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U-M pitcher Jim Abbott
Jim Abbott, pitching for U-M in 1987.
Topics: Athletics

Baseball, blunders & Bo

By Tom Kertscher
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Play ball!

Jim Abbott pitches for Michigan, 1987

Jim Abbott, 1987. (Image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

Fans of former Major League pitcher Jim Abbott are well-versed in the common lore that informs his legacy: After a stellar baseball career at Michigan, Abbott pitched for 10 seasons in the major leagues and threw a no-hitter for the New York Yankees, despite being born with only one finger at the end of his right arm.

But there’s also the time Abbott created something of an international incident and survived — despite the wrath of Bo Schembechler, who The New York Times once described as the Wolverines’ gruff and jingoistic football coach.

It happened in 1987. In his sophomore year at Michigan, Abbott pitched so well that he would become the first baseball player ever to win the Sullivan Award as the nation’s top amateur athlete. Then the left-hander was chosen for the U.S. team competing in the Pan American Games, an Olympic-style competition for the Americas that was held in Indianapolis that summer. Team USA was awarded a silver medal after losing the championship game to Cuba.

A few weeks earlier, however, Abbott and Team USA had traveled to Havana and made history. Abbott became the first American pitcher in 25 years to defeat the Cuban national team in Cuba.

And who did Abbott find himself kibitzing with at a reception but Fidel Castro — Cuba’s longtime communist dictator and politically the polar opposite of Schembechler.

Even if Abbott wasn’t aware of that dichotomy.

“A lot was made of the trip. We were the vast underdogs in the whole thing,” says Abbott, who now lives in Southern California and works as a motivational speaker.

“We went down there, and the stadium was packed with 50,000 people and Fidel Castro came out to say hello to us. I had a chance to meet Castro [at a reception]. I didn’t know my Cuban political history as well as I should have at the time. But things were cordial and he took an interest in my career.”

Strike!

Abbott book: Imperfect

Abbott’s autobiography appeared in Spring 2012.

Back on American soil, Abbott answered reporters’ questions at a news conference before the start of the Pan Am Games. What would Schembechler think, one sportswriter asked, about a Michigan athlete consorting with Castro?

Abbott’s response appeared for all to see in The New York Times: “Actually, they have a very similar presence, except that Castro is bigger and wider. They both have a dictatorial presence.”

Whoa.

Thirty years later, Abbott still cringes as he recalls his answer.

“Being stupid and young and dumb, I said, ‘Well, they’re kind of similar characters.’ You know, I mean the intimidating presences. They speak very closely. They get up in your face. I didn’t think anything of it.

“But I got back to Ann Arbor in the fall, and one of Bo’s friends on campus was the equipment manager for the football team, Jon Falk. He pinned me up against the wall in the athletic department and said, ‘What did you say?’ And I said, ‘What, Jonny?’ He said, ‘You compared Castro to Schembechler? Are you out of your mind?’ He said, ‘Schembechler’s pissed.’”

Uh oh.

“So, sure enough, I avoided the athletic department for about a month-and-a-half and finally one cold day I was cutting through. Here comes Schembechler down the stairs. He got right in my face and asked me, ‘What is this Castro bullshit?’ Well, hey, Coach — I didn’t know what to say.

“It’s funny now looking back on it to know if he was really mad or not, but he looked mad and kind of shook his head and asked me if I was getting to class. I said, ‘Yes, sir,’ and he said, ‘Get out of here.’”

Go deep

Catch up on Michigan Baseball in 2017.
Abbott survived that harrowing experience, relying on hard-won skills to cope with adversity. One of the messages he shares on the speaking circuit is a lesson he learned from his parents — “taking a realistic approach to challenge.”

“They didn’t try to say that things were perfect, or it’s always going to be good,” he says. “It was this idea that challenge was going to come and that I was up to the challenge. That’s what I share — challenge is a bumpy road, but you can do it. You have everything that you need at your disposal to handle what comes your way.”

Like every other pitcher on the team

Abbott, now 49, still relates to adolescents who are trying to fit in. He recalls being the only player on the freshman baseball team at Flint Central High School who didn’t get a hit the entire season. He encourages youths to find a passion like baseball, “my shelter,” was for him.

One of Abbott’s biggest challenges was confronting the loss of that shelter. He had thrown the no-hitter in 1993, but three years later his win-loss record with the California Angels was 2-18. By 1999, after a season with the Milwaukee Brewers and his fastball having slowed down, his career was over.

“The Milwaukee Brewers didn’t care that I had one hand or two hands or whatever. I wasn’t getting anybody out, and that was a realization that smacked me in the face,” Abbott says. I’m like every other pitcher on the team. The same is expected, the same is demanded. I wasn’t coming through and there was no excuse to hide behind. There was no shelter to seek. It was an interesting time — and a painful time.”

After adjusting for a couple of years without baseball and taking on the role of a new father, Abbott’s speaking career provides him new insights.

“It really helped me to look at the experiences that I had and be proud,” he says. “I was able to see the entirety of it a little bit better and be more proud of my career than just the way it finished. It does help you take a look at the whole thing and be grateful for it all, for the success and for the struggle.”

Tom Kertscher

Tom Kertscher

TOM KERTSCHER is a PolitiFact Wisconsin reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the author of books on two Wisconsin sports figures: Al McGuire and Brett Favre. Follow him at TomKertscher.com and on Twitter: @KertscherNews and @KertscherSports.

COMMENTS

  • Milton Spokojny - 1969

    Great article. I was a history major at M and love baseball. This article about Jim Abbott is a nice piece of history I didn’t know anything about until I read the article. My son Scott also had a disability and he loved and played baseball. I really appreciate Jim Abbott’s achievements. It’s nice to hear that he is doing well.
    GO BLUE!!

    Reply

    • Jim Hallett - 1972

      I, too, love baseball, and when I attended the Big Ten baseball tourney in the early 2000s (hosted by UM), I ended up sitting next to Jim Abbott, and he was indeed a very cordial and classy guy, and we shared our mutual love of baseball. He was one of the athletes I was always proud to say went to UM. I can see why he would be an inspirational and successful speaker now. I wish him well.

      Reply

  • Joe Quasarano - 2001

    I produced the California Angels telecasts in the 80′s and 90′s and each time Jim pitched, our TV ratings skyrocketed. Additionally, everyone in the clubhouses agreed he was a class act.

    Reply

  • Daniel Fernandez - 1994

    Interesting, historical, funny and no too far from the truth. Coaches in the old days and even some today are hardcore dictators. Of course he was just comparing how they came across, nothing more.

    Reply

  • Andy Paliszewski - 1988

    First time I heard of this story. I lived in West Quad, Rumsey house with Jim Abbot 1985-86. Jim was a great guy and our secret weapon against south quad in a few snowball fights. So glad he wasn’t throwing at me!

    Reply

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