Yankees Magazine: Wing Man

An anchor of the pitching staff and a go-to voice in the clubhouse, CC Sabathia has delivered for the Yankees this season

September 5th, 2017
It has been 10 years since CC Sabathia's Cy Young season in Cleveland, but the big lefty -- while a different pitcher than he was a decade ago -- has played a huge role in stabilizing a Yankees rotation beset by injuries. (New York Yankees)

It's impossible not to see the hulk in the room. But it's even more impossible not to hear him. His voice is booming -- every word he says echoes clear across the clubhouse.
He's an imposing figure, but he's not angry. Quite the contrary, in fact: He's as affable as they come. He's not green, and his muscles aren't bursting through his clothes. But he is large -- at 6 foot 6 and 300 pounds, he's naturally intimidating. But then he smiles and that laugh of his fills the massive room. Maybe he's chuckling at a clip on one of the clubhouse TVs, or a video on a teammate's cellphone screen, or perhaps it's a comment from one of the clubbies with whom he's always chatting. How could you not laugh at the ever-growing throng of reporters that gather around 's locker every day? There's lots to be amused by, and he's a willing customer.
And everyone can see it. How can you not?
is a 17-year Big League veteran, so the sideshow is old hat for the left-handed pitcher. But the ease with which he fits his large frame into the ongoing and ever-repeating clubhouse routine could have as much to do with the familiar output he's producing on the field. Along with and the recently returned , Sabathia is one of only three members of the Yankees' 2009 world championship team still sporting pinstripes. But he has gotten older, and his stats have declined expectedly. Yet Sabathia matched his 2016 win total by July of 2017, and -- in a way that couldn't have been said in recent years -- the boisterous big man left his teammates confident in their chance to come away with a victory every time he took the mound.

That kind of success is important, and it certainly makes it easier for Sabathia to find the joy in things. Especially when you consider the personal demons, physical ailments, roster turnover and fierce opposing lineups that have made baseball -- and life in general -- harder for the veteran in recent years. While he was facing all those trials, the eyes never veered too far from Sabathia.
How could they? In a clubhouse where many of the guys have never lived in a world where The Simpsons didn't exist, the youngsters in the bunch had to look somewhere for guidance. And it just so happens that the guy your eye naturally finds is exactly they one they needed.
He knows that. He accepts that everyone is looking at him.
How could he ignore all the eyes?
Good thing he doesn't want to.
Take a poll of all the Yankees players and ask them about Sabathia. Every single one will say a variation of the same thing: That guy took me under his wing.
"He's put his arm around every young guy here and found a way to help them somehow," says 24-year-old pitcher .
"I got a chance to really talk to him and see that he was a leader," says of spending time with Sabathia during spring training in 2011. "The young guys, we really looked up to him and all the stuff he'd done, especially after winning a World Series here."
"We just started out talking about the Raiders and how we were excited about their season," outfielder and fellow California native remembers. "Then he started taking me under his wing and we'd talk about everything, pretty much. We'd talk about baseball, what he'd do if he was pitching against me, everything."
Everyone is drawn to Sabathia because everyone knows Sabathia. He has a Cy Young Award, more than 230 victories, an MVP trophy from the 2009 American League Championship Series and a World Series ring. And that's only a fraction of his on-field résumé. Off the field, his legend only grows. A devoted philanthropist, his PitCCh In Foundation has been an asset to communities in his home state, as well as throughout the tri-state area. His natural inclination to give back has led to hundreds of thousands of dollars gifted to underprivileged youth, baseball fields refurbished for neighborhoods in need, and hours spent just interacting with young kids who remind him of a CC from yesteryear.
And the same is true in the clubhouse. The Montgomerys and Luis Severinos of the world have the potential to become what Sabathia already is. Even the Aarons -- Hicks and Judge -- the Fraziers -- Clint and Todd -- and all the other position players know that they are in the presence of a baseball demigod. They're hoping their paths in the Big Leagues will lead to a fraction of the success the 37-year-old has enjoyed. Sabathia can see that success and more for all those guys, and he wants to make sure they see it, too.
"I had some good guys who did that for me, like Jim Thome, Dave Burba, Ellis Burks, Chuck Finley," he says. "I felt like they really cared about me, and I want to try and do that for every guy here."
Based on the testimony of his effusive teammates, he has done that and more. "He just works hard, and he is a good human being," says catcher . "He has time for everybody, especially young guys. It was easy for me to come up and talk to him and ask him questions about the way things are supposed to be done. He's a solid guy, and it's hard to put into words because he's a guy who you just say, 'Yeah, that's my guy.'"
"I don't think he meant to become a leader, I think it's just his character," Hicks says. "You always just want to be around him; he's that kind of guy, and he's an awesome person to know."
Hicks, though, is only partially correct. Sabathia knows exactly what he is doing every time he pulls a young guy to the side during spring training, hands over his cellphone number and offers an invitation to call him any time. He says that he is proud of the reputation he has built, and he stresses that making everyone feel comfortable off the field can lead to positive results on the scoreboard. He has been there before, so he understands the importance of the role he finds himself occupying.
When Sabathia joined the Yankees before the 2009 season, he was a bona fide ace, but he wasn't the clubhouse leader. Those responsibilities fell to the likes of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte, among others. Sabathia was already a successful Major Leaguer, capable of carrying a team in all the important statistical categories. Which he did, notching an AL-best 19 wins and finishing the year in the top 10 in everything from games started to innings pitched to strikeouts. On the field, Sabathia was the guy. But steering the ship off the field? He hadn't gotten there yet.
"When I came over here, I had a chance to learn from the best," Sabathia says, rattling off the names of all the usual suspects. "These are guys that I really call friends and big brothers. Now it's just a cycle. I feel like we're close to winning it all here, and if we can do that, then I think Dellin will be the guy. So it all works in a cycle. To be on the other end of the spectrum now is cool, and I'm excited to guide these young guys, hopefully, to a championship."
But the big man is being modest; if those championship dreams come to fruition, Sabathia will be a huge reason why. He has pitched in 12 postseason series: three with Cleveland (the first of which came when Sabathia was just 21 years old), one with Milwaukee (after the lefty joined the team at the 2008 trade deadline and carried the Brewers on his back the rest of the second half), and then eight with the Yankees.
In 2009, the Yankees breezed into the postseason, winning 103 regular season games. Sabathia, then 28 years old, was a guiding force in New York's run to a title. He won Game 1 of the AL Division Series against Minnesota, then, in the ALCS, he secured two wins over the Angels to earn MVP honors. In the Fall Classic he took the ball twice, and although he notched a loss and a no-decision, he very much earned the jewelry that came along with the Yankees' 27th title. But in the aftermath, Sabathia slipped into the shadows. People were talking about Alex Rodriguez finally getting his ring, about Hideki Matsui's offensive heroics, about Jeter and the rest of the Core Four returning to where they belonged. Sure, Sabathia was there, and he was a big deal. He had signed with the Yankees to lead the pitching staff, and he had done just that. But he wasn't the main story.
Here in 2017, things are a bit different. Now, the Yankees clubhouse is filled with young, baby-faced new guys, with just a few grizzled vets hanging around the crib. If this rapidly rebuilt team is going to summit the mountain again in these final two months, Sabathia will have to shoulder much of the load, on and off the field.

"If we get to October," Betances says, "it will be because he's going out there, doing what he does and working. And a lot of the young guys in here are observing that and learning from that."
In his first five years in pinstripes, Sabathia averaged nearly 18 wins and 199 strikeouts per season. But the three years that followed were filled with physical struggles, emotional hurdles and some well-publicized personal demons that derailed the pitcher's effectiveness on the mound. Those few subpar years had dulled Sabathia's star so much that for a while, the former Cy Young Award winner wasn't even guaranteed a spot in the rotation.
It might be true that Sabathia earned his way to the hill this year in part because his experience made him an asset to the younger arms that were populating the rotation. But more so, Sabathia has proven that he can still flat-out deal as a starting pitcher. Romine calls Sabathia "a bulldog" because of his ability to go after opposing batters and his intelligence on the mound. He's no longer the guy who broke into the Majors by blowing people away with his fastball, but that's OK.
"You notice he doesn't need to," the catcher says matter-of-factly. "He doesn't need to throw 100 mph to get people out. He developed a cutter that really evolved his game. He's always had a slider that he can throw any time he wants. He mixes and matches. He's just intelligent. He knows how to pitch, and he knows what guys are looking for. He reads the game and uses his experience very well. It's fun to watch."
Betances puts it differently.
"Everything he's been through the last few years I think shows the toughness that he has," the reliever says. "I think the last couple of years he's gotten in tune with the pitcher he is now and the pitcher he needs to be. It shows a lot about him as a person, because I remember CC as a young guy throwing 98 and 97 with a nasty breaking ball. Now he's pitching with whatever it is he has that day. Some days he's stronger than others, but now he just pitches, which is what you need to do at this level, especially when you get older and your stuff is not as nasty as when you were younger. And it kind of helps us young guys see what you need to do to stick around when you get older and see how hard he works to be here leading the staff."
There is no doubt that he works hard, and of course everyone in the clubhouse looks at Sabathia as an example of how to play the game the right way. But Sabathia knows he's not the ace anymore, and that's fine by him.
"I think I passed the torch a long time ago," he says, laughing. "I'm fine with being the older guy and kind of the anchor of the rotation. I've had my time at the top of the rotation and dealt with that pressure, but that time has passed for me now, so I'm happy to pass it on to Sevy, or Tanaka, or whoever else wants that. There are some guys in here who I know can fill that role, and Sevy's been doing that for us this year, Masa has been great for us the past three or four years, and so now, I'm fine with my seat and where I'm at."
Which is in the Yankees' rotation, grinding out victories. He's also at his locker in the clubhouse, doling out hard-earned wisdom. He's enjoying the ride of the season, but is anxious to once again flex his mighty postseason muscles.
"October is what I've been itching to get back to," he says. "That's what it's all about -- winning championships. And if you can win one here, there's no better place to do it. I think it's going to be a lot of fun down the stretch. Watching the way we play, how much fun we're having, I think it's going to be a lot of fun at the end of the day."
With Sabathia in a rotation that includes Severino, Tanaka and newcomers and -- not to mention a lineup with names such as Judge, and another new acquisition, -- the odds are certainly back in Sabathia's favor. If and when the Yankees take the field in the postseason this October, the questions about playing on the biggest stage will be lofted to the biggest hurler on the team.

"He might tell you he's not the ace, but those young guys look up to him like he's the ace," Gardner says. "There's no doubt he's the leader of the staff and the leader of our team. He's a big reason we're right here in the fight for first place."
On the mound, Sabathia is having as good a year as anyone could have hoped for. In the clubhouse and on the bench, he's the sounding board and the example.
"When I first saw him my first thought was of a polar bear because of how big he was," Frazier says. "He's a monster, but he's a pretty cool dude, too. He's like the anchor and he's the finisher because he's a guy that's been there before in the World Series. I've been to the playoffs, but never the World Series, and that's another beast, so it's great to have a guy like that leading the way."
Whatever you want to call him, however you're moved to describe him -- anchor, leader, monster, hulk -- CC Sabathia is a big man in every sense of the word. The Yankees lean on him; he's respected. Of course he is.
After the career he has put together, how could he not be?