His story is one of the most inspirational in baseball history, and one of the chapters was written in our province.
Despite being born without a right hand, Jim Abbott persevered to become a decorated college baseball player, he won a gold medal with the United States at the 1988 Summer Olympics, and he was drafted in the first round of the 1988 Major League Baseball (MLB) Draft by the California Angels.
Abbott also threw a no-hitter for the New York Yankees in 1993 and spent a total of 10 seasons in professional baseball.
Now a motivational speaker, the Flint, Michigan southpaw says his disability inspired him to work harder than others.
“As a kid, I really wanted to fit in,” Abbott says on his website.
“Sports became a way for me to gain acceptance. I think this fueled my desire to succeed. I truly believe that difficult times and disappointments can push us to find abilities and strengths we wouldn’t know existed without the experience of struggle.”
One of the challenges he had to overcome later in his professional career came when coming back from retirement in 1998. His return led to a short stint with the Pacific Coast League’s Calgary Cannons.
NOT DONE YET
After a disappointing 1996 season where he posted a 2-18 record with a 7.48 earned-run average in 27 appearances for the Angels, as well as a stint with the Triple-A Vancouver Canadians, Abbott announced his retirement.
He spent the 1997 away from baseball, but ultimately felt like he had more to give.
In May 1998, the Chicago White Sox announced they had signed Abbott to a minor-league contract and sent him to the Single-A Hickory Crawdads.
After one start there, he moved up to the High-A Winston-Salem Warthogs, going 2-1 with a 5.40 ERA in four starts, earning another promotion to the Double-A Birmingham Barons.
“I’m trying to be patient with myself,” Abbott told the Winston-Salem Journal in June 1998.
“After taking a year off, I can’t expect to come back and have everything perfectly in order.”
STEP BY STEP
After getting the call-up to the Barons, sports writers in Calgary began to take notice of the possibility that Abbott might end up making the jump to the hometown Cannons.
The Cannons had just entered into an arrangement with the White Sox that spring, following three seasons of being the Triple-A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Calgary Herald reporter Gyle Konotopetz caught up with Abbott during his time in Birmingham in anticipation of another step being taken soon.
“I just missed pitching,” Abbott said about his comeback after a difficult year away from the game.
“Even if I don’t make it to the major leagues, this part, putting the uniform on and competing, is very good for me psychologically.”
After not going through a typical spring training, he knew he had to take it one step at a time in hopes of regaining the form he had between 1989 and 1995.
While he was grateful for the opportunity to get back into the game he loved, he also had a goal of writing a newer, happier ending to his baseball journey.
“When I was out of the game, something wasn’t right,” Abbott told Konotopetz.
“I felt a little apart from something that I had always been very close to. I have a lot of me invested in this game. Whatever happens here, I’ll be able to look in the mirror one day and know that I gave it all I had.”
As Abbott continued to refine his game in Double-A, the Cannons were firing on all cylinders.
Sitting first in the Pacific Coast League’s North Division with a 60-49 record on August 6th proved to be a double-edged sword because the White Sox were calling up some of their stars, including two starting pitchers and three of the Cannons’ top relievers.
Manager Tom Spencer was hoping to get some help in the form of a few arms down the depth chart, including Abbott.
“He has been real impressive,” White Sox assistant general manager Daniel Evans told the Calgary Herald during a visit to Foothills Stadium.
“We’ve made no promises to Jim about pitching in the major leagues. All I can say is that he’s been such a positive influence to the young players in the organization. He’s a winning person.”
It didn’t take long for the case to be made, as one day later, it was announced that Abbott was on his way to the Cannons.
“I feel ready for the next challenge and I’m excited about going to Calgary,” Abbott said.
“I’ve made significant progress each time out. I feel like my arm strength is really coming around now.”
Not only was Spencer happy to have the support for his team, but it was also personal.
“He’s a hero of mine because of the way he was able to rise above everything,” the skipper said.
“But when he gets here, he’ll just be one of the guys. He’ll get no special privileges and that’s how he wants it.”
HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS
Abbott wasn’t given an easy ride in his first assignment with the Cannons as they were set to host the PCL-leading Iowa Cubs on August 8th.
The left-hander arrived as advertised by allowing just four hits and two runs while walking two and striking out three in seven innings, leaving with a 5-2 lead.
However, the Cubs mauled Cannons’ relievers Larry Casian and Jose Bautista to claim a 7-5 victory.
Despite the no-decision, Abbott had garnered a lot of attention from local reporters looking to help tell the story of his return to baseball.
“Sports provides a lot of lessons,” he said. “My dad always told me, ‘Losses are as important as wins when it comes to learning.’ Sometimes, it’s hard to translate that to kids. Sports is not life-threatening. It’s about handling situations and character building.”
Then 30, Abbott had also found himself playing for something bigger than himself: he had a 19-month-old baby girl at home.
“She’s a dream,” he told the Herald.
“Being a parent now, if I can be an influence to parents by being who I am, it takes no effort on my part.”
It didn’t take long for Abbott to endear himself to the Cannons’ faithful and one fan in particular.
Sitting in a wheelchair, 11-year-old Marc Ohlhof cheered as loud as he could while watching Abbott throw out the first pitch in front of a season-high 7,624 fans.
