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SPRING TRAINING '89 : Nothing Throws Jim Abbott : Despite Hoopla, Wind, He Shines in Angel Debut

March 04, 1989|MIKE PENNER | Times Staff Writer

YUMA, Ariz. — Jim Abbott got his sense of Yuma Friday morning, along with a sense of everything else that awaits him during his spring tour of cactus, cameras, curiosity and can-he-do-it?

This was Abbott's professional debut, pitching for the Angels against the San Diego Padres in a B exhibition game, spring training's equivalent to the junior varsity. Normally, this is scrub land, of interest only to coaches and close personal friends, but Abbott's presence elevated it to headline status.

First, they moved the game from the hinterlands of some side practice field to the main stadium, to accommodate all those eager for a glimpse of the Angels' one-handed, Olympic gold medal-winning, Sullivan Award-winning No. 1 draft choice from the University of Michigan.

Then, they scheduled a mid-game press conference, to be held 45 minutes after Abbott's final pitch, to accommodate the 20 or so reporters present to chronicle the event.

Then, they let Abbott pitch.

And, on a windy day that sent sand and dust sweeping across the pitcher's mound and home plate, Abbott blew them away.

Eight of the first nine pitches he threw were strikes. Thomas Howard, the first Padre to step in against Abbott, was caught looking, taking an inside fastball for Strike 3. Gary Green, the next hitter, also struck out--on three pitches.

Abbott was one pitch away from striking out the side when Joey Cora, on an 0-and-2 count, bounced a grounder to Angel shortstop Kent Anderson, reaching base when Anderson bobbled the ball for an error.

Abbott came back to retire the next four Padres he faced, including a strikeout of Carmelo Martinez, and didn't allow a hit until his third and final inning of work.

His pitching line for the day: three innings, two hits, four strikeouts, no runs, no walks.

Handicap? What handicap?

"He's a great competitor, just to get here," said Padre infielder Tim Flannery. "But after three pitches, you forget all about that.

"You're just looking for the ball--and on that, he doesn't do anything different than anybody else. . . . He's got a fastball that just takes off. One just sailed and even the catcher couldn't catch it."

Added Martinez:

"Everybody in the dugout's going, 'Yeah, check this guy out' and for my first at-bat, it was hard to concentrate. But then you realize that the ball comes from the same place and goes to the same place.

"If you're looking just at his arm, he's got you."

The Padres were guilty of that, at least once, when Martinez attempted to bunt. Because of Abbott's unique delivery--he rests his glove on his right arm, throws left-handed and then flips the glove onto his left hand--he is perceived as a vulnerable fielder. All his life, the scouting report on Abbott has been: Bunt away.

Martinez tried. He fouled off the attempt.

Soon after, he became Abbott's third strikeout victim.

"That could turn out to be a plus for me," Abbott said afterward. "I think (Martinez) was the No. 3 hitter in their lineup. If it's a windy day and he wants to try and bunt . . .

"Hopefully, I'm efficient enough to make the play. If they're thinking that much about my weakness, that can only help me."

Abbott spoke while seated at a picnic table behind the Padres' dressing room, surrounded by microphones, tape recorders, television cameras and autograph seekers. Simply standard procedure for your basic rookie pitcher, working middle relief in your basic B game.

Is all the attention starting to overwhelm? Abbott was asked.

"It hasn't been this bad," he replied with a laugh. "I try to handle it the best I can. It's a lot of attention, but as long as it doesn't interfere with my pitching, it doesn't bother me."

It comes with Abbott's own unique parcel of territory, he says.

"Some of it's nice," he said. "I think it's an acknowledgement that there is some talent there. If I wasn't doing well and if I wasn't at this level, then me being born with one hand wouldn't matter.

"But at the same time, if I had two hands, there wouldn't be all this attention. I'd just be another left-handed pitcher. So, it's a double-edged sword."

Abbott then proceeded to field the usual brand of Jim Abbott questions.

Question: Was Pete Gray, the one-armed outfielder for the old St. Louis Browns, a boyhood idol?

Answer: "Pete Gray did what Pete Gray did. He's not my hero. But, I respect what he did. If we could changes places, I don't think Pete Gray would necessarily be a fan of mine. It's just something you have to deal with on your own."

Q: Does Abbott consider himself an inspiration to handicapped youngsters?

A: "If someone gets a message from what I do, fine. I'm not out there to carry a message or trumpet myself. I was born without a right hand, but I was also born with a strong left arm that's enabled me to pitch.

"If it helps someone out, that goes beyond the three innings I pitch and whatever strikes and balls I throw. Maybe it might help somebody play baseball."

Q: Is fielding a problem?

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