Beating the Odds
Faced with the task of writing a paper on a specific act of courage my initial reaction was that of total uncertainty. Later that evening, as I lay in my bed watching television I pondered what topic to do for the paper. Then the sportscaster on the news began an interview with Jim Abbott a well-known major league pitcher. I thought to myself, this is perfect! Jim Abbott is a man who shows courage when the odds are against him. He is fulfilling his lifelong dream of playing professional baseball despite the fact that he was born without a right hand. Whenever I see Jim pitch, I am reminded of something that happened when I was about 8 or 9 at summer camp.
Before that summer, I had always felt pity for people who were physically challenged especially Justin Berger. Justin, a boy in my age group at Camp Wayne, who was born with some kind of illness that prevented him from controlling the movements of his left hand. I never teased him or talked badly about him to others; what I did in some ways was much worse. I labeled him “different.” I saw him as inferior and thought that he needed some extra leeway in such activities as sports. However, Justin saw his handicap as a motivator, a reason to work harder and excel in all aspects of camp life. Camp Wayne was very competitive; the summer culminated with four days of intense sports competition called Color War. It was during Color War that my view of Justin changed.
During Color War the whole camp is divided into two teams. The teams play each other in various competitions and sports for 4 days and at the end of the fourth day the points are tallied up to see who won. It was the last day of Color War, the day everything would be decided. There was not one camper whose heart wasn’t rushing with intense emotions and pride. It was about 3:00, the voice over the intercom said it is now time for second period; everyone except the A & B groups (the youngest campers) go down to the main soccer field to watch the D group soccer game. I laced up my cleats and ran down to the field. Over the years our age group the D group, had earned the reputation of one of the most athletic groups in Camp Wayne history. Just about everyone was gathered in the bleachers to watch our soccer game. Soccer was my sport, by this point I was considered one of the best, the Captain of the Blue team. The coach and I set up our starters and the whistle blew. After the first half we were up 2-1, I had a goal and an assist. Justin had played about half the game with no great plays so far. The coach moved me back to defense for the second half in hope that I would protect our lead. For the next 30 minutes, the game was about even; each team was on its last ounce of energy. There were five minutes left. I thought the victory was in the bag. Then suddenly, Justin came dribbling the ball from his defensive half all the way through four of my teammates. I was the last man, it was just me him and my goalie. I played him as tight as I could trying not even to let him breath. He made a move left but I blocked him and kicked the ball over by the corner of the field. With my sweeping of the ball, I swept out his feet and sent Justin straight to the ground. Under any other circumstances without even thinking I would have gone straight to the ball and kicked it up field in hopes of scoring again. However, this time I felt compelled to bend over and help Justin up. But, before I could offer my hand, he had gotten up. I chased him from behind but I was too late. He rocketed the ball into the upper corner of the goal. The referee blew his whistle three times, which signified the end of the game. Time was up! It was a draw. It was all my fault. I misjudged Justin, I thought that just because he was physically challenged he was weaker and more fragile so I treated him differently. After the game, I shook his hand and he just smiled. When I asked him what was so funny, he responded, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” I didn’t say another word. He had said enough for the both of us. From that point on, I never looked at a handicapped person the same way again. Justin taught me what real courage is. The courage to just be one of the guys and compete at a camp that tested his true limitations. He showed all of us that day that he had no limitations!
That summer gave me a new and heightened respect for athletes such as Jim Abbott. Jim is a role model for all kids. However, before endeavoring to expound upon an act of courage as exemplified by Jim Abbott, courage itself must first be defined. What is courage? Webster’s dictionary defines courage as: mental or moral strength to venture, preserve, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty. In addition, courage implies firmness of mind and will in the face of extreme difficulty.
One renowned leader of the twentieth century pondered the meaning and interpretation of courage in his Pulitzer prize-winning book Profiles in Courage. John F. Kennedy expounded that courage is “a diamond with many facets.” (Kennedy 7) Kennedy exemplifies courage with intelligence, far-sightedness, and reason. In his foreword, Allen Nevins says, “Moral courage is great and admirable in itself; but it must be pointed out that it almost never appears except as part of that greater entity called character. A man without character may give fitful exhibitions of courage… But no man without character is consistently courageous, just as no man of real character is lacking consistent courage. In short, moral courage is allied with the other traits, which make up character: honesty, deep seriousness, a firm sense of principal, candor, and resolution.” (Nevins XVII)
Jim Abbott personifies a man possessing both physical and moral courage. His character portrays great determination as well as integrity. Jim Abbott never lets his disability get the best of him. He stays positive and sees it as a challenge to overcome instead of a wall to thwart him as long as he lives. His great character is seen constantly when he encourages a young child with disabilities. He is known for saying, “You can do whatever you want to do. There is no limit.” He is an individual who is able to find the strength and courage to develop his talent in baseball despite the odds. Whenever Jim does something wrong or screws up a play, he is never quick to blame his hand; he blames his heart and tries harder when faced with the problem again (Hinkins).