“Oh he’s good, very good,” the youngster told Konotopetz.
“He throws so hard. I’ve also got a strong arm.”
Ohlhof was born without a left hand, and had his legs amputated at birth. He and his family were in Calgary vacationing from Kiel, Germany.
After his stellar debut, the emotional Abbott left the game, he tipped his cap and waved to the appreciative crowd.
“It was overwhelming,” he said.
“It’s humbling to go places where I’ve never been before and get that kind of a reception. I’m very thankful.”
WIN SOME, LOSE SOME
Unfortunately, Abbott’s second start in the PCL didn’t go the way he had hoped.
Again at home against the Oklahoma RedHawks on August 13th, he registered his first loss in a 12-5 defeat. Abbott allowed four runs on six hits with five walks and four strikeouts in 5 1/3 innings.
“I was happy with a few things I did and I feel like I’m getting better,” he said.
“But I pitched pretty high a lot of the game, and that’s not a very good way to pitch. You’re going to have days like that.”
His next start, on August 18th, came on the road in Salt Lake, where he was finally able to capture his first win in a nail-biting 3-2 victory over the buzz.
The two teams battled in a doubleheader which featured a pair of seven-inning games with Abbott starting the nightcap.
He went the distance, allowing two runs on 10 hits with no walks and six strikeouts.
“He looked real strong early and was starting to tire late in the ball game,” said Spencer.
“He was a ground ball away from getting out of the last inning and there’s nobody better on the ball club than him. Why go to the bullpen?”
With a hot-and-cold August, the Cannons were in a dogfight for the division lead.
After a close 2-0 loss to the Canadians on August 23rd, they retained a half-game lead on Edmonton for top spot after the Trappers shelled the Cannons for three straight nights at Burns Stadium.
But it was more than a scoreboard loss that night, as Abbott had to be yanked out of the game with a pulled groin muscle.
Abbott had allowed just one run on four hits while striking out three in 5 2/3 innings, before Calgary pitching coach Kirk Champion called for reinforcements.
“It was a precautionary thing,” Champion told the Calgary Herald post-game.
“It will be dealt with on a day-to-day situation.”
One of the challenges Cannons owner Russ Parker had to overcome with great teams in the past was watching players getting called up to the major leagues at the most inopportune times.
When his team was affiliated with the Seattle Mariners, he watched helplessly as players like Edgar Martinez, Tino Martinez, Dave Fleming and Mike Campbell left to fill holes with the big-league squad.
Parker felt those kinds of players made a difference in the Cannons losing in the league finals in both 1987 and 1991.
As they chased another playoff performance, his team was once again left with a patchwork of arms after the call-ups of Mike Heathcott and Carlos Castillo.
Abbott was presumably next with White Sox general manager Ron Schueler promising he wouldn’t call him up prior to his scheduled start on August 30th. But he was considering a move after that game.
“He doesn’t have to do anything great, all he has to do is show me the stuff that he showed me three weeks ago in Birmingham,” Schueler told the Herald.
ONE MORE GAME
On the road in Oklahoma City, Abbott saved his best for last on August 30th.
Allowing no runs on seven hits with two walks and four strikeouts in six innings, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound hurler picked up his second win with the Cannons in a 2-0 triumph.
With eight games to go in the season, the Cannons held a 3 ½ game lead over Tacoma for top spot in the division.
While it would have normally given any team reason to celebrate, the Cannons kept the champagne on ice as they knew they were facing another departure.
Major League Baseball rosters were set to expand for the playoff run at the start of September, and Abbott was on the top of the list of players the White Sox were eying.
The move was so expected that Abbott returned home to Michigan the day after his start to spend some time with his family.
THE LEFTY’S LEGACY
On September 2, 1998, the expected came to pass as the Chicago White Sox announced that Jim Abbott had been called up to the big league squad.
He finished his tenure in Calgary with a 2-2 record, 2.61 ERA, nine walks and 20 strikeouts in 31 innings of work.
Abbott was outstanding in his return to the majors, going 5-0 with a 4.55 ERA in five starts for the White Sox to finish the season.
The Cannons, meantime, soldiered on to win the division, and beating the Fresno Grizzlies in the conference championships.
Unfortunately, they lost the league final to the New Orleans Zephyrs in the best-of-five series 3-2, including a heart-breaking 4-3 loss in the deciding game.
“You can drive yourself crazy replaying the game,” Parker said.
“All day today, I’ve been playing the game over and over. I’m sick about it.”
His past experience with the narrowest of defeats also provided the Calgary baseball legend with perspective.
“I’m moping today, but I’m also looking back to all the excitement we’ve had with this team,” Parker told the Calgary Herald.
“I have to be satisfied because we thought this would be only an average team. It was a joy to come to the park this year.”
The winning baseball gave attendance a boost at Burns Stadium, as did the presence of Abbott, who used Calgary as a stepping stone to get back to the majors and give fans an added dose of inspiration.
“I’ve been the beneficiary of the team playing well,” Abbott said. “I’m just having fun again.”
He retired at the end of the 1999 season, finishing with an overall record of 87-108 with a 4.25 ERA.