His head coaxed him to quit, but his heart wouldn't let him.
Two years after going a miserable 2-18 with the Anaheim Angels, lefthander Jim Abbott, now with the Calgary Cannons (Chicago White Sox), is back with a renewed determination to prove that he belongs in the major leagues, but he's willing to take the road he has never traveled to get back - the long, arduous road through the minor leagues."For a long time I didn't think I would play again, but I didn't want to rule that out. The answers weren't real clear to me. I tried to not force the issue and try to think of what was best," he said from Franklin Covey Field where he will start Tuesday night against the Salt Lake Buzz. "I had to reconcile in my mind whether I wanted to turn away from it and move on or try to make the most of the opportunity. I just felt right in my heart to make the most of it, to take advantage of the blessing to be able to play."
Abbott, who was born without a right hand, is the 15th player since the amateur draft began in 1965 to make his professional debut in the major leagues. Since signing for his second tour with the White Sox, he has made stops in Single-A Hickory (N.C.), Single-A Winston-Salem, Double-A Birmingham, and now the Triple-A Calgary Cannons, where he is 0-1 with a 4.38 earned-run average.
"I'd be lying if if I said I'm not anxious to get back. That's the obvious test," he said. "Being successful at the major-league level is my ultimate goal. However, I try to be patient on the process of wanting to get back there in the best possible position to succeed and earning my way back. I'm working as hard as I can here."
Abbott, 30, was selected by the Angels in June 1988 out of the University of Michigan. After four seasons with the Angels, including his best year, 1991, where he went 18-11 with a 2.89 ERA, and was third in the American League Cy Young voting behind Roger Clemens, he was traded to the New York Yankees in 1992. He spent two seasons in New York, during which he fired a no-hitter. He signed with the White Sox prior to the 1995 season and was traded back to the Angels by Chicago in July 1995. He spent the remainder of 1995 and the majority of 1996 with the Angels. He made hisminor-league debut in 1996 with the Vancouver Canadians, where he went 0-2. He later `retired' from the Angels in the spring of 1997, and he has been thinking about it ever since.
"I never really announced my retirement. I really didn't know what I wanted to do. I vacillated back and forth and finally that indecision led to me to say `If there is anything in your heart that wants to play, you should.' So I'm giving it a shot," he said.
In his eight seasons in the majors, Abbott was 80-100 with a 4.77 ERA. With those numbers he still has something to prove.
"That happens," he said of his disastrous 2-18 year in 1996. "People have bad years. Sometimes things just pile up and you have no control over them, and the things you do control don't go well. I wish it was different. I really wish '96 would have gone better. I wish the Angels' experience would have been more positive. You can't change the past, all you can do is move forward."
And that is his expectation, but he has modified the way he'll approach it.
"You've got to have fun. This is a choice for me," he said. "This isn't some demotion or assignemnt. It's a choice that I made. If you're not going to have fun doing it, then you might as well go home."
Abbott entered the major leagues as a heavily decorated collegian and amateur. He led Team USA to the gold medal in the 1988 Olympics, firing all nine innings in the USA's 5-3 victory over Japan. At the University of Michigan he was 26-8 in three seasons with a 3.03 ERA and led the Wolverines to Big Ten titles in 1986 and 1987. Also in 1987 he received the Golden Spikes award as the nation's best amateur baseball player after leading Team USA to the silver medal at the Pan Am Games. In 1988, he became the first baseball player to win the prestigious Sullivan Award as the nation's top amateur athlete.
He was selected by the Angels as the eighth overall pick in the June 1988 draft, and he wants to regain the toughness that made him a top prospect.
"There is a part of me that is competitive," he said. "I get my strength from wanting that. From wanting pressure, looking forward to the butterflies and being on the mound pitching out of a situation, and not from the comfort of sitting on a hammock."
For now, the hammock will have to wait.