Yankees Magazine: The Take And The Give
CC Sabathia's big league success is hard-earned, but he is still cognizant of the debts he owes to those who made it all possible
We begin where we'll finish, on the grounds of Vallejo High School on June 2, 1998. It's just two years since the naval shipyard in town closed down, burying the city under a strain of unemployment, boarded-up windows and crime. So much crime. The shuttered Mare Island is just one example of years of downward neglect, as a hard place kept getting harder. And Vallejo, California -- never exactly a Garden of Eden in the Golden State -- fell. Hard.
Today is the day, though. A favorite son will get his spin on life's wheel of fortune as 30 Major League teams take turns picking their futures. They'll make millionaires out of high schoolers, seeking out Hall of Famers while they try their best to avoid tomorrow's no-names. It's a calculated crapshoot, but such is life.
No one would have minded if Carsten Sabathia had spent the day at home, nestled in the swell of his family and friends' loving support. This is the biggest day of CC's young life, the day that he's going to get out, at least symbolically, of a place that has chewed up and swallowed a lot of kids who don't have his gifts.
"He said he couldn't take it," his mother, Margie Sabathia-Lanier, recalls. "He said, 'I'll just wait for your phone call. I can't sit at home, Mom.'"
So he went to school, and while he was there, the call did come, of course, a life- altering conversation that somehow managed not to change CC Sabathia at all. Now, 20 years later -- a generation for laymen, a lifetime-plus for athletes -- he has shown few signs that he's planning to retire, and he has proven that he can fight off the precariousness of aging. But there is a clock ticking, and Sabathia is not immune.
So, he engages in the give and the take that has defined his entire life, the generational link between two special days at Vallejo High School. Sabathia can't go back to that day 20 years ago, not emotionally or physically, but he can and does give back on its account. This year, for the third time in his career, he was nominated for the Roberto Clemente Award, which honors philanthropy as well as on-field excellence. Even at 38, the two are in balance for Sabathia. It's about how he was raised, and, yes, where he was raised. But it's also who he is, a decorated and celebrated superstar who attributes everything to the love he got, and the love he has to give.
About 25 miles south of Vallejo High School sits Oakland- Alameda County Coliseum, and that's where Sabathia finds himself laboring on Labor Day 2018. It's a bad start, one that drops the pitcher's record to 7-6 on the year. But Sabathia is six weeks past his 38th birthday, and there were always going to be some bad starts this year. And besides, "I'm actually used to losing here," the pitcher says over breakfast the next morning in San Francisco, alluding to his 5-8 record and 5.38 ERA in 17 career starts at the Coliseum.
It's a famous story, but one that bears repeating here. Dave Stewart won 20 games in four straight seasons for the A's beginning in 1987, and he spoke at the Vallejo Boys and Girls Club when Sabathia was 9 years old. Stewart, himself an East Bay native, had come through the club as a young child, and he felt a need to return and speak with the next generation. "My only motivation was to just hope to touch somebody," Stewart says.
Chatting in the home clubhouse at the Coliseum nearly 30 years later, Stewart recalls his own youth. "I can't say that my childhood life was unhappy because it wasn't. I had my sisters and my brothers. I had a good foundation. My parents. But there was a lot around me that was going on." Stewart lists all the sports leagues and organizations that he participated in as a way of staying out of trouble. "If I didn't have any of those things, I think that my outcome could have been drastically different." That was the message he remembers passing on to kids such as Sabathia. "That my beginnings and my growth was similar to theirs," Stewart says. "And that good things had happened for me, and they could happen for them."
These chance encounters form the upward rise of Sabathia's arc. The pitcher had strong role models -- his mother, his coaches, even his peers. So, he vowed to become one. In the first decade of this century, and a bit beyond, too, Sabathia repaid those who had taken chances on him with wins. When he retires, he'll have more strikeouts than all but two left-handers in baseball history: Hall of Famers Randy Johnson and Steve Carlton. The payback in 2018 is different, though. His primary currency is his wisdom. His experience. The heart of a man who actually does care.
But that passion is what Paul Cogan saw right from the start, when he was a Cleveland Indians area scout based in Northern California. "There were times when I felt like, 'What are we looking at?'" the scout, now with the Dodgers, recalls. "It happens every so often in a career, and not to say people didn't think CC was good. But why he was even a consideration outside the first round just baffled me. It really did. So, you end up questioning yourself a little bit. And in this case, I didn't. I swear, I didn't even care in this case. Throws hard. Got a breaking ball. And he's a friggin' off-the-charts competitor. It's in front of our face." But Cogan was also wowed by the structure around the massive pitcher -- the loving mother, who sometimes acted more like his sister; the father who wasn't around much, but who managed, before he passed away too young, to make sure his son knew how much he loved him; the friends and teachers and even the strangers who saw potential in young CC.
