Saturday, June 30, 2012

Jim Abbott and Tim Brown - Imperfect: An Improbable Life [book review]

Released in April
Imperfect: An Improbable Life chronicles the life and baseball career of Jim Abbott, a man with unimpressive Major League Baseball pitching stats (a career record of 87-108 with a 4.25 ERA) who is remembered as more than a baseball footnote for two main reasons: he pitched a no-hitter for the New York Yankees and was born without a right hand.
Co-authored by former Los Angeles Times writer Tim Brown, Imperfect: An Improbable Life's "early years" portion is considerably more interesting than the pre-fame sections most autobiographies deliver, as Abbott shares the struggles of coming to terms with his handicap and his drive to succeed in spite of it. Abbott comes up with a way to function quite ably as a pitcher by tirelessly refining a technique of quickly switching his baseball glove to his good hand immediately after throwing a pitch, allowing him to field any hit balls (if a ball is fielded, he'd quickly switch the glove again to throw the ball). Stories of schoolyard taunts, demeaning comments from opposing players in high school, plus the occasional insult from cold-hearted fans when he makes it up to the Major Leagues hit hard, even as Abbot consistently handles the adversity with grace and aplomb. In his home town of Flint, Michigan, Abbott emerges as a football and baseball star, eventually getting drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in 1985 and turning down their $50,000 offer to accept a scholarship to the University Of Michigan. An impressive amateur career is highlighted by Abbott participating as a member of the American baseball team that won gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, along with some engaging stories of playing games in Cuba against their national team, where he gets a chance to meet Fidel Castro.
Bypassing minor league ball altogether, Abbot quickly establishes himself as a feared opponent during his first three seasons with the California (now Los Angeles) Angels before struggling and being traded in 1993 to the New York Yankees. Abbott's recollections of the difficulties in adjusting to life in the Big Apple, both as a resident and with the intense pressure as a player, are intriguing. He candidly admits to feeling an uncomfortable distance between himself and most of his teammates, which he says "made the clubhouse kind of a lonely place". His no-hitter as a Yankee against the Cleveland Indians is deconstructed and intertwined in short passages throughout the book - that's not a literary device I'm usually very fond of, but Abbott's dissection of his pitching masterpiece is consistently absorbing. The back half of Abbot's Major League career is marked by a steady decline in performance, including an epically bad 1996 season that saw him go 2-18 with a 7.48 ERA. That lead to the pitcher retiring for a year before attempting a short-lived comeback.
Abbott's autobiography features some of the most fascinating insight into a pro athlete coming to terms with their diminishing skills that I've ever read. His detailed remembrance of that awful '96 season, capped off by his eventual release from the Angels, vividly transports the reader inside the pitcher's fractured psyche. Some other notable subjects the book looks at: Abbott's slowly evolving embracement of his role as an inspirational figure to kids with handicaps (which some media, teammates, and late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner think hurt his focus and affected his on-field performance), Abbott's unease with some of the strong-arm negotiating tactics from his ΓΌber-agent, Scott Boras, and the pitcher's surprise at the fact the media attention focussing on his handicap never dissipated over the course of his career.
Imperfect: An Improbable Life succeeds as both a captivating baseball recollection of a journeyman pitcher and a highly inspirational story, which Abbott has used as a platform for a post-baseball career as a motivational speaker.
Rating: B-