Throughout Jim’s life there were many factors that enabled him to reach his goals. Most important was the never-ending support from his parents. His parents, Mike and Kathy Abbott were only 19 when Jim was born. They had no warning that their baby would be anything but normal, so it came as a shock when they learned that Jim’s right arm had not fully developed. The question that first entered their minds was that there might be some unseen mental impairment as well. The Abbots were soon relieved to learn that Jim was healthy in all other respects. Jim’s parents face a very hard decision to make. Should they raise Jim in a protective bubble, telling him from the beginning he was different, that he had a handicap that would limit the things he could do? They thought on one hand this approach might spare him the pain and disappointment of trying to keep up with other kids on the playing field and failing and possibly even being made fun of. Or should they ignore his so-called disability as much as possible, encouraging Jim to do whatever he wanted to do and gradually adapt on his own to having one hand? They had no help or experience to guide them. Relying on their instinct they decided to downplay the importance of Jim’s physical defect and let him lead a normal life. From that point on they viewed it as an obstacle, a challenge to overcome, but no big deal (Gutman 7). In addition, Jim credits his father for shaping his outgoing nature. For as long as Jim could remember, his father always told him not to be shy. His father urged him not to hesitate to meet new people. His father said, “Whenever you see someone new, walk up to them shake their hand and say, ‘Hi, my name is Jim Abbott.” This never-ending support allowed Jim to never feel self-conscious about his incomplete arm. Jim’s father encouraged Jim to be active. Jim showed an early interest in sports (Jennings 33-34). He saw other kids playing baseball and decides that joining their games would help him to fit in. Every day with help from his father, Jim practiced handling a ball and glove. Naturally, he adapted to slipping the ball out of his glove as he perched the glove on his right arm (Egan 84). Jim recalled these early memories and said, “If there were times I got frustrated, it was because I wasn’t doing something I knew I could do, not something I couldn’t do (Hinkins).” With the help of his father and brother the three of them built a batting cage. Each day Jim would practice his swing. He wanted to feel confident that he could play any position and hold his own before he approached the kids playing ball (Hinkins). Despite all of his hard work, the first days at the field were rough. Jim took plenty of verbal abuse. The children teased him by saying his right arm looked like a foot, and they called him Stub and Crab. The teasing occasionally sent Jim home crying (Gutman 7). But his parents sent him right back out the next day with words of encouragement, and the tears soon stopped. Jim absorbed this constant positive attitude and carried it with him toward every challenge he faced (Savage 13).
As time went on and more and more challenges surfaced, Jim’s parents look for ways to make Jim’s life easier. Despite all of their encouragement, the Abbots believed that Jim’s baseball activity would be limited to playing catch and sandlot games. They tried to interest him in soccer, where hands were not important. But Jim loved baseball more than anything and there was nothing to do but continue to support him as far as his ability and courage would take him. Jim was determined to go as far as he could (Jennings 33-34). When Jim first signed up for little league he drew many stares from other children and coaches too. However, the program’s motto was Every Kid Can Play (Hinkins). What ever they thought of him, the coaches gave Jim the same chance as everybody else. That was all Jim ever asked for, a fair chance. Jim soon got bored of playing the outfield and decided he wanted to be a pitcher. His strong left arm soon made everyone forget that he was lacking a right hand. But pitching demanded more fielding capability than an outfielder. Jim worked hard and adapted to meet the needs. Jim rested the glove on his right arm as he threw the pitch, then quickly slipped his left hand into it to be ready for a fielding play. When he caught a ball him back to him, he dropped the glove, grabbed the ball out of it, and threw to the base (Savage 16-17). The city park supervisor said, “He does it all so quickly, he is amazing. You really don’t realize that he has only one hand (Hinkins).”
Occasionally the maneuver failed. When that happened, Jim practiced extra hours. “He worked harder than anyone I’ve ever seen,” said his Little League coach.
“Jim never displayed any anger or frustration with his condition,” Mike Abbott said, “although it certainly must have bothered him (Hinkins).”
Jim soon became the talk of the town. There were articles written weekly about his outstanding performance. Jim never got bigheaded and always downplayed his accomplishments. Still, no one else saw any future for the young boy, but Jim himself had aspirations. He looked at major league players and wished it could be him someday (Savage 16). As Jim worked his way up through higher levels of competition, coaches told the Abbotts that each level would be as far as their son could go. “With every step we thought about whether it would catch up to him,” Mike Abbott said. Jim was aware of the questioning and the doubts. However, it was not enough to overcome him, he was too strong mentally and had so much courage (Hinkins). Because of all of this, Jim became a star. Right out of high school he was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays. Abbot turned down the offer and decided that college must come first. He attended the University of Michigan; to him he was merely postponing one ambition so he could achieve another (Jennings 35-36). As soon as he entered college the media bombarded him. Within weeks he was a guest on the “Phil Donahue Show.” Newspaper stories called Jim an example to other kids with one hand or arm, but he did not feel inspirational. He was just himself, doing what he could with what he had. He quickly rose to the challenge and demands of college baseball (Hinkins). He led his team to the Big Ten championship. Abbott’s success as a freshman brought increased attention from scouts and fans (White 14-16. He received letters calling him “inspirational,” a “hero,” and “courageous.” In 1986, he was given the amateur award of Most Courageous Athlete. He was later quoted by saying, “I pitch to win, not to be courageous. (Hinkins)”
In 1988, after his junior year, Jim was given a $200,000 contract to play for the Angels and he accepted. Abbott’s long time dream of a shot at the major leagues was about to come true, but once again it had to be put on hold while he fulfilled another aspiration- representing the United States in the 1988 Olympics in South Korea. Furthermore, Jim rose to the top again and led his team to victory. He won the gold (Savage 34-38). Now it was time for the Majors. Jim had trouble in his first years but that didn’t matter much, he had made it. The struggle was over, now it was time to look to the future (Savage 43-46).
“Jim is a gamer,” his father said. “A gamer moves it up a notch when the game is on the line. A gamer wants the ball or a hitter wants the bat when it is do or die time. Jim has always been a gamer, in high school, college, the Olympics, and the Major League (Macht 107).”
Many people are born each year with some kind of physical shortcomings. But most of them do not grow up with the talent, heart, and courage to become big league ballplayers. More than 13,000 men had played major league baseball in the preceding 120 years. Only one, Hugh Daily, had been a one-handed pitcher. Jim Abbot’s climb to this height made him, in other’s eyes, a freak or a spectacle. But Abbott never thinks of himself in terms that others were quick to apply to him: disabled, handicapped, courageous, and amazing (Hinkins).
A handicap is a limitation,” he said. “I haven’t been limited in any way. I’ve been awfully fortunate in the things I’ve been given. I don’t think there is anything special about me being in the major leagues. What I have done is not any more triumphant than anyone else’s effort.” He said, “I want to be known as a good baseball pitcher, not just as a good one-handed baseball pitcher. All I ever wanted was an opportunity.” (Hinkins)
In many ways, Jim Abbott has the strength and heart of a lion. As the guitarist Jerry Garcia once said, “You must play the hand your dealt,” Jim’s life is a living example. He never complains, and never gives up. He takes every negative thing others say and uses it in a positive way. This shows not only determination but also creativity. If I were in Jim’s place I don’t think I would have ever made it out to the field that first day when he was just a young boy. Not very many people have the mental strength and perseverance to do what their heart tells them no matter what the cost. It takes real courage not to stop at each level that you have conquered and say maybe this is as far as I can go. As an average human being each day I question what I am capable of doing and achieving. For Jim, there was no limit. When I grow older and have children I will try to instill in them some of the same qualities that Jim has attained. I will teach them to be outgoing, determined, modest, and brave. In terms of courage, I feel that it is not something that can be taught or instilled, it is something that one must learn on their own through life’s experiences.
If there is one thing that I think Jim Abbott would want others to learn from his life, it is that you can go as far in life as you want to. The only barriers that exist are ones that you let exist and don’t attempt to knock down. If you have courage in the end you will be a success. Jim never thinks of himself as truly courageous but he does know he has made his life successful. To be a success there are three words come to mind: discover, appreciate and love. You must discover your own unique talents and strengths. You must appreciate that which is good in yourself. Nonetheless, you must love life and live it to the fullest. We as a people bear the responsibility from time to time to remind men such as Jim and Justin that they are courageous and praise them accordingly. They are both role models and from examining lives such as theirs I learned what courage is and someday hope to aspire to be even half the man that they are!
Works Cited Page
Egan, Terry. The Good Guys of Baseball. New York: Simon & Shuster Books For Young Readers, 1997. I used this book to get a broad background of Jim Abbot’s life and family.
Gutman, Bill. Jim Abbott Star Pitcher. Connecticut: Grey Castle Press, 1992. This book described Jim Abbott and what it took to become a star. I used it to help me find out about Jim as a person not so much an athlete.
Jennings, Jay. Long Shots, They Beat The Odds. Ed. Emily Easton. Englewood: Silver Burdett Press, 1990. This book was about people who were told they would never make it but they proved the skeptics wrong. The book consisted of many career facts and focused on mainly the major leagues.
Macht, Norman L. Jim Abbott, Major League Pitcher. Ed. Kathy Campbell. Philadelphia: Chlesea House Publishers, 1994. The book was about living the life of a physically handicapped person. I used the book to tell about Jim’s strength and as basic reference to overcoming his handicap.
“Making it to the Majors.” Narr. John Hinkins. Espn. California. 5 May 1990. This was a TV interview with Jim Abbott. I used the interview for many quotes which I added to the paper where I deemed they fit.
Savage, Jeff. Sports Great: Jim Abbott. Hillside: Enslow Publishers, 1993. The author who is a sportswriter follows the life of Abbott from his childhood days to the majors. This book was very in-depth and was a good source for the little things that were hard to find in the other books.
White, Ellen Emerson. Jim Abbott: Against All Odds. New York: Scholastic Inc., 1990. The book was your average basic biography. I used it for some minor details about Jim growing up over the years.