"I guess I grew up bad, but I didn't think so," Sabathia says, echoing Stewart's similar self-assessment. "People grew up in way worse situations than I did. I had love. I had a loving family. I had support. … I feel like I had a good upbringing, man. I was in a difficult situation a lot of times, and I grew up in a bad neighborhood, but I had the love of my family and support, so I always felt like I was in a little bubble."
The bubble analogy is astute and self-aware. Sabathia was always getting pulled out, lifted up, pushed forward. There are the examples that every young baseball player has, the stories of Ellis Burks buying him suits as a rookie, the same way that Jim Rice and Oil Can Boyd had done for Burks. But there is also the history more personal to Sabathia, a boy from notoriously tough waters that somehow parted for him. Sabathia grew up in Vallejo's Country Club Crest neighborhood, which was where the bad stuff happened in town, sometimes right under the young pitcher's nose. "There's guys that are incarcerated, there's guys that are dead," Abe Hobbs, Sabathia's high school baseball coach, says somberly. "There's times when there was a murder in front of his house, and he couldn't come to school because they had it taped up. The things that were going on in his neighborhood, it's pretty easy for somebody to steer you in the wrong direction. But there were not just adults, there were some peers that went out of their way to look out for him many times. If something was getting a little funky, they got him out of there."
When Cogan emphatically reported back to his bosses, practically screaming about this kid throwing 92 to 95, it struck a chord with the Indians' front office. "I think it was Paul's conviction about CC's character, and how special Margie was, in concert with his talent and athleticism," says Mark Shapiro, now the Toronto Blue Jays' president, but in 1998 the Indians' assistant GM. The 20th pick in the first round, while valuable, is no sure thing. Shapiro says that you're expecting a big league regular in that slot. An average Major Leaguer, which is no dig. In Sabathia, the team got so much more. A leader. A winner. His Cy Young season in 2007 also saw the team reach the brink of the World Series. Sabathia recognizes that the years that followed represent life as a cashed-in golden ticket -- a midseason trade the next season, then a record- setting free-agent contract to come to New York, where he threw the first pitch at the new Yankee Stadium and celebrated a World Series win in his first year. "When I got drafted, I didn't have mechanics or anything -- I was just raw," he says. "I think it was the best-case scenario for everyone. For the Indians, who drafted me and were able to get me for six, seven, eight years, however long it was. For me, to be able to come to New York. For me, my family, my life, it's been the best-case scenario for everybody. I couldn't even have dreamt this."
Cogan saw the whole board, reading Sabathia's future as he watched the kid pitch. Did he see nearly 250 big league wins? Almost 3,000 strikeouts? Of course not; that type of decoder ring doesn't exist. But although he was scouting a boy, he saw a man. "I think he felt a responsibility to his mother, to his community, to his teammates," Cogan says. "And I think he took it and put that weight on his shoulder. He was going to do whatever it took."
Sitting in the dugout of Osceola County Stadium in Kissimmee, Florida, Charlie Manuel saw a tough conversation looming. It was March 2001, and Sabathia had just Houdini'd his way out of danger in a Spring Training game, loading the bases and then striking out the next three hitters. The Indians' manager was convinced. This kid didn't need to go to Triple-A. He was ready. And Manuel was going to fight for him.
"At the time, Dick Pole was my pitching coach," Manuel says, "and they told Dick and me at the meetings, 'OK, you're accountable for this.' Because they thought he hadn't pitched enough."
Seventeen years later, Shapiro mostly shrugs. "I'm a player-development guy," the executive says. "I'm always trying to fight for more time to develop and build a strong foundation. That's just my nature." But in pushing for a chance to pull the young pitcher out of the Minors a year early, Manuel just continued the trend of spotting the greatness in Sabathia's nature -- and taking a stand on his behalf. Sabathia, who turned 21 that July, responded by going 17-5.
