Jim Abbott pitching for the Angels.
Only twice have I witnessed visiting players get a standing ovation at Yankee Stadium.
And one of those times shouldn’t count. It was August 4, 1985, the day Tom Seaver won his 300th game, and we Mets fans pretty much took over the Yankees’ home that day.
But the other time was May 24, 1989, coming when a rookie pitcher was doing something as ordinary as making warm-up tosses.
Jim Abbott was already pretty famous. He was on the mound when the United States won the Olympic gold medal in 1988, was drafted in the first round by the California Angels and went straight to the major leagues.
What amazed a lot of people was that Abbott was born without a right hand.
The handicap didn’t seem to hold him back at all. He pitched and was the quarterback at Flint Central High and played for the University of Michigan’s baseball team. There were stories about how an opposing college team tried to take advantage of him, sending the first four batters to the plate bunting. The team changed its strategy after Abbott fielded each attempt cleanly.
What amazed me was how gracefully Abbott would catch the ball and get ready to pitch.
He would wear a left-hander’s glove, catch the ball, tuck the glove under his arm, take the ball out and place the palm of his glove over the stump at the end of his right wrist. After throwing the ball he’d quickly slip his left hand back into the glove to be ready to catch the return throw.
Abbott could complete the cycle so smoothly and quickly that it looked like he wasn’t even thinking about it. It was completely natural to him.
So I was excited when the Angels rolled into town in 1989 – a month and a half into Abbott’s rookie season – and that he would pitch in the series. This was well before the Yankee dynasty. Don Mattingly and Rickey Henderson were in the game, but they were surrounded by people like Ken Phelps, Bob Geren and Mike Pagliarulo.
I scammed seats in the lower level of the first base side so I could get a good view. There was polite applause for Abbott when the line-ups were introduced. But I was surprised by what happened when the Angels took the field in the bottom of the first.
There was quiet as he walked to the mound, at least as quiet as ballparks get. Then Abbott started taking warm-up pitches, making the complicated maneuvers with the glove.
It started with more polite applause, and it started to swell with each throw, building and building. Finally, everyone in the stadium was on their feet cheering. It was really emotional. And all he was doing was throwing warm-up pitches.
I think it was a sign of respect. This guy had a handicap, and there he is standing on the mound in what is perhaps the most famous ballpark in the world. It wasn’t an Eddie Gaedel-like stunt. Abbott earned his way.
But keep in mind, this was the Bronx. As the applause died down, I remember a guy a couple rows ahead of me saying, “All right, you got your applause. Now let’s kick his ass.”
If there was any butt-kicking that day, it was done by the Angels, who beat the Yanks 11-4, making it a good day all around. Abbott got the win, pitching 5 and a third innings allowing three runs on 10 hits.
Abbott, of course, got another ovation from Yankee fans when he pitched for them several years later and threw a fantastic no-hitter, the high point of his 10-year career in the majors.
Jim Abbott pitched for the Yankees, but we like him anyway.
A year after I saw Abbott pitch I moved to Michigan to work for the Flint Journal, and our coed softball used to practice at Central High, where Abbott once pitched. Occasionally I’d stand on the mound, look around and think of that day in Yankee Stadium.