It was one of those moments where you always remember where you were when it happened.
It was 30 years ago, yet it seems like yesterday.
My day job was the editor of Canadian Sportscard Collector magazine. I spent most weekends that summer and fall suiting up and playing semi-pro football for the Lockport (NY) Invaders, not far from Buffalo.
We had a 7 PM game that night…Sept. 4, 1993. I was in a sports bar/roadhouse/restaurant place having a pre-game meal with a couple of the guys while we watched the Yankees game on a not so big and not in the least bit flat screen TV. They were the old TVs. They looked like little square bubbles compared to what you see at sports bars now. We were playing in Rochester that night, which was about an hour away. Some of us decided to go early and take it easy and watch the Yankees game before we headed over to the stadium.
That was the day Jim Abbott pitched his no-hitter.
When we look back at the hobby 30 years ago, the word that best describes the hobby from 1991-93 would be over-reactionary. Card shops were everywhere and they were always crowded. Sports card shows seemed to be going on at a Days Inn or La Quinta or Howard Johnson within a 15-minute drive every Sunday.
The hobby was at its peak. But what was really at its peak at that time was how something that would happen in a game would instantly impact the value of a card. This was the pre-internet era when every collector and dealer had a Beckett magazine for each sport in their hands while they walked the floor. There were no PSA-Graded 10 serial numbered refractors back then. There were no game-used jersey or relic cards. There really wasn’t any serial numbering on inserts. Collectors looked for commons. When a player worth a buck in Beckett scored a big goal, passed for 300 yards and three TDs, or maybe hit a big home run, his cards might jump from a buck to two bucks. A rookie card might go from $2 to $3 or even $5, at least temporarily. It’s hard to imagine today that everyone got excited about that.
At the card show in Niagara Falls that I went to the next day, everyone was scrambling for Jim Abbott cards. In fact, in 1993 there was more of a frenzy for Jim Abbott cards after that no-hitter than there was for Joe Carter cards after he hit his famous walk-off World Series winner against the Phillies.
The following season, before the strike, Abbott was kind enough to give me a couple of minutes for an interview while the Yankees were in Toronto. He had probably been asked about the no-hitter a thousand times over, but he was kind enough to talk.
“It was a Saturday afternoon game against Cleveland, and I was nervous before the game because we had played them in Cleveland earlier in the week,” he said. “I did not pitch well, and they have a good offensive club. They beat us 7-0, so it was important that I came back and had a good game. I talked to (catcher) Matt Nokes before the game, and we decided that we would throw more curve balls and breaking balls to try to keep them off balance a bit.”
Abbott said he did not start thinking about the no-hitter until after the sixth inning. In the seventh inning, Yankees third baseman Wade Boggs made a diving play to his left, got up and threw to first baseman Don Mattingly for what may have been the play of the game.
“After that play, I started to think in my head about how many outs to go there were,” Abbott said. “It seemed like it could happen, that it was possible.”
In the ninth inning, Kenny Lofton drew a chorus of boos from Yankee Stadium when he tried to bunt his way on base to lead off the inning. His bunt went foul.
“If that bunt stayed fair, he would have been safe,” Abbott said. “Everyone was booing him, but that’s part of his game. He’s one of the fastest players to ever play this game.”
Felix Fermin followed with a long fly ball that was caught by Bernie Williams, and then Carlos Baerga grounded out to second baseman Mike Gallego.
“The pitch to Fermin was the biggest mistake I made in the game,” Abbott said. “I left it up in the zone and he hit it really hard. But Bernie Williams is a great center fielder, and he got a good jump on it and ran it down and made it look like a routine play, when it really wasn’t.”
Abbott was already one of the most inspirational baseball players and pro athletes of that generation. But at that moment, he turned the hobby upside down.
“I realized just how big it was by the amount of mail and autograph requests I got,” he said. “People were mailing their baseball cards for me to sign. It was kind of overwhelming, but also, what a great problem to have. This is what I grew up wanting to be and to do.”
Abbott said that seeing his rookie card was a special moment in his career.
“When I was playing for the Angels, we got back to our locker room and we all had a plastic case at the top of our locker,” he said. “I opened it up and was some Topps baseball cards, my first rookie card. I was a collector as a kid and spent a lot of time with my baseball cards, and I was always trading cards with my cousins and my friends. To see yourself on a Major League Baseball card for the first time is a great feeling – like you have finally made it. And now everywhere we go people are handing me different cards to sign all the time. It’s important to give fans time and to sign cards for them, because it wasn’t long ago that I would have been one of those kids wanting an autographed card.”
I remained a Jim Abbott fan after that chat – how could you not be a fan of that guy? – and it was an absolute thrill to work for Pinnacle and have a hand in the making of some Jim Abbott cards.
The Hammer And The Nail
Meanwhile in Rochester, it was amazing how a sports bar can fill up on a Saturday afternoon. The crowd seemed to grow and grow as the game went on, and the cheering got louder with each out. When Gallego made that throw to Mattingly, people stood, popcorn was flying in the air, and perfect strangers were high fiving and even hugging each other.
We eventually went to our game, which was played at St. John Fisher University, where the Buffalo Bills hold training camp. We won the game, and the highlight of the game was that former New England Patriot tailback Tony Collins played for Rochester. I was credited with a tackle when I pushed him out of bounds. Before you think that’s a big deal, he was the hammer and I was the nail. He was going down the sideline and he rocked me. I got flattened and he slightly lost his balance and stepped on the white line. Yup, I sure let him have it…
And why on earth did I not bring his rookie card and a Sharpie to the game with me and stuff it in my sock?