hitter when playing for the Yankees.
I’m not trying to be disingenuous. Maybe I am just getting sentimental as I get older, but really those things just mean a lot to me. Without that foundation, the rest of it just doesn’t fall into place.
How would you define ability?
Literally, I would define it as what you are capable of doing. In the context I would like to think about it, I would say, “Are you making the most of what you are capable of doing?” We have to challenge ourselves each and every day. You need to ask yourself if you are pushing the limits of your own abilities.
I was recently reading a new book released by Thaler and Koval, Grit to Great. They mention you and the role of grit in your career as a baseball player. How would you define grit?
Wow, that’s great. I didn’t know that I was mentioned in that book.
Grit is resiliency. I think of grit as toughness. It is the edginess that it takes to believe in yourself in moments of doubt and difficulty.
I know you have co-authored a book with Tim Brown titles, Imperfect: An Improbable Life, about your life experiences in sports. What books have inspired you throughout your career?
Oh gosh, there are a lot of great books that have inspired me. I have a whole bookshelf full of books that are dog-eared and have highlighted pages. The biggest one to me is probably not something you would guess, and it might surprise you. It was suggested by a great mentor in my life, Harvey Dorfman. He was wonderful at providing perspective on and off the field. His way of teaching often included giving books, and usually they had nothing to do with sports. In fact, most of them were novels. One time he gave me the book, All the Pretty Horses written by Cormac McCarthy. I loved the book, but in particular there was a passage about three-quarters of the way through the book where this older lady was engaged in a conversation with the protagonist of the book and she talked about losing a hand later in her life. She was telling this younger kid what this experience meant to her and how it shaped her world view. When Harvey gave me the book, he never mentioned the scene. But when I read it, I knew immediately why he had given it to me. Forever, I have been impacted by what Cormac McCarthy wrote and I agree with it. It has even been a real guiding point in my life. I am amazed he was able to write that piece having had two hands. He showed an incredible amount of empathy for that woman. It really stuck with me, and it still does.
What advice do you have for young athletes?
Love it. Embrace it. That love and passion can be a driving force to getting better at whatever it is you do or play. Find what it is you love to do. Then, work, practice and lose yourself in it. Don’t worry so much about the results. Embrace it, learn from it and try again tomorrow.
What advice do you have for their parents and coaches?
Well… I have all kinds of advice, but if I follow any of it myself is another story. I actually think my parents were better at this stuff than I am. I can’t really articulate how they did it, but the greatest thing they taught me or helped me to believe was that I was up to the challenge. I was different and it was challenging, but I was up to it.
My dad would say, “What was taken away once will be given back twice.” I think he really encouraged me to look at the blessings as opposed to the negatives. It was that repetitive message that helped me believe that I could do anything. Having one hand did not have to define me, and I could do whatever I set my mind to accomplishing.
Helping your kids to believe that they are up to the challenge is a fantastic gift. Challenge comes to all of us, day in and day out, and the confidence to face it is a gift.
Any additional comments or thoughts? No, I feel like I’ve been going on and on…Well, there is one quote I want to share from the Cormac McCarthy book. I’m paraphrasing a bit, but he states, “Those who have endured some misfortune will always be set apart. It is just that misfortune that is their gift and their strength.” And I believe that… I truly believe that. I believe misfortunate and being set a part can be tough, but it can be a gift. It can be a strength.
I agree and in our house when I talk with my kids about challenges we also discuss how they create complimentary gifts or superpowers. So do you have any superpowers? No, I don’t have a super power, but that is an interesting question. You know…when I think about it, the resistance that I have faced from having one hand has given me empathy. Empathy is my superpower. I really feel for people and their struggle. I have empathy for what people go through in life. I give people credit for their struggles.
Who would you nominate to be featured on Team Possible? You know who is really cool and I admire is a young MMA fighter, Nick Newell.
Great news! Nick trains in my hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts and has already agreed to be featured in an upcoming blog. So keep reading and believing in the possible!