‘Imperfect’: Jim Abbott faces tough question about his birth defect in book excerpt

This is an excerpt from the book, IMPERFECT by Jim Abbott and Tim Brown. Copyright © 2012 by Jim Abbott. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.


Ella is my youngest.

She has my hair and eyes and her mother’s smile. The timing is distinctly hers. She was five when she asked, quite publicly, “Dad, do you like your little hand?”

My what? Do I like it?

Jim Abbott reacts to his 1993 no-hitter against the Cleveland Indians as New York Yankees teammate Wade Boggs joins the celebration.
(AP)

I had come to her preschool’s Career Day bearing baseball cards for her classmates. In the morning rush getting the girls through the front door and into the car, I’d packed into a gym bag a couple familiar baseball caps, an Olympic gold medal and a baseball glove.

I had come first as a dad, and then as a former baseball player. I’d pitched for the local team, the California Angels, and for the team everybody had heard of, the New York Yankees. I had come because I wasn’t pitching anymore, and because Ella’s mother, my wife, Dana, wryly pointed out that preschool Career Day wasn’t really for fathers who no longer had careers. The query, posted on the door of Ella’s classroom weeks before, read: “Do any of the dads have an interesting job they could come and speak to the children about?” When I arrived one afternoon to gather Ella, the answer beside her name on the door, in Dana’s handwriting, read, “No.” Calling her on the playful taunt, I’d scratched out “No” and written, “Yes – baseball” – presumably precisely as she had intended.

Ella had been excited. The classroom had hummed, curiosity over the stranger in the room sparring with the early-morning Cap’n Crunch joggling.

I’d seen hundreds of similarly occupied, similarly distracted school rooms, and every one of them put me back at my own tiny desk in my own childhood in Flint, Michigan.

At any age, I was the kid with the deformity. At Ella’s age, I was the kid with the shiny and clunky metal hook where his right hand should have been.

Thirty-five years later, classrooms remained among the few places where I was conscious of my stunted right hand. I would enter and later find I had slipped it into my front pants pocket, tethered against unconscious gesturing, signaling to the room that the details of its story would come at my choosing, if at all.

In this particular room, its walls lined with finger-paint art and construction paper trimmed by tiny round-tipped scissors, I was introduced first as Ella’s dad and second as a guy who once pitched in the major leagues. Every eye in the room went to the place where my hand should have been. They always did, no matter the demographic.

I started, slowly.

Who knows their Angels? The Yankees? Who’s your favorite? Does anyone play baseball?

I was getting to the subject of my hand, building toward it, the courteously unasked question even among pre-schoolers. The baseball glove was on the desk before me, awaiting the demonstration, how I threw it, caught it, threw it again. I scanned the room for a kid who looked athletic enough for an easy game of catch, so that Career Day didn’t end in a broken nose and Emergency Room Day.

A five-year-old hand went up. “My brother plays baseball.”

Another. “Do you have a dog?”

A third. Ella’s.

Do I like it?

I had never thought of my birth defect in terms of liking it. I’d disliked it some, found it a nuisance at times, hardly thought about it others. I didn’t remember it being called a “little hand,” and certainly not by Ella.

We never called it that at home. We never called it anything.

Mostly, my relationship with my hand and its various consequences was blurred, and often complicated. Its permanence bobbed in a current of all it might have taken from me and all that it offered. It carried me where it would, to frustration and reluctance, and to fear, but also to the resolve to thrash against its pull. From the moment I could understand I’d been so cast, my parents had championed my opportunity to thrash. Special people, they said, endured against the disability, the child born imperfectly. As significant, special people endured against what the disability incessantly drew; the self-pity, the ignorance, the rationalizations of a life less spent. I didn’t know about special, but I knew I wanted to endure, and I knew it pleased them – and me – when I did, when I was up to the fight.

I’ve wondered from time to time if I was carrying it, or it me. Mostly, I think, I did the heavy lifting. My parents – Kathy, my mother, returned to school and became an attorney when I was in my teens, and Mike, my father, was a sales manager for Anheuser-Busch – generally declined to stand as shields. As far as I know they weren’t at my schools asking for favors, or whispering to the youth-league baseball coach to keep me out of the infield, or standing in an upstairs bedroom window, making sure the kids in the yard played nice. I really sort of found my own way through.

Baseball helped. It leveled the playing field, then placed me above it – 10 and a half inches above it, on the pitcher’s mound. The rest was about results, and not about who learned to tie his shoes first or who could button his shirt fastest or who looked like what. I remember once feeling dissatisfied with a professional career in which I lost more than I won, and that ended sooner – and with far more heartache – than I hoped it would. My mother reminded me of the journey I had taken, how at every step I had longed for the next one, and only the next one. In the Flint youth leagues, I had simply wanted to be good enough to play with the next age group. Soon, I aspired to be good enough to pitch at the big public high school. Then in college, the Olympics, professional baseball, the big leagues. Every level, she said, was, in its moment, a gift, every experience grander and more rewarding than the last. There was no rehearsed progression. It just happened. I think that’s the way my parents thought of it, too. And I liked it just fine.

Did I like this hand, though? Could it be as simple as a child’s curiosity, all black and white and no gray? I wondered if that really was what she was asking.

Do I like what I have been? How I have been looked at? The battles I chose? The ones that chose me? Those I evaded? What I became?

Do I like who I am?

It was a lot to consider standing in front of a dozen five-year-olds, the morning frivolity undone by my desire to be truthful, and then to reexamine a life spent at the blunt end of inspection, followed inevitably by introspection. The teacher, Ms. Roberts, white-haired and not typically indulgent, held her gaze from the rear of the room. This, she could be reasonably sure, was going to be more interesting than last week’s stockbroker.

What I honestly felt was that my hand had put me here, with my daughter and her friends, in a place where I could touch my own childhood: my mother’s hand on my cheek, other boys’ taunts on my shoulders. My little hand was my motivation. It was my pride and my insecurity, my antagonism and my empathy.

I looked at Ella. I would not go back to that age again. A new school, a new classroom, had always meant new kids with the same questions. I cringe still. I’d look forward to recess back then, an hour to show them I could do what they could.

“Do you know your hand looks like a foot?”

“Why do you have only one finger?”

“Can you move it?”

“Does it hurt?”

Jim Abbott had two stints with the California Angels, winning a career-best 18 games with a 2.89 ERA in 1991.
(Gettty Images)

“Did you know you are giving everyone ‘the finger’?”

And me, longing to fit in, going along, answering as if it were the first time the subject had ever come up, then going home to the brick wall on the side of the house. I always was comfortable being by myself, even if I didn’t prefer it.

There, I’d throw a rubber-coated baseball at a strike zone outlined in chalk. I would imagine myself a major-league pitcher, and I’d throw the ball and catch it and throw it again, often for hours. I’d switch the baseball glove – a Dusty Baker model my father had bought at the corner drugstore – back and forth so that I hardly thought about it anymore.

Just like any other kid, I thought.

Like Ella.

Do I like my little hand?

I rolled her question in my head for a second time and nearly laughed at its genuineness, its path from the clear blue.

“I do, honey,” I said. “I like my little hand. I haven’t always liked it. And it hasn’t always been easy. But, it has taught me an important lesson; that life isn’t easy and it isn’t always fair. But, if we can make the most out of what we’ve been given, and find our own way of doing things, you wouldn’t believe what can happen.”

So this is the story of me and my little hand. And of a life in baseball. But, first, of a life.

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Updated Monday, Apr 2, 2012