I assume Jim Abbott’s story is pretty well-known: Born with a malformed right hand, Abbott became a successful multi-sport high school athlete, pitched at the University of Michigan, and spent 10 years in the big leagues, pitching for the Angels, White Sox, Brewers, and Yankees, throwing a no-hitter for that last club that happens to be the only professional no-hitter I have ever attended in person. In his new memoir, Imperfect: An Improbable Life, written with Yahoo!’s Tim Brown, Abbott talks about his own personal struggles with creating an identity for himself independent of his disability, of the challenges of growing up with a visible difference, and of the opportunities his success gave him to reach and sometimes inspire children growing up with similar physical issues.
The book separates Abbott’s life and career into two separate tracks. The main track begins with Abbott’s parents meeting, dating, and finding themselves about to become teenaged parents, and then facing the reality of Abbott’s condition, yet, after an adjustment period, deciding not to let the disability become an excuse for him or for them. The sections dealing with Abbott’s childhood tell seemingly tangential anecdotes that turn out to be important in his professional career as he tries to deal with the sudden fame and just as sudden decline all within the first five or six years after college. The second track pulls Abbott’s no-hitter out of the main story and gives it its own narrative, one that I enjoyed reading because of my personal connection to that game but that only gave occasional glimpses into the mind of a pitcher as he’s throwing the game. (I’d love for any pitcher to sit down after a no-hitter – and after the ensuing celebration – and write down everything he remembers thinking or doing during that game. Abbott’s retelling here has some of that, but much of it reads like a man remembering a game he pitched almost twenty years ago, not the more precise in-the-moment recollections we’d get if it was something he’d written the day after the game occurred.)
Those two interesting stories are intertwined in an obvious and ultimately unsuccessful gimmick to try to create some parallels between them, which only serves to distract the reader from both of the narratives without adding anything to the overall story. Abbott’s no-hitter started slowly, picked up speed in the middle innings, and then reached a crescendo in the ninth inning. His career arc looked nothing like that, and ended first with a whimper, a brief comeback, and then a final great good-night. It’s awkward to read about a no-hitter in nine brief chapters separated by longer discursions dating back as much as twenty years – and it’s just as awkward to read about Abbott’s career and have the no-hitter omitted entirely. It reads to me as if the no-hitter was this book’s equivalent of Oakland’s twenty-game winning streak in the movie version of Moneyball: Someone decided that the film needed a Big Triumph, regardless of that event’s place in the greater narrative. Imperfect wouldn’t have been perfect with a more conventional structure, but it would have read better.
I also struggled with the book’s occasional lapses into purple prose; Abbott’s voice (which I’m assuming is what we’re getting for most of the first-person narratives) is clear and simple, so when he refers to a taxi as a “metered ride” or says he didn’t have the “temerity” to ask teammates why he’d been given a certain nickname, it’s like having someone crank up the volume in the middle of a song. (“Temerity” is a great word, but you can’t just drop it into a passage where it’s the two-dollar word in a paragraph of dimes.) Abbott also defines his performance primarily by his won-lost records, occasionally mentioning ERAs, which makes him a product of his time; if you’ve watched any baseball over the first ten days of this season, you already know how foolish using a pitcher’s won-lost record to measure his performance is, and the book would be stronger with anything more advanced in their stead.
Where the book really sings is in the passages about people who helped Abbott on his way up or the kids he helped once he’d gotten there. Tim Mead, the longtime PR man for the Angels, might want to get a lawyer and sue Abbott, because the book makes Mead out to be an absolutely wonderful human being. Abbott mentions the first scout to really believe in him (Don Welke, now with Texas), the teacher who taught him a trick that allowed him to tie his own shoes, the coaches and teammates who became his support network, and the late sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman, who comes through on the page exactly as I knew him from our two or three encounters in Toronto. Abbott’s recounting of his time on the Olympic team that won the gold medal in Seoul in 1988 is another highlight. And the section describing the kids and parents who would line up by the dozens across the country just to meet him so they could see that, yes, there’s someone else who looks like them, someone who made it all the way to the major leagues … well, it might get a little dusty in your living room when you get to that part.
Abbott’s early life and pro career didn’t fit the typical mold for Hollywood sports movies, but there’s plenty there for his story to stand on its own without structural gimmickry to make it seem more dramatic. I was always a Jim Abbott fan – if you liked baseball at the time and didn’t root for him, you probably weren’t human – and enjoyed reading about his experiences, but the story’s packaging took something away from what he had to say.
Next up: Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum.