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BASEBALL PLAYOFFS

Well-Traveled Abbott Has Taken Some Painful Hits

ALCS: After years of injury and rejection, 33-year-old pitcher becomes a key part of Mariner staff.

October 13, 2000|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Seattle Mariner pitcher Paul Abbott has been an Oak, a Star, a Beaver, a Rainier and an Aero, whatever that is.

He has worn 15 different baseball uniforms, 19 if you count those from winter ball, in 16 years, and his circuitous journey from Sunny Hills High of Fullerton in 1985 to this year's American League championship series included stops in Kenosha, Visalia, Orlando, Omaha and Tacoma, among others.

Abbott has been cut loose by six different organizations, including the one that currently employs him. The right-hander has been on the disabled list 11 times and has undergone two major surgeries in the past four years, one to reconstruct his elbow and one to rebuild his knee.

He has been counted out more than Randall "Tex" Cobb, written off more than Evander Holyfield, but when the bell sounds for Game 4 of the ALCS on Saturday, it will be Abbott on the Safeco Field mound, going toe to toe with five-time Cy Young Award-winner Roger Clemens of the New York Yankees.

"There were times I got discouraged, when I wondered why I kept doing this," Abbott said Thursday as the Mariners and Yankees prepared for Game 3 of the ALCS tonight. "But once you take the uniform off, you can't put it back on. I'll wait for them to take it from me."

You wonder if that day will ever come. Abbott is 33 and a grizzled veteran by professional baseball standards, but he's a kid by big league standards, with a little more than three major league seasons under his belt.

Nothing seems to deter him. Abbott had reconstructive elbow surgery in September, 1997, but was pitching again by August, 1998. He blew out his knee covering first base in a winter league game after the 1998 season, tearing the anterior cruciate ligament and suffering extensive cartilage and bone damage, and was pitching again by the middle of 1999.

This marked Abbott's first full injury-free season in the big leagues, but he has done more than persevere. He has been a major contributor to the Mariners, going 9-7 with a 4.22 earned run average in 35 games, 27 starts.

Abbott, who complements a 92-mph fastball with a slider, curve and an outstanding changeup, opened the season in the bullpen, but injuries to Freddy Garcia and Jamie Moyer forced Manager Lou Piniella to plug Abbott into the rotation in May, and he has been unable to unplug him ever since.

Abbott may have been Seattle's most consistent starter, keeping the Mariners in almost every game he pitched. After Seattle struggled with an 11-17 record in August, Abbott helped set the tone for a successful September by taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning of a 5-0 win over Boston on Sept. 3.

He started Game 2 of the division series against the Chicago White Sox, giving up two runs--one earned--on five hits in 5 2/3 innings of Seattle's 5-2 victory, and he will pitch what most would consider the biggest game of his life Saturday against the Yankees.

Such assumptions make Abbott chuckle.

"These starts aren't half as big as the ones at the end of 1998," Abbott said of his September recall by the Mariners, when he went 3-1 with a 4.01 ERA in four games. "If I didn't do well in those games, I probably would not have been heard from again.

"I was pitching for my life back then. In these games, I'm pitching for my team, trying to get more hardware for my fingers. [The media] thinks these are the biggest starts of my career--they're not even close."

Abbott had to prove in 1998 he had fully recovered from shoulder surgery. That done, Piniella announced that September that Abbott had earned a rotation spot for 1999.

A few weeks later, Abbott tore up his knee, an injury he said caused "the worst pain I've ever felt in my life." Adding salt to the wound, the Mariners released Abbott that December, after his knee surgery.

"That was pretty hard to swallow," Abbott said, "after working your butt off and coming all the way back."

In a surprising twist, one man's trash became the same man's treasure. The Mariners re-signed Abbott to a minor league contract on Jan. 21, 1999, and after two starts at triple-A Tacoma, Abbott was back in the big leagues, going 6-2 with a 3.10 ERA in 25 games for the Mariners.

A pitcher who dislocated his shoulder in 1992 when he was horsing around in batting practice, diving for a ball; who strained an elbow ligament in 1989 playing a video game for three hours--"I know, it sounds stupid," Abbott said--has finally found health and happiness in the big leagues.

"You have to really admire someone who stuck with it for so long," Seattle catcher Joe Oliver said. "He got dealt a bad hand, but he didn't gripe about it. He kept working, he finally got his foot in the door, and he took advantage of it."

Now, Abbott is getting his first taste of the playoffs, and after all he's been through and all he's overcome, it's all the more sweeter.

"I feel like a young guy who has a little bit of wisdom," Abbott said. "I realize these chances don't come around too often. Guys like Garcia [who is 24] probably think they're going to be here every year, but when you come from nowhere to pitch big games like this, you know what they're worth."

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