Abbott retires at 31: 'It's time to admit reality'
July 27, 1999
BY JOHN LOWE
FREE PRESS SPORTS WRITER
CLEVELAND — He made the decision and spoke of the decision in the same quiet and dignified way that he conducted his career, which was one of the most extraordinary and admirable in sports history.
Jim Abbott has decided to retire.
"I think I've come to the end, baseball-wise," the left-hander said Monday from his home in California. "Unless some miracle happens that I don't foresee, it's time for me to move on and look in other areas and aspects of life. It's time to admit reality."
Abbott, 31, was released last Friday by the Milwaukee Brewers, who recently had dropped him from the rotation. There was speculation that Abbott (2-8, 6.91 ERA) would try to catch on with another team. But he has concluded in the past few weeks that he no longer can pitch effectively. Monday, he summarized his career -- and his humanitarian impact — like a man who had thrown his last pitch.
"I feel fulfilled. I feel satisfied," said Abbott, who played at Flint Central and the University of Michigan. "My career wasn't always great, but it was wonderful. I learned so many lessons and had so many great friends and experiences. I don't feel the emptiness that I felt after I was released by the Angels a few years ago.
"My experiences, added up, make me feel like I've had a Hall of Fame career."
As for the dozens of kids with limb disabilities whom he has met, Abbott said: "To play some small role in their lives gives me a lot of satisfaction and pride, and humility."
Abbott was asked whether he was retiring for sure.
"That's pretty accurate," he said. "I'm no Michael Jordan."
Jordan unretired, then won three more NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls. But in another way, Abbott is a Jordan: There never has been anyone like either of them.
Despite being born without a right hand, Abbott pitched 10 seasons in the big leagues.
"I'll always be looked at as having played with one hand," Abbott said. "There's an accomplishment to that, that I can be proud of. And how other people see it is up to them. I'm not rebelling against that.
"The only thing that matters to me is a sense of giving everything I've got and making the most of what I've been given."
Abbott pondered imminent retirement when he visited Tiger Stadium 2½ weeks ago for his last visit to his childhood ballpark.
"When I came to Tiger Stadium the last time, there was a nice sense of finality to that," he said. "I was thinking a lot: Although I love the game, I didn't feel like I was contributing very much."
In the middle game of that three-game series, July 10, Abbott started and lost by allowing five runs in 3 2/3 innings.
Monday, Abbott reflected on how his home state was the scene of his final start.
"I wish I had more pleasant memories of it," he said. But then, thinking back to that "nice sense of finality," he said:
"I really enjoyed being there for those couple of days. The fact that I got to pitch there is still a blessing.
"I tried to take mental pictures from that three-day series, looking at the press box, the orange seats, the blue seats. I had a good run on the warning track.
"It always will be a memorable, special place. I'm glad to have gone back there one more time. It's a cool ballpark — the kind there won't be anymore."
All Abbott knows about his future is this: He and his wife, Dana, and their 2½-year-old daughter, Madeleine, will spend time this summer in Harbor Springs. They plan to return to Harbor Springs in future summers.
"I know I've had great support in Michigan and it's home for me," Abbott said. "It's always special coming back. I always want to be connected with that."
Abbott won't rush into any new ventures. He'll be busy getting over not being a ballplayer.
"It's tough in that you always have such a great fondness for it and want to be a part of it," he said. "It's the only way of life I've known since college. To not have it in my life is a little sad and scary."
He said he'd like to do something challenging and rewarding. There might be expectations for him to work with the challenged children with whom he has shared so much time. But he said: "I want to make a choice on my own. I don't want to do something because people expect me to do it."
Abbott estimates he averaged at least one scheduled meeting with a child during every road series in his career. That's more than 200 kids.
"Most of the kids I met had a limb deficiency — missing hands, a short limb, some sort of birth defect," Abbott said. "Last year I was meeting kids for the second time, ones who I met years ago in Baltimore. Now they're teenagers and playing sports and accomplishing things.
"That's tremendously rewarding. It makes me feel pretty good."
Abbott already was redefining impossible when he played quarterback at Flint Central. Then he won the Sullivan Award — the nation's highest honor for an amateur athlete — while pitching at U-M.
After pitching for the gold medal U.S. Olympic team in 1988, he did what only a handful of players have done: He skipped the minors and went directly to the majors, with the California Angels in 1989.
Abbott, with a career mark of 87-108, was one of the American League's best pitchers in 1991-92, when he posted a sub-3.00 ERA each season. He pitched a no-hitter against Cleveland in '93, his first season with the New York Yankees. The Angels had traded him after being unable to sign him to a long-term deal.
But by the no-hit season, he was losing his consistency. He started moving around — from the Yankees to the White Sox in '95, back to the Angels later that season. In '96, he was 2-18 for the Angels. They released him the next spring, and he stayed out of baseball for all of '97. In May '98, he returned when the White Sox signed him to a minor league deal.
Abbott returned to the majors in September, finishing 5-0 in five starts with the Sox. But it wasn't the renaissance that it appeared. He wasn't throwing as hard as in his peak years. The White Sox didn't re-sign him, and he was out of a job until late in the off-season, when the pitching-desperate Brewers gave him a contract.
He talked Monday about how coming back over the last year helped convince him once and for all he no longer had the fastball to be a power pitcher, and that the adjustment to being a finesse pitcher was just too much.
Abbott began losing his fastball earlier than most. He leaves baseball not sure why his pitching ability vanished.
"I don't know," he said. "It's something that has really troubled me and bothered me. You're battling against something that has no answers.
"It's not lack of effort, and it's not lack of great coaching or training.
"Basically, it comes down to not having the velocity I once had. I wasn't able to make the transition to throw a formidable off-speed pitch. You have to be able to do that. For me, it was a tough transition to make. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to do it."