Baseball books are legion. In part, because we love reading stories about this game that has been part of so many of our lives and, when we were little, part of our dreams as well. But a book like this one is rare. It's a story about a boy born without a right hand who was made to believe anything was possible, and his dream of playing baseball went far beyond most peoples' expectations, including his own.
It's also a story about life, about victories and losses, the "agony and the ecstasy," and the profound insights gained from a perspective we don't always see.
The book I'm writing about is Jim Abbott's Imperfect: An Improbable Life.
Abbott was a major league baseball player who pitched for four ball clubs over a period of ten years. Though his career stats place him as relatively average, he also had some rare highlights, including one stellar season in which he was considered for the American League Cy Young Award. He also threw a no-hitter, while wearing the Yankee pinstripes, an experience that becomes Ariadne's thread leading readers through the labyrinth of his life story.
There are many precious moments in this man's tale. The audio version of this book is read by the author, which (in my opinion) doesn't always work. In this case it adds another level to the story, read by the man who lived it. When he writes about his painful experiences, you hear it in his voice, as you hear his satisfaction in sharing the high points of his life. You can hear the anguish of disappointing those who counted on him, and how humbled he was by the fans who brought their own children with missing limbs to the park to watch him play, either to get an autograph or hear words of inspiration from someone who really did "make it."
What makes the book exceptional is the extreme candor of this man. He bares it all, his self-doubts, the ways in which he sabotaged his own aims at times, and the many ways he felt he let himself down. He is also candid about his fears, including the fear of having a child in the event that his missing hand was a genetic disposition. (He shares the joy of counting to ten over and over again when looking at the first ultrasound of his daughter in his wife's womb.)
Jim Abbott and his co-writer Tim Brown tell the story by going back and forth between the day of Abbott's no-hitter and his own life story. The no hitter story begins early in the day, hours before the first pitch. So does Abbott's story, beginning before Jim was born, how his parents met and the events leading up to his birth.
The week before his no-hitter Abbott had been pounded by the Cleveland Indians and he was pulled early in the game, having given up seven runs. Now he had to face them yet again, with their powerful bats and experience. But what a difference a day can make.
What is success? What is greatness? Abbott says, "People will tell you that I overcame obstacles…maybe. But the truth is I was incredibly blessed in my life. More was given than was ever taken away."
The story ends with the aftermath of that final out in Yankee Stadium, which is followed by a host of acknowledgements. No great man achieves anything alone. But the audio book has a nice addition, an interview between sportswriter Tim Brown and Abbott.
Imperfect: An Improbable Life is a great book on many levels, but is especially a nice addition to any collector of baseball stories.