HH Goes to Lunch with a Legend: Jim Abbott

Jim-Abbot-vCard. One is a series of the 2011 Halos Heaven Collection.

Wow. Here I am, Lunch with a Legend, and not as a fanboy, but representing Halos Heaven as a member of the media. Check. It. Out!  HH takes yet another step towards The Big Time.

I am not going to kid myself. I have checked the registration sheets and HH is listed on the restaurant roster, not the ESPN roster. So while, yes, HH does have admittance into the event and access to one and all, ESPN has reserved special Access – with a capital "A" – to designated insiders. Fair enough. ESPN was gracious enough to extend the invitation and I was not about to behave like the doofus cousin and overstep my welcome.

(full story after the jump)

I am in the bar at Morton’s Steakhouse in Anaheim on a blustery Friday afternoon. Standing right next to me is Jim Abbott, former Angel pitcher. Jim is waiting his turn in the interview chair of the ESPN 'Lunch with a Legend' series.

In front of Jim sits a young woman and her son, a little boy of around 7, who have come to see and hear Jim speak. The boy shares Jim’s affliction. He, too, has only a left hand. The mother is charming and polite, but obviously delighted to finally have her son meet the person who has blazed a trail of success that she surely will use to inspire the young man through his own life. She informs Jim that she has followed Jim’s story and his post-baseball career as a motivational speaker, and was thrilled to learn that he would be present this day. By my reckoning, she might possibly have been the first person to sign up for this event.

The boy himself seems reserved, calm, even nonplussed. Jim ignores the ESPN employees and media members and fans present, focusing entirely on the boy. To everyone’s credit, they have granted these three a wide berth so that Jim and the boy can share this moment.

There is congenial banter back and forth as Jim and the mother draw the boy out. There is an autograph request in a copy of what appears to be a very early edition of Ellen Emerson White’s biography "Jim Abbott: Against all Odds". There is lefty-to-lefty fist bump between Jim and the boy. The boy opens up and inquires whether Jim is still in baseball. A conversation ensues. Another question that I cannot quite make out comes from the boy. And then something remarkable happens: Jim raises his right foot up onto a barstool and begins to demonstrate to the young boy how it is possible for a person with only one hand to tie his own shoe.

I don’t know. Maybe the world of Velcro has made this knowledge archaic. Maybe this is one very difficult concept which requires special knowledge that my life has been so very fortunate to avoid. But it is a poignant moment. It is meaningful if for no other reason than the empowerment it represents. Here is how you tie your own shoes. Yes. Special knowledge. I doubt that the boy memorized the lesson in one sitting, but that does not matter. Now he knows that it is possible. He has seen it, and from a very special source. That young man’s life just changed, forever. That young boy now knows that he can do this.

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Closed off to the general public and open to paid admission or invitation only, ESPN has taken over Morton’s Anaheim, adding a stage that dominates the far end of the main dining room. The tables in the center all have reserved seating and crudely handwritten sheets of paper with names of The Important on them. I double and triple check with the ESPN hostess to make sure her list contains none of the possible names from Halos Heaven. It is confirmed. HH has not made it to the orchestra seats yet, but we are not in the balcony, either! I return to the Morton’s desk and check in and am escorted to a very decent table off to the right. Don’t fret, fellow HH’ers, it’s not like we were relegated to the cheap seats.  Marcia C. Smith of the OC Register is going to be sitting at my same table, to my left.

Stephen A Smith is present. So is Colin Cowherd. Hosting live on ESPN710 are Marcellus Wiley and, sitting in for Max Kellerman, Mark Willard. There is a general hum about the room as various members of the more common press and other notables greet, mingle, and swap short intros of favored friends and guests. Jim Abbott has been escorted off to a back room behind a closed door, guarded by an ESPN rep. I am assuming that the MSM is back in there as well, chatting him up, because later a large contingent of people will emerge with Jim when his segment comes up on air.

There is a commercial break in the live broadcast, my tablemates have yet to arrive, and my waiter takes my order. The menu for the banquet is fixed, although they allow for a choice of entrée. I dunno. Going to Morton’s and choosing chicken ranks right down there with going to KFC and ordering the fish. Don’t do it. Morton’s is a very solid experience. In my real-life professional line of work, we have also hosted event banquets in their establishments and they never disappoint. Consistently and effortlessly excellent. Hat’s off.

