Wednesday, February 27, 2008

By Geoff Bilau, Angelswin Editor

No Angels draft pick arrived with more notoriety and instantaneous fan support than Jim Abbott. Even before the team made the lefthander its first-round pick (No. 8 overall) in the June 1988 amateur draft, Abbott was already known outside of strictly baseball circles. And when he led the 1988 U.S. Olympic team to the gold medal at the Summer Games in Seoul, Korea, he became a household name.

His exploits on the baseball field, of course, lent to Abbott’s celebrity, but not as much as the fact he accomplished all of them without a right hand. Born with a genetic defect, Abbott overcame his disability and became an inspiration to thousands of children and adults living with disabilities around the world.

Following the 1988 draft and Olympics, Abbott arrived at Angels spring training in Palm Springs, Calif., having never thrown a pitch as a professional. There was some question entering camp as to where Abbott, 26-8 in three years at the University of Michigan, would begin the season: in the minor leagues or in the Angels rotation?

When the Angels broke camp, they took Abbott with them to Anaheim, making him the 15th player to make his professional debut in the Major Leagues. Abbott lost his first start, 7-0, April 8 at home to future teammate Mark Langston and the Seattle Mariners. He earned his first victory April 24 at home against the Baltimore Orioles.

Heading into his May 17 match up in Anaheim with two-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens, Abbott had experienced mixed results, entering with a 2-3 record and 4.50 ERA. Had the Angels misjudged the lefty’s preparedness for big league hitters? Did he need more seasoning in the minor leagues?

Abbott answered both questions with a resounding “No.”

The Red Sox went down in order in the first and Clemens retired Angels leadoff hitter Claudell Washington on a strikeout to start the Angels half. But then Johnny Ray and Devon White singled and Wally Joyner drew a two-out walk to load the bases for Chili Davis, who doubled down the left field line to clear the bases. Catcher Lance Parrish followed with a blast to deep left field, giving Abbott and the Angels a 5-0 first inning lead.

Clemens began the third inning by issuing a walk to Brian Downing and single to Joyner before being pulled for reliever Dennis Lamp. The outing was the shortest of Clemens’ career to that point.

Abbott, on the other hand, was dominant. He got into a two-on, one-out jam in the fourth, but Jim Rice lined into a double play to end the inning. Only two Red Sox reached base the rest of the game.

As Abbott came out to pitch the ninth inning, the Anaheim Stadium crowd of 31,230 stunned fans rose to its feet to cheer the rookie on. Not only had the mighty Roger Clemens been rudely dispatched in the third inning, but also the kid for whom everybody liked so much to cheer was three outs from his first complete game and shutout.

The inning began with a Wade Boggs come backer that Abbott was unable to field cleanly for an infield hit. The crowd briefly stirred, wondering if the miscue would throw off Abbott’s concentration. Their fears were soon quelled, however, as Abbott used his cut fastball to induce Marty Barrett into a 5-4-3 double play.

And when Ellis Burks grounded out to third, the crowd erupted. Abbott (9 IP, 4 H, 2 BB, 4 K) had the shutout, Clemens lost for the first time at Anaheim Stadium and the Angels improved to 26-13 on the year. With the shutout, the Angels’ ninth of the season, Abbott lowered his ERA almost a full run to 3.56.

For Abbott, it was the best game of a rookie season that saw him post a 12-12 record with a 3.92 ERA, good for fifth in A.L. Rookie of the Year voting. The 21-year-old had proven he belonged in the big leagues and would soon cement his status as a fan favorite with his infectious smile, selfless personality, inspirational attitude and, oh yeah, some pretty darn good pitching in subsequent seasons with the Angels.

But for this fan, the night Abbott beat Clemens will always be one of the greatest moments in Angels history.
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