"And actually, in his first year, I felt like not only did we handle him right, but you could see that CC would be around for a long time," Manuel adds. Two All-Star Games followed in his next three years, and Sabathia fell in love with Cleveland, and the city with him. He had left Vallejo an untraveled 17-year-old, crying to his mother on the phone. "I was shell-shocked," he says. "I had never washed clothes. I was a sheltered kid. My mom, my grandmother, did everything for me." But in Cleveland, he began to grow up, learning the hard way about partying too hard, too ostentatiously. One night at a hotel downtown, the pitcher was robbed at gunpoint, losing nearly $45,000 in cash and jewelry. It was a hard lesson, and sad, too. Everyone wants to keep a piece of home with them when they move away, but there are parts of The Crest that were better left behind. "It's just growth as a man, as a young man," Sabathia says.
On the field, things were easy, but Sabathia kept messing with success in all the best ways. The fastball was a weapon; the slider, too. So, he worked with pitching coach Carl Willis to develop a change-up. He went 19-7 with a 3.21 ERA in 2007, but saw the World Series slip away in Game 7 of the ALCS. The next year, he proved Cogan right. He was going to show that he would do anything in his power to go deeper.
At midseason, the Indians were out of contention, and they shipped the free agent-to-be to Milwaukee for the stretch run. Over the next three months, the pitcher was a man possessed. He made 17 starts for the Brewers, going 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA. He completed seven games, and with the Wild Card race going down to the season's last day, Sabathia made his last three starts on three days' rest. He won two of them, allowing just two earned runs in 211⁄3 innings as the Brewers clinched a postseason berth on the last day with Sabathia, naturally, going the full nine innings.
"I just felt like that was what everybody always expected me to do, from the time I was 9 years old," Sabathia says of his bulldog display. "I was always the pitcher. That was always my thing. Being able to be put in that spot and being able to succeed was awesome."
But as much as fans and even other players around the league fell hard for this guy who demanded the ball every day, the pitcher kept tooling. During his months in Milwaukee, pitching coach Mike Maddux taught Sabathia a two-seamer that quickly became a weapon to induce ground balls. That was the funny thing about Sabathia, even back then. People saw the huge frame, the huge fastball, the terrifying strikeout numbers. But he could still sneak things past them. Manuel recalls when his Phillies faced Sabathia in the 2008 National League Division Series. All of a sudden, he noticed that the pitcher was trying to establish his change-up more than the fastball, defying the scouting report. But Sabathia had been falling in love with the off-speed pitch for a while. "My change-up was really, really good back then," he says. "I don't think people really realized that. I think that was my second-best pitch, and I think a lot of people thought it was my slider. But honestly, from the year when I won the Cy Young, from '07 to 2012, my change-up was a huge key for me that people didn't really realize."
And it would matter in the years to follow, when Sabathia signed a then-record $161 million contract with the Yankees. This was financial security for generations to come. His first year in pinstripes ended with 19 wins and a World Series parade. The next year, he won a career-best 21, before adding 19 more the next year. But as the accolades piled up, so did the signs of aging. Sabathia had his first knee surgery in 2006, and barely a day goes by that he doesn't feel the effects, whether of that particular operation, or of the subsequent procedures in 2014 and '16.
But still, recall the best-case scenario Sabathia mentioned. Here he was, by the end of 2011. He had won a Cy Young. He had signed a borderline unimaginable contract. He had won a World Series, and even 20 games, joining an exclusive group of African-American pitchers to have done so, a club called the Black Aces that Sabathia honored with special cleats during Players' Weekend in August. Has he done it all? "I don't have a win in the World Series," Sabathia offers. "I need that."
If that sounds like winning a huge poker pot but still wishing you'd had a better hand, then so be it. Nothing about Sabathia as he ends his first decade in pinstripes suggests complacency. The wins come harder now, but he adapts. Watch him on the mound today, and he's different, but the same. He has a less explosive drive down the mound, relying on a tighter motion that allows him to land easier and control the strike zone. "If your knee is bothering you," says Rob Friedman, a guru who breaks down pitching repertoires and evolutions on his popular @pitchingninja Twitter account, "not being able to use your lower half is definitely going to decrease your velocity, but it also means he can take advantage of pitching with more control and getting hitters to chase, and doing other things that people consider pitching instead of throwing." But Sabathia's arm slot remains consistent, allowing him to thrive on deception and location. And he has the mental game mastered.
"Facing somebody like him," says veteran teammate Neil Walker, "you know if you see five pitches in an at-bat, you're going to have maybe one that's a good pitch to hit. He's going to work his cutter back door and hit the edges, and he might mix in the change-up and a slider. It's not an easy at-bat anytime you face him. You have to hit pitches that are mistakes." Everything smarts more at 38 than it did at 18 or 28. So Sabathia fights it with smarts. He plays around with the strike zone. He sees a fastball sign and chooses on the fly whether it's going to be a four-seamer or a cutter. It's usually a cutter -- the straight stuff isn't what it used to be -- because the cutter is funky and weird. He loves that change-up, but at some point, he noticed that rather than diving glove-side, away from right-handers, the pitch was cutting over the plate like a batting practice pitch. So, he modified his grip, creating some sort of hybrid two-seamer/change-up. He also recalls a recent game when his cutter started betraying him. It had "too much action," Sabathia explains, "and I couldn't really control it, so I started throwing my four-seamer. And it was cutting like this. So, it was working just like my cutter."
"He's morphed into a different style of pitcher," says Yankees pitching coach Larry Rotshchild, who has been coaching Sabathia since 2011, "but the nature of his competitiveness is the same, and that's why he's been able to do what he's done. … It's not a huge difference delivery-wise, but pitch selection-wise, and what he can do with the baseball, it's changed."
The repertoire has changed, but so has the pitcher's identity. At 38 years old, the years of taking are, naturally, mostly over. Yet with CC Sabathia, the giving is hardly new. Over the years, Sabathia has had his share of rough outings, and he endured a public struggle with alcohol. But his successes -- on a baseball and a personal level -- have far outweighed the negatives.
Andrew McCutchen recalls when he made an all-star team in the low Minors, and he and his fellow stars were honored by the Pirates in a pregame ceremony in Pittsburgh. The team was playing the Indians that day, and McCutchen saw Sabathia in the dugout. "I believe he was starting that day," McCutchen says. "And I saw him in the dugout kind of sitting there, probably preparing, getting himself ready. We just spoke really quick. But I was like, 'Man, that's CC. That's the guy.' Now, years and years later -- I might have been 19 at that time -- 11 years later, I'm here, and we're teammates." You could fill an encyclopedia with similar stories. There are scores of players around the league (and certainly in the Minors) who have taken from the inspiration Sabathia has given.
Part of it, of course, is that the big big league pitcher has a lot of teddy bear to him. Sabathia is always laughing, he's always chatting. He sits with young lefty Jordan Montgomery during most games he doesn't pitch, offering advice and insight. He has taken Dellin Betances under his wing as a little brother. And notably, he might be the least precious starting pitcher in the league. He works like crazy to get his arm and knee game-ready, but on days he starts, Sabathia still holds court in the clubhouse, chatting with teammates and even occasionally reporters. "He was a guy that I would always ask teammates that played with him, 'How's CC?'" says recent import J.A. Happ. "I always kind of wondered. And everybody, across the board, was like, 'Great teammate, one of the best teammates I ever had.' So, I was like, 'OK …' Then I come over here, and I feel the same way already after just a couple weeks."
Teammates watch and admire the way a 38-year-old pitcher adapts and adjusts, taking inspiration for what their own end games might look like. But more than that, they just seem to feed off his example Rothschild insists that there are soft benefits to his presence; he says that the team simply plays worse when Sabathia is on the disabled list than it does when he's active -- even on the four days he doesn't pitch. And manager Aaron Boone -- who played with Sabathia for a short time in Cleveland and sometimes feels more like the pitcher's peer than his boss, is equally appreciative. "He's certainly one of the glue guys in that clubhouse," Boone says. "I think CC does as good a job as I've ever seen as a veteran player with the kind of stature that he has of kind of connecting with different people -- young, old, different backgrounds. He's just got a way about him that's approachable. I think he makes guys feel comfortable."
Sabathia doesn't shy away from the role -- or the perception. He knows that the work he does with the young players will pay off down the road, even after he's gone. It's a different kind of legacy that the 18-year veteran is after. Talk to him about the things he'll eventually miss in retirement, and he laughs off the question. He's mainly excited to be a bit lazier, and determined to avoid any type of livelihood that requires him to wear a collared shirt. His fear isn't being 40 and aimless; it's seeing all that he built come crashing down. "It'll bother me if I retired or played somewhere else and I heard that these guys were fighting in the clubhouse or stuff was going on," he says. Betraying his habit of swatting away talk of the Hall of Fame, on this morning he mentions that the thing he'd enjoy most about the honor -- more so than a bronze plaque -- would be the annual trip to Cooperstown to hang out with his peers. After all, he says, "I'm the ultimate get-together guy. I love to get people together. If I can get in that get-together, that would be fun." His wife, Amber, meanwhile, plays her part as the matriarch of two families, leading the players' wives and girlfriends in all manner of events and activities. She also puts the women to work; in late September, a collection of Yankees-in-law supported the Sabathia's PitCCh In Foundation by running the New Balance Bronx 10 Mile race, among them Rosmaly Severino, Elizabeth Torres and Morgan Happ.