Back on the air and with the buzz still brewing about the room, Max and Mark are playing Frank McCourt’s rather shameless and defensive public statement concerning the brutal beating that happened on his watch, as delivered at the headquarters of the very LAPD that he shorted for security in order to save a buck. This segment does not go well for the Dodgers, and the juxtaposition of Anaheim safety versus Dodger Stadium safety is not lost on Max/Mark. (Not that we are totally innocent, having similar unfortunate event ourselves in 2009). Much later, Stephen A. Smith would join Max/Mark and continue the McCourt beatdown. (And I wish to interject at this point that Smith is one very sharp dresser. The man travels well. No sport coats and jeans for this radio personality!)

One last commercial break. My salad has arrived along with two of my tablemates, both from the Performing Arts Center. After brief intros, I ask if they are fans. The senior of two hedges on being an Angels fan, or even a baseball fan. But he quickly shifts to the fact that he is from Michigan. Flint, no less, home town of Jim Abbott. And a Michigan Alumn. He is a happy guy.

Jim comes out and everybody takes their seats. After introductions and an applause of greeting, Mark Willard leads Abbott down an interview path that, by now, should be quite familiar to anyone who knows Jim’s life story. Let’s cut to the chase: Jim Abbott is an extremely engaging and humble personality. You need to read up on him, or listen between the lines, to learn that this man has lived a life of enormous success at every level starting from the very beginning. Having a physical handicap is certainly a gargantuan burden that must have more than a little to do with his makeup, but this is a guy whose parents have earned some very special brownie points.

Early on Jim grants us a glimpse of the overachiever I am talking about: "You know what it’s like to walk in to the loneliness of low expectations…One of the real big moments of mine was my second grade softball toss when I won first, second and third place…". Yeah. Pretty much his entire life Jim Abbott has kicked serious ass: Elementary School, Little League, High School (did you know he also quarterbacked?), College, Olympics (Gold Medal, anyone?), MLB (no-hitter!). And yet, Jim remains a highly accessible and modest guy.

So about 10 minutes into the interview, Ms. Smith of the Register joins our table. She and I had quite an enjoyable conversation throughout the luncheon. As it happens, she is a regular reader of HH, familiar with several regulars, and a promoter of the role blogs and online communities play in the sports fan ecosystem. We need to be real, however. She works daily in a profession that cannot behave in a Wild West manner as we do, so don’t expect her to start championing any posts you read here.

Let’s get back to Jim Abbott. As it happens, one of my very early Angels heroes doesn’t happen to garner much love in the Halos Heaven Pantheon. I am not talking about Jim here. This hero never played for us. He never managed for us.  But he did coach for us. And he is typically credited with being a force in teaching the Halos how to be a pro franchise and pro ballplayers. His number is retired for a reason, and here is but one of thousands of anecdotes that reveal why:

"One of my great memories, I have to say, of the Angels and when I played here was the great coach Jimmie Reese and working with him in the outfield. And I really give him a lot of credit in my professional career for helping me develop the rhythm that it took. We used to go out into the outfield during batting practice and I would go through my motion, take the glove off, go through my motion, do a good follow through, and he would hit that ball. And he had the timing down perfectly with that fungo. He’d hit it right back at me and I had to have that glove on pretty quick. And I got to be pretty proud of my fielding in the major leagues."

There you have it. Jimmie Reese leaving yet another mark.

In general, ESPN and Morton’s put on an outstanding event. I wish it were longer. I wish our table banter need not follow the broadcast rhythms of commercial radio and the inherent station breaks. I wish that Jim had taken questions from the audience. (I wonder if he has had any further thoughts on the sudden loss of his fastball abbreviating his career?  Over-use of his good arm, perhaps?) I wish I had more time to chat with our new OC Register friend. I wish I could have found a way to sneak into that back room with Abbott. I wish Cowherd could have been bothered to stick around a little longer than it took to eat his free meal. And I wish I had more time to have stuck around and listened to Stephen A. Smith, since it sounded like he was starting to get pretty fired up over the Dodgers. But all that was not to be…this time.

I’ll close with this anecdote that Abbott apparently relates during his inspirational speeches. Of all the things that Jim Abbott talked about this day, I happened to find this one particularly meaningful. I am sure, if you have stuck around and read all of this, you will understand why:

"I tell the story of my second grade teacher, a man named Don Clarkson. You know, he taught me how to tie my shoes. It took me until I was in second grade. I remember him pulling me out into the hallway one day and saying ‘I got it! I figured it out!’ And we went out there and he had this method of tying shoes. And I know it doesn’t sound like a big deal, but he had two hands. And I think of him at night…with a clenched fist and working with those laces and pulling them tight and then coming that day and pulling me out of class and saying ‘We can do this.’ And I think that attitude permeated throughout my career…"

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(You can listen to the whole interview here. The reaction to an audience member being from Flint, at about the 2:30 mark, is indeed directed at our table!) 
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