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July 24, 2013

Transcending Bad Circumstances

By

Small wonder that New York Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera grabbed the spotlight at the latest All-Star game. His perfect eighth-inning relief appearance not only helped the American League win the game, it showcased the kind of success story that Americans love.

Going from a life in a poor fishing village in Panama to the pitching mound in New York City is pretty impressive. It’s hard not to be inspired by the opportunity that America affords people who are willing to work hard and pursue their dreams — and wonder about those who haven’t had those chances.

The now-deceased author and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould once said, “I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” His observation is undoubtedly true. Throughout history, many gifted people have been crushed by misfortune and never had the opportunity to exercise their talents.

What separates success from failure is how an individual transcends the circumstances that confront him. The history of the United States is filled with stories of individuals overcoming adversity that, had they lived elsewhere the world, would have been held in captivity by the circumstances into which they were born.

Take Jim Abbott. Like many boys, he loved baseball. But Mr. Abbott was different. Born in Flint, Mich., in 1967, he seemed unlikely to grow up and play Little League baseball, let alone make it to the major leagues. Mr. Abbott, you see, was born without a right hand, so playing a sport that required every appendage seemed to be a bridge too far to be realized. Someone forgot to convince him of that.

Mr. Abbott wanted to play baseball and be a pitcher, so he set about practicing. He developed a system by which he could deliver a pitch and have his glove in a ready position by the time the ball crossed the plate. He was good. He was so good, in fact, that he was drafted out of high school by the Toronto Blue Jays, but instead opted for college at the University of Michigan.

While at the university, Mr. Abbott led the Wolverines to two Big Ten championships, and he was the first baseball pitcher to be awarded the James E. Sullivan Award as amateur athlete of the year in 1987. It was a major accomplishment for anyone, let alone someone with only one hand. But Mr. Abbott wasn’t finished yet.

After his amazing college career, Mr. Abbott was drafted in the first round by the California Angels and spent the next 10 years living out the dream of every little boy who ever played on a sandlot. What’s more, Mr. Abbott joined the exclusive club of pitchers who have ever thrown a no-hitter when, in 1993, he blanked the Cleveland Indians.

When you first hear his story without being told that Mr. Abbott was born with only one hand, you would never know it, never even think it. But once the surprise of his story wears off, it gives way to an acknowledgment that it makes perfect sense. Mr. Abbott, after all, is an American, and America is all about amazing stories.

Each story of an individual seizing the opportunities presented to him, or creating his own opportunities through his choices, is a testament to a nation that values individual liberty and ingenuity. Only in a society that values the individual will someone like Clarence Thomas — a descendant of slaves, born into poverty and segregation — have the opportunity to become an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Only by returning to our long-standing belief that we are a nation of individuals limited merely by our imaginations, and not by the government, will we continue to reap the harvest of creativity and prosperity that our system is uniquely suited to foster.

- Ed Feulner is founder of The Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in The Washington Times

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