LAS VEGAS – Former Major League Baseball pitcher Jim Abbott pitched in the gold medal game for Team USA in the 1988 Olympics. He threw a no-hitter for the New York Yankees in 1993, and he eventually had a career with four different teams in 10 seasons. It was certainly an admirable professional career.
But he still remembers having to learn how to throw and catch a baseball. Because Abbott was missing a hand, the transfer from his mitt to his throwing hand could’ve been clunky and awkward. Over time, he adjusted accordingly and it worked out well for him.
“I couldn’t play the game the way everyone else played it,” Abbott said during his keynote speech at the 2019 Irrigation Show. “That wasn’t a choice – that was a need.”
During his presentation, Abbott told hundreds of attendees at the Las Vegas Convention Center that everyone else in the building was also seeking ways to find new ways of doing things. That is, after all, why they attended a show: to learn about other methods and new products in irrigation, not to remain with the status quo. Using an acronym ADAPT – adjustability, determination, accountability, perseverance and trust – Abbott talked about the importance of “turning over the card.”
He remembers seeing the first baseball card with his face on it. He proudly showed some of his teammates and family members, but then he realized that eventually, everyone looks at the back of the card. That’s where the statistics from previous years were listed – the good years and the bad.
“If you were to see a career card for me, you would see that my baseball playing days held a little bit of everything,” Abbott said. “I come here this morning to tell you that we can do something about the challenges that come before us. Challenge takes on a lot of forms. What are you going to do about it? What action are you going to take?”
Couldn’t attend the Irrigation Show? Here’s just a bit of what he said:
MAKING THE SWITCH. Abbott said his life had always been about learning new ways, new strategies. He remembers his second grade teacher who taught him how to tie his shoes without one of his hands, a method he still uses today. What Abbott found particularly striking is that his teacher had worked at night on his own to try and figure out how a method that would work. “It was the smallest little adjustments that would open the biggest doors,” Abbott said.
DEALING WITH CYNICS. Abbott reminded attendees that, “when you bring a new idea home, you’re bound to get some skepticism.” Whether that foreign concept is a new irrigation skill or a one-handed pitcher throwing in a game, Abbott said there’s always going to be people who say “no” without hearing out the idea with open minds.
Abbott told a story about his high school football days, when he was a quarterback. During his senior season, his team was one win away from a postseason berth against the crosstown rival. Win, and they’d make it to the playoffs; a loss would knock them out. During a pep rally at school that day, opposing players had snuck into the high school with long socks on one of their hands to mock Abbott, making it look like they didn’t have a hand like him.
Abbott said he wasn’t sure if the hazing was meant to intimidate him or change how his teammates viewed him, but either way, the tactic was ineffective.
“Those things can work,” Abbott said, “only if you let them.”
STAYING STRONG. “In baseball, even a casual fan would know: What’s the difference between a good pitch and a bad pitch?” Abbott asked. Then, he answered: “Not much.”
Just five days before Abbott threw his no-hitter against the Cleveland Indians, he faced that same lineup and pitched a total dud. The lineup bashed him for several runs and knocked him out of the game early. Frustrated, Abbott left the dugout after throwing a fit and ended up running around the streets of Cleveland in a huff. What he missed was his team coming back to score 11 runs and winning the game despite his blunders. Abbott’s manager called Abbott into his office and asked him why he wasn’t celebrating with his team. He advised the pitcher not to ditch out on his teammates ever again.
Days later, Abbott’s catcher met with him before the next game and told him to forget the other team entirely – he just had to trust his own abilities and try his best. A few hours after that, Abbott’s teammates were celebrating one of his biggest career accomplishments with him – one that most pitchers will never experience at all.