The moment Jim Abbott had long strived for finally arrived this season. It happened in April, when he was an 0-4 pitcher with a 6.00 ERA for the California Angels and the local columnists had turned calumnists and the callers from Placentia to Burbank were spewing their displeasure over the radio airwaves. Abbott was a 23-year-old lefthander with, his critics said, no control, no off-speed pitch to confuse hitters and no minor league seasoning to draw on. There was no time like the present, they added, for him to get a taste of Triple A. The words missing from this litany were the ones Abbott was most accustomed to hearing, the ones that said he couldn't succeed because he had no right hand. "It was all about pitching—this guy stinks," Abbott recalls with a smile. "I thought, 'There it is. Finally. I've arrived.' "
After untold fastballs in the Flint (Mich.) Little League, three dominant years at the University of Michigan, stardom at the Olympics, a slew of award-acceptance speeches, millions of hearts touched around the world and three seasons in the majors, Abbott was at last being seen as he had always seen himself—simply put, as a pitcher. He was no longer the feature attraction of a media circus or the living embodiment of a made-for-TV movie; he was one fifth of the Angel rotation. True, he is special; he is visible proof that what appears to some a limitation need not be. But he is equally special for the commercial ventures he turns down, for the time he takes with the physically disabled kids who flock to him and for the casual way he carries both himself and his latest reading material—last week it was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance—into a baseball clubhouse.
Now that he is being judged solely as a pitcher, the 6'3", 215-pound Abbott is also special because over the last four months he has been the best pitcher in the American League. Since May 5, he has gone 14-4 with a 2.95 ERA; four more potential wins evaporated as the result of blown saves. In Abbott's last 23 starts, he has pitched into the seventh inning 20 times, and held opponents to three earned runs or fewer 19 times. "Several times I've seen him with legitimate no-hit kind of stuff, where nobody's even come close to attacking the ball," says Angel third baseman Gary Gaetti. "And we have lost almost all of those games."
Adds California lefthander Chuck Finley, "It's a special thing to watch someone throw the ball that well time after time after time. I don't care what anyone says, he doesn't have this or he doesn't have that. The hitters don't think that. They know he's a fierce competitor and that every fifth day he's going to shove the ball down their throats."
The naysayers at the start of the season got no echo from the Angel brass. Manager Doug Rader, since dismissed and replaced by Buck Rodgers, never considered shipping Abbott out; pitching coach Marcel Lachemann said any trip Abbott took to the minors would include him, too. What they saw in him was a kid with a bat-breaking fastball and a slider that chewed up the knuckles of the league's best righthanded hitters. In 1989 he had gone 12-12 with a 3.92 ERA as a rookie right out of Ann Arbor by way of Seoul and through hordes of distractions. Six Japanese camera crews followed Abbottsan for days; one reporter wanted to know his blood type. During that season he fielded more questions about how he would field bunts and comebackers than he did the bunts and comebackers themselves. His fan mail filled shopping carts.
But the frenzy dissipated last season, when Abbott dipped to 10-14 with a 4.51 ERA and allowed more hits than any other American League pitcher. His 1990 record was a bit deceptive; the Angels scored 15 runs for him in his 14 losses, and in one game the five bats he shattered produced five base hits. Abbott was also serving an in-the-majors apprenticeship in the art of pitching, learning to work the outside corners and snapping a slow curve. "I thought last year was a step forward for him," Lachemann says. "The numbers may not indicate it, but he was improving on some things, holding the runners, throwing the outside pitch. It was progress."
Abbott asks no quarter and accepts none, either. Bullpen coach Frank Reberger fungoes to him every day and says, "If you're hitting them too soft, he'll get on you—fast." But the negativity swirling around Abbott's 0-4 start, while soothing in a backhanded sense, was trying as well. "It was the toughest thing I've gone through, baseballwise, in a long time," he says. "In the back of your mind you think, Maybe I just don't have it. Maybe every lousy pitcher thinks that some day he's going to get good. And then all of a sudden, your worst fears are out in the open, in public debate.
"I know a lot of people said that because of my hand, I had something to prove. I never felt that was the case. For some reason, I have a real dislike for the adamant 'I'm going to prove something.' But I felt I wanted to vindicate the people who had helped me."
With the encouragement of those close to him, Abbott turned his "arrival" in April into a point of departure. From Rader and Lachemann he got advice to work inside, to nibble less with his off-speed stuff and to rely instead on his package of power pitches. From Ken Ravizza, the team psychologist, he learned to relax by talking to himself on the mound: "Trust it, trust it, you've been here before." From outfielder Luis Polonia he received the help of a good-luck voodoo doll, Joe Vu, which was temporarily placed on the shelf in Abbott's locker. From his other teammates there were pats on the back; from his parents in Flint, encouraging phone calls; from his fiancée, Dana Douty, a sense of security and calm.
And then the talent and tenacity that had made Abbott the ace of the U.S. teams in the '87 Pan Am Games and the '88 Olympics became an effective asset for the '91 Angels. He was suddenly in control of himself and of the plate. "It's been a renewal for me, it really has," he says. "There's so much more confidence. I like to go home and read the stats now that I'm not so ashamed of my own. It's like it was in college; I enjoy going out and pitching again."