Erica Jong, author of “Fear of Flying,” has one piece of advice for a memoir writer: “Tell the truth.” That’s exactly what former professional baseball player and Flint native Jim Abbott has done in “Imperfect: An Improbable Life,” about his career in baseball as a one-handed pitcher, who played eight years in the majors with four different teams, compiling an 87-108 win-loss record.
Abbott’s emergence from Flint was a storybook tale, especially considering that he was born without a right hand. On a scholarship to the University of Michigan, he collected two Big 10 championships, a solid 26-8 record and won the Sullivan Award for the best college athlete in 1987, the first baseball player to win the award. He then became a member of the triumphant U.S. Olympic Baseball Team, which won an unofficial Gold Medal in the 1988 Olympics (baseball was classified as a demonstration sport that year).
Drafted by the California Angels in 1988, Abbott began what appeared to be a stellar career, even logging a no-hitter against the Cleveland Indians in 1993. Then he lost his fast ball and bounced around several baseball teams. His fall from stardom matched his meteoric rise to fame.
Abbott, who is 44, has gone on to become a professional inspirational speaker — a term he says he abhors — admits the book was a catharsis for him in many ways.
“Parts of it were very hard; especially the professional disappointment,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Newport Beach, Calif. “Writing about playing baseball and then not playing, after the role it played in my life — (that) was the hard part.”
The first time Abbott watched a DVD of the 1993 no-hitter game happened when he and co-writer Tim Brown, a sportswriter for Yahoo! Sports, sat down to go over it play by play. The game is reviewed in detail in the book and it becomes a central focus for moving the story forward. But the real story is about the one played off-field.
Abbott writes that his success in baseball was of such importance that it “brought upon me a distorted view of winning and losing. It wasn’t until I struggled that I came to understand its destructiveness.”
The book is not just about a one-handed player making it to the big leagues and defying all odds. Abbott, in sometimes very emotional details, discusses his childhood and makes sure everyone knows who helped get him to the big leagues. “I benefitted greatly by the people who pulled me into the game,” he said.
That list includes his coaches, especially his Little League and high school coaches at Flint Central High School. The book is a refreshing look at the role his parents played in his maturation as a baseball player and as a person.
“I wasn’t a kid who wanted to stick out,” Abbott said. But stick out he did, even though he developed the habit of hiding his hand in a front pocket (something he couldn’t do in a baseball uniform). He writes about some painful times, such as his first day in kindergarten when a classmate was repulsed by a hook prosthesis that Abbott quickly gave up.
He admits that even today strangers ask about the hand. Last year, while vacationing in northern Michigan and wading in Lake Michigan he recalls a woman yelling out to him, “What happened to your hand? War?”
“It doesn’t bother me, but sometimes you can’t articulate the way you feel,” he said, “and (the feeling) never goes away.”
He also writes tenderly about another feeling that never goes away: his admiration for his parents. While writing the book he discovers a back story involving his parents, Mike and Kathy, who were high school sweethearts. His father was looking forward to a possible college football scholarship when Kathy, a college freshman, became pregnant.
Kathy was asked to leave her family home. She and Mike decided to get married, but had difficulty finding a Catholic priest to perform the ceremony. Finally, they were married two weeks after Jim was born.
The book then becomes their story.
“I didn’t know a lot about their story until the book was written,” Abbott said. “There was a lot of family history I wouldn’t have known about and it only enhanced my admiration for them.”
Abbott’s parents’ uncertain start didn’t hold them back. Both Mike and Kathy finished college and went on to successful careers.
The book doesn’t preach, but it is easy to pull from it some life lessons, including how to deal with bullying, being different and facing reality.
“The thing about a disability is, it’s forever,” Abbot writes. “And forever might not end but it has to begin somewhere.”
“It’s important to know about the things that make you feel bad,” he said. “It doesn’t make it easier, but it takes some of the power away from what can make you feel bad. I want people to read the book and to know they can write their own story, not bound by the circumstances you are born into or find yourself in.”
Abbott has written one of the more engaging sports memoirs in a genre that is overrun by whining “me-me” books. It’s not often that an athlete looks to Cormac McCarthy’s “All the Pretty Horses” for inspiration: “Those that have endured some misfortune will always be set apart but that it is just that misfortune which is their gift and which is their strength.”
Author of “Imperfect:
An Improbable Life”
7 p.m. Wednesday, May 2
Schuler Books & Music
1982 Grand River Ave