How 1-handed pitcher Jim Abbott inspired Mike Salk to keep playing baseball as a kid
For Mike Salk’s upcoming 40th birthday Saturday, his baseball hero Jim Abbott joined Brock and Salk for an interview Wednesday. Below, Salk explains why Abbott was such an inspiration to him after an accident at age 12.
On Aug. 8, 1990, my left land was torn in half.
I was 12 years old, two weeks into a four-week stint at overnight camp in Maine. Every morning, I would wake up early and go water skiing with a few of the counselors that let me tag along.
On that morning, I had fallen down about 100 yards from the dock and had gathered the rope and my skis and was ready to get back up. But the counselors driving the boat decided to have a little fun with me. They disconnected their end of the rope from the boat and drove away laughing. When they came back, driving fast, they gave me a wide berth.
It wasn’t wide enough.
They ran over the end of the rope they had disconnected. When they did, the propeller sliced through it, pulling it instantly tight. Unfortunately, the other end of that rope was wrapped around my left hand. The pressure was enough to partially sever it. That sounds clinical, but essentially it was hanging by a string. Every bone was broken. My thumb was essentially amputated. It was awful.
There was blood everywhere. I was in unimaginable pain. I screamed at them and thankfully they were able to restart the engine – the rope didn’t get tangled in the prop – and drive back to me. I’ll never forget the look in the scared counselor’s eyes as he pulled me onto the boat and then got me back to shore. They got me into a van and we met the ambulance halfway to the Mid Maine Medical Center.
They stopped the bleeding and blocked the nerves to my arm but had to send me to Boston for the first of 10 surgeries – seven surgeries during the 25 days I spent at Children’s Hospital and another three outpatient surgeries in the next year. I spent nearly a year wearing various splits and attending physical therapy five days a week. I had lost most of my left thumb and what was left was no longer opposable. Doctors estimated I had retained about 15 percent usage of my hand.
A year later I had figured out a way to play basketball again. I would find a way onto the football field (with the help of a giant pad on my hand), but there was no way I would be able to play my favorite sport: baseball.
But the next summer I visited my great aunt and uncle in Southern California and they brought me to a ballgame at the Big A. On July 13, 1991, California Angels lefty Jim Abbott threw a complete game, giving up two runs on four hits. He lost the game 2-0, but I was there and it was amazing.
He threw every pitch with his left arm, balancing his glove on what remained of his right. He had no hand on that right arm and yet he found a way to throw and then quickly put his hand in the glove.
I was transfixed.
I had heard of Abbott and his story. He had been born without a right hand but had found a way to pitch anyway. I think I had maybe seen a picture in Sports Illustrated but I don’t think I had seen video, and I definitely hadn’t seen it live. It was amazing. In a blur, that glove was on his hand and he was ready to field his position.
It was more than possible – it could be a reality.
When I got back home, I bought a glove for my right hand and taught myself to catch with it. My family and coaches were supportive and helpful. It was strange using my throwing hand to catch and I was never as natural fielding ground balls as I had been before. But I could catch the ball, take off my glove and quickly take the ball out of the glove. I could make the transfer almost as quickly as anyone else.
I played baseball for the next five years – through high school. My wrists weren’t quick enough anymore to hit at a high level and college ball wasn’t an option for me. But I played the outfield for my high school team and that was enough.
There are few athletes that I would call inspiring. Maybe it’s my cynical nature, but I never bought all the messages about how if I just worked hard enough I could be a pro. At 5 foot 10, I didn’t want to work hard enough to make the NBA.
But Abbott didn’t need to say anything to be inspiring. He had made the big leagues with just one arm. In fact, he was drafted eighth overall and made his pro debut in the majors without ever pitching in a minor league game.
What meant so much to me was that he showed me a way to enjoy something again that I had always loved. It wasn’t a phony message full of false hope for kids without the requisite ability. It was just a chance to learn something new and try something challenging. And it led to five years of happiness on the baseball diamond, a lifetime of softball and years of camaraderie and fun.
Thank you, Jim Abbott. I’m sure you’ve inspired countless kids and adults who were willing to try because of your effort and ingenuity. I can’t wait to talk to you for the first time because I just want to say thank you. You made my life better and I don’t think I could say that about any other professional athlete.