Abbott now making his PITCH for people with disabilities

On Sept. 4, 1993, the baseball world was celebrating Jim Abbott's no-hitter for the New York Yankees against the Cleveland Indians.

"The things I remember most visibly about that game obviously, were the moments right after it happened,'' Abbott said in a recent telephone interview. "It was like being in a bubble, with a moment of excitement and then it pops.''

Abbott, who in his previous start just five days earlier had been rocked by the Indians, allowing seven runs on 10 hits in 3 2/3 innings, was now able to celebrate with his wife. They popped open a bottle of champagne at a restaurant on the Upper East Side of New York City, and he recalls being rushed by Yankees fans asking him to autograph early editions of newspapers displaying bold headlines about his pitching heroics.

"I guess that shows you how late we were out,'' Abbott said with a laugh.

For Abbott, who was born without a right hand, that no-hitter now 15 years ago was the crowning moment of his 10-year career in the major leagues. Mainly, it was because he could focus his attention -- and the rest of the world's -- on his powerful left arm, not on his right one. In pinstripes, no less.

"To be able to do that … wearing that uniform, in that town,'' Abbott said. "It doesn't get any better than that.''

These days, Abbott, now 40, is retired, but life is still pretty good. He plays golf, makes motivational speeches and spends time with his family in Southern California.

And he's still pitching.

He's just not relying on his left arm to carry the entire load.

Abbott recently began working as a pitchman with the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy on a campaign appropriately called PITCH (Proving Individuals with Talent Can Help), and he's using baseball as a forum to get his message out to the public.

Abbott was approached by the Department of Labor's assistant secretary Neil Romano in the spring. The PITCH campaign marks the first time Abbott has been involved with a program focusing on disabilities.

"I'm at a point now where I'm comfortable in my shoes,'' Abbott said. "It's not that I didn't know how to handle it, it's just that I really wanted my baseball playing to speak for itself. Obviously, a lot of the coverage about my playing career had to do with my right hand, but I was also pretty good with my left one.

"I never wanted to be known for what I couldn't do,'' Abbott added. "I wanted to be known for what I could do.''

Abbott said he feels fortunate that he chose a career in which his disability wasn't a liability. In sports, he said, it doesn't matter what your body looks like as long as you can still be successful on the field.

Remarkably, Abbott proved to be such a great talent in high school that the Toronto Blue Jays chose him in the 36th round of the 1985 draft after his senior year. He ended up playing at the University of Michigan instead, and in 1988 became a first-round pick (eighth overall) by the California Angels. That same year, he pitched the United States to a gold medal in the final game of the Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. Then he spent a decade in the major leagues, earning 87 victories and finishing with a career 4.25 ERA.

In the corporate world, as Abbott has discovered, it's much harder to prove to employers what people with disabilities are capable of doing. Nearly 50 million Americans have disabilities, and according to the Department of Labor, two out of every three Americans with disabilities are unemployed.

After participating in a four-hour meeting with Romano and other Labor Department staff members and learning more about the problems people with disabilities have gaining employment, Abbott became convinced that he needed to get involved.

"You hear a lot about government and not all of it is good,'' Abbott said. "But the way that they are helping people get to work … it's so cool.''

Abbott, who remains involved with Major League Baseball by working as a guest instructor with the Los Angeles Angels each spring, is hoping that his ties to baseball will help get the word out that there are employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

He made an appearance at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., last month. He also will commemorate the 15th anniversary of his no-hitter by being at Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles games this week and has plans in the works to travel to other major league parks.

As great as his no-hitter was, he's hoping to achieve even more success as a pitcher down the road.

"I'm very fortunate,'' Abbott said. "It's amazing the doors that opened up from that. Hopefully, we can do something great.''

Amy Rosewater is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.