The fact remains that Sabathia can't change who he is. He's still the goofy, misshapen ace, his hat askew and his smile charmingly gap-toothed. He's CC -- grinning from pole to pole when he's happy, throwing his glove in frustration when he's not. If he's sometimes embarrassed by the emotional displays on the mound, he's also comfortable enough in his skin to know that it's just who he is, and that he gets as much from the passionate explosions as he gives.
But he's also the guy island-hopping during the offseason, shuttling from place to place in a private jet. He lives in one of New Jersey's ritziest towns, and he somehow has to teach his four kids that this isn't how most people grow up -- it's certainly not how he and Amber did. "He's obviously become more sophisticated," says Coach Hobbs, who knew both of them as teenagers. "He's become more of a Renaissance man in terms of the finer things in life because of what his stature is now. But he's still pretty much the same guy."
And so we return to Vallejo High School, 20 years later and at least that much wiser. Amber noticed a quirk in the schedule this year, an off-day after a series in Oakland, and she pounced. Today is going to be about the PitCCh In Foundation. It's going to be about the pieces of their hearts that still consider Vallejo home. "That dude started talking to me at 13 years old and told me that he was going to make it, and he'll never forget where he was born and raised," CC's mother, Margie, says. "And that's amazing. He's doing it!"
For years, the PitCCh In Foundation has been working with kids in Vallejo and New York, refurbishing ballfields and providing backpacks filled with school supplies. Today will be the first event the foundation does for high school students, as all 1,700 kids at CC and Amber's alma mater pack into the football stadium for a unique assembly. The Sabathias look right at home here, and they should. The next field over, where Vallejo's baseball team plays, is named for CC, and Josh Ramos, the school's athletic director, says that the local hero's presence goes well beyond a sign on the scoreboard. You want proof? During the event, at which other prominent Vallejo natives such as former UFC fighter Mark Muñoz and the up-and-coming hip-hop quartet SOB x RBE chatted with and performed for the students, the city of Vallejo unveiled a proclamation declaring Sept. 6, 2018, as CC and Amber Sabathia Day.
"CC Sabathia is the one name at this high school that everybody knows," says Ramos. "It doesn't matter if you're a freshman or a senior. This school's been around for 150 years. And he's the one name that everybody in the city of Vallejo knows."
So today is about giving, a familiar feeling for Vallejo's first couple. But it's also about showing up, about making sure that the kids in the stands get more than just a sweet Jordan Brand backpack. They need to see what it looks like to be active participants in the world. As Amber is fond of saying, anyone can write a check, and that's doubly true for CC, who has earned more than $250 million over his career. Time, though, is precious.
It's the connection that bonds Jim Rice and Oil Can Boyd to Ellis Burks to CC Sabathia and beyond. Days earlier, upon hearing what the Sabathias had planned at the high school, Stewart beamed at the idea that he played a role in making it happen. Years ago, he had just wanted to inspire someone, and by association, he's impacting the lives of 1,700 high school kids he'll probably never meet. That's the give and take, though -- a positive, mutually beneficial arrangement. Amber looks at her husband, and of course she knows that she's looking at an extraordinary Major League pitcher. But that's not what grabs her attention. "I see a very confident man that knows what he wants to do and knows where he is in life," she says, and she smiles at the import, the memory of the high school boy that she and her friends kept out of trouble, in ways that the big man on campus never even realized. "The CC way back then probably wouldn't have done something like this because he didn't live the life to see what Vallejo did for him. It was such an impactful part of his life, but he didn't know that then. Now he does. Him coming back and being here, it means more than him going out there and pitching."
Back when he could get outs without even trying, he needed help getting out. These days, the outs come harder. But the off-field work, getting kids out of the situations that he defeated, that stuff comes easily. It's a cycle, ever continuing. Dave Stewart inspired him as a young kid? He devotes himself to doing the same. Charlie Manuel and Dick Pole and Mark Shapiro got him out of the Minors, and Ellis Burks made sure he kept his head above water, so he takes his youngest teammates, fresh off the buses, and shows them how to live like big leaguers.
And as for Amber, for Margie, for Coach Hobbs and all the people who helped him survive? CC takes them with him in his heart wherever he goes. Because of them, his life is a best-case scenario. And even as he has evolved, he's still totally recognizable as CC Sabathia, barely changