October 24, 2017

Lessons from the Pros

Two lessons of turning pro: Steven Pressfield and Jim Abbott

The scout from the Toronto Blue Jays moved discretely into the shadows, watching the lefty’s hands and feet. He made his reports from what he saw from the hands and feet. And heart. The Blue Jays scout made a point of looking for kids the other scouts tossed away. He saw immediately that this kid had a can’t miss arm and can’t miss heart. He faxed the scouting report to Pat Gillick that this lefty from Flint, Michigan, a blue collar town ranked 300 out of 300 in the Money Magazine list of cities, was at the top of the prospect list. The last sentence of the scout’s report:

This kid doesn’t have a right hand.

The scouting report could have added more, such as how other kids teased the lefty, calling him “Captain Hook,” for the ugly metal claw he wore when younger. Girls in elementary school sent him home crying, telling him to his face that they didn’t like his deformity. His elementary school teacher was also born with a defect, making his right side almost useless. Docs told his teacher all the things he would never do, from riding a bike, driving a car, to just living a life that he owned instead of on loan from the docs. The teacher learned to ride a bike, a car, pilot a plane, and work at NASA. He looked the lefty in the eye and told him to go tell that girl that he didn’t like her face, and it was the only face she had.

It was that kind of town.

The lefty had to make a decision. He was wasting his talent, using his humor to fit in, becoming “compliantly invulnerable.” Halfway through high school and he was a nobody with no right hand. Cut from the freshman basketball team, he tried out for the baseball team and didn’t get a hit the entire season. He made the self-appraisal that he was too nice, giving too much of himself away. The black kids jumped him for being white while the white kids teased him for missing a part.

“The tough school in the tough town took its victims, and these were desperate kids who preyed on the insecure ones.”

Then Jim Abbott made a decision that changed his life. He would fight for his dignity. He explains it poignantly in his autobiography Imperfect: An Improbable Life. He decided he didn’t want to play. He had to play. He didn’t just have to play. He had to win. He would win by “staying with it, whatever it was. That was my whole plan- to show up.”

In Steven Pressfield’s new book Turning Pro he writes of working at a halfway house in his twenties. His time there changed his life. The dominant emotion, he explains in his book, was fear. “Everyone had fallen a long way, fallen hard, and fallen alone. Everyone in that house had looked their own annihilation in the face, and it had scared the hell out of them.”

In that halfway house, Pressfield dreamed he possessed ambition. “It took me a long time to come to terms with the idea that I had ambition.”

“To feel ambition and to act upon it is to embrace the unique calling of our souls.”

It’s going pro.

Jim Abbott postponed turning pro for the University of Michigan and winning the Olympic gold. The California Angels drafted him out of Michigan number eight in the first round. Ten years in the big leagues, including a no-hitter with the Yankees, and he writes that he wanted to end it where it began- throwing a ball off the brick wall in Flint.

Jim Abbott has a home in northern Michigan, outside Traverse City. I can’t believe the folks who put on the TED talks haven’t put him on stage.

Better yet, put him on stage with Steven Pressfield.

Jim Abbott’s elementary school teacher was in Angelo’s, the restaurant in Flint that reflected the heart and soul of the town. Lots of sports and coney dogs. All the athletes and nearly everyone else came in to Angelo’s that was owned by Macedonians. Lions coach Wayne Fontes came up from Detroit. Athletes on their way to the pros would sit alongside those on their way down. A writer is working on his book about Flint and Angelo’s is where he began. As they all do. Abbott’s teacher saw his little lefty’s picture on the wall. Angelo’s was Abbott’s favorite place.

I became a fan of Steven Pressfield’s books and blog because Flint reminded me so much of what he wrote of the Spartans in Gates of Fire. The culture, for sports rather than war, tough environment, Greeks and Macedonians who are good friends, including those who owned Angelo’s. The Navy SEALs have a motto that if it ain’t raining, we ain’t training. For the kids of Flint, it was if it ain’t raining, we ain’t playing. A book has just come out about a Navy SEAL who lost use of his hand and had to retrain his sniper skills for his other hand. His SEAL teammates refused to cooperate with the writer unless the writer left out the BUDs stuff and focused on the SEAL’s upbringing in Arkansas. That’s where the story is for this guy, his teammates said.

Flint is the story about Jim Abbott, and so many others. He didn’t make the basketball team because they won three state championships in a row. Another Flint team, led by Glen Rice and Andre Rison, replaced them as champs. Before that, my high school took all the state championships. Then everyone repeated the cycle. It was that kind of environment. I joke about the Bad News Bears baseball teams, as Abbott joked about his teams with the black kid, the white kid, the skinny kid, the fat kid, and the one handed kid. But in reality, they could all play. Baseball was dominate as well.

All fed by the Macedonians.

Today, towns like Flint and Detroit remind me of the halfway house that Pressfield writes of in Turning Pro. They’ve fallen a long way, and hard. They’re not just scared. They have the scars, like punch drunk fighters who have taken too many punches and are no longer fighting to win but merely to survive.

Pressfield’s Turning Pro is published by Black Irish Books with his partner Shawn Coyne, with the theme to get in the ring. The funny part of Abbott’s book is during the 1988 Olympics, he came upon the boxers training outside their rooms. The trainer is beseeching heavyweight Riddick Bowe to practice harder or risk getting his ass kicked.

Bowe says, “Aw, I’m gonna give him a left cross, then a right cross, and he’s gonna need the Red Cross.”

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