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  • Q&A with Michigan baseball great Jim Abbott: ‘Michigan is one of my proudest affiliations’

    Jim Abbott, Q&A with Michigan baseball great Jim Abbott: ‘Michigan is one of my proudest affiliations’

    In 1987, Michigan pitcher Jim Abbott was named the nation’s top amateur athlete. A year later, he was a first-round pick in baseball’s amateur draft. He pitched in the majors for 10 seasons with five teams.

    What made Abbott’s career even more remarkable was that he was born without his right hand. When he pitched, he wore his mitt over his right forearm, and switched it to his left hand after he released the ball.

    Abbott isn’t just a former Michigan athlete. A native of Flint, Mich., he’s a lifelong Michigan fan who still maintains strong ties to the university. Abbott recently was featured at No. 17 in Land of 10’s 100 Michigan Moments.

    Abbott now lives in southern California and is a motivational speaker. He is enshrined in the College Baseball Hall of Fame.

    Were you a Michigan fan growing up?

    I was. I came from Flint, and Rick Leach, who was a quarterback in the 1970s, he was my hero growing up. He was a left-handed quarterback and a baseball player from Flint, and watching him and those Bo Schembechler teams, I became a big Michigan fan and they were always my favorite team.

    Going to Michigan, it was a very easy choice. I was drafted out of high school by the Toronto Blue Jays, and they made a nice offer but I was such a Michigan fan, and they had such a good baseball program, that was the right move for me.

    What was it like for you the first time you stepped on Michigan’s campus?

    It was a dream come true. I remember getting there in the fall and getting a couple classes under my belt, and then seeing my nameplate above the locker and getting a Michigan jersey and going out for practice that first day. I had to pinch myself. I remember it clearly. It was a dream come true. I was playing for Michigan.

    I had a psychology class, I think I had a really hard math class I may have transferred out of. The other thing at Michigan, not only did you walk on the baseball field with a ton of talented prospects around the Midwest, you walked into a classroom with a class full of really smart kids, top-of-the-class kids from around Michigan.

    It was competitive in every environment. The challenge of the academics was daunting. I grew up in a tough town. I came from a public school and it was a big adjustment. I loved my high school education and they worked hard in Flint to make it as broad of an education as possible, but at Michigan, feeling like you could keep up … it takes a while to get your footing.

    By the end of my freshman year, baseball-wise, I started to feel like I belonged. One of my favorite games was in the Big Ten Tournament against Minnesota, we won a Big Ten championship and I closed it off. It was such a great moment for our upperclassmen. That became a leap in confidence for me.

    Why was Michigan formative for you, not just as an athlete but as a person?

    For all the reasons I mention, and there was great mentorship at Michigan. The coaches there, my coach, Bud Middaugh, was a fantastic technician, a student of the game, who understood pitching mechanics very well. He helped me to refine them. People in the athletic department, there’s a real feeling of camaraderie, of being together.

    My daughter goes to Michigan and that’s even stronger today. You feel a part of something. There is a real sense of connectedness, and that starts from the minute you step on campus. There’s a lot of great schools and a lot of great connections, but the connection at Michigan is one of its own.

    What was the climate around the athletic program in the late 1980s?

    Football had a strong tradition, baseball had produced several major-league players, the hockey team was on an upswing, and you saw the Title IX boom with women’s sports.

    Bo Schembechler was such a prevailing influence. He was around a lot and he was the football coach, but he was such an imposing presence and a figure. He came to a lot of baseball games and was always around. There was a sense that you always tried to do things the right way.

    I roomed with hockey players and was on the same floor with them in my dormitory. I lived across the street from football players, and there was a real sense of family and bonding within the athletic department. That gave you a sense of support, when you didn’t know how you were going to make it through.

    Did you cross paths with Jim Harbaugh at all?

    Jim Harbaugh was a senior when I was a freshman. I saw him around campus, but he was the big man on campus. I didn’t run in the same circles as he did. I met him after our college careers were over. I’m a great admirer of what he’s done at Michigan. He’s clearly a unique person but a very ideological guy, in a quirky way.
    You were named the Big Ten Conference’s athlete of the year in 1988. What did that mean to you?

    That’s a good observation. I hate to sound corny but it meant a lot to me and it still does. I remember winning a couple of awards, some prestigious awards, the Sullivan Award (amateur athlete of the year in 1987), Golden Spikes. Those were surprising to me, to win something like that. I was always taken aback and surprised by it. I felt like it was a shared deal. I shared it with the coach who gave me the chance to play at that level, the program and the school I was proud of. The fact those trophies are displayed in Ann Arbor, that means a lot of me.

    Michigan is one of my proudest affiliations.

    You’re a motivational speaker now. Who do you address?

    I’ve spoken to every kind of group you can possibly imagine. There’s no end to it. Everything from schools to businesses to different trade groups to charitable groups to foundations. It’s been a great post-baseball avenue for me. How you direct energy, how you travel and meet cool people and what you can accomplish.

    Baseball, I realized that it’s a relatable sport and there’s lessons to be learned. Not just missing one hand, but the trials and tribulations I went through. It’s fun connecting with people.

    When you speak, do you tailor your message or have one universal theme?

    I tailor speeches in some ways, depending on who I am speaking to. At a Special Olympics luncheon, the message might be different than what I say to a corporation in Florida.

    But the principles I talk about, those apply across a broad spectrum. The things people do in their jobs aren’t that dissimilar to what baseball players do on a pitching mound or in the batter’s box — execution, preparation, dealing with adversity, bouncing back from defeat …

    It may not be sharing anything incredibly new, but it’s a reminder that great accomplishments can be measured with steady progress, belief and determination.

    Why does your story continue to resonate?

    I ask myself that question, too. I just got back from Idaho where I gave a speech to 120 people, and it really seems to connect. I don’t know why it does, but I’m very thankful for it. There’s resonance in the connections we share. I may have played baseball with one hand, but other people understand those kinds of dreams and goals and aspirations and the pursuit of great performance. I’m just really thankful for it. I tried to play the game the best I could and the fact people still reach out and connect with the story, it means so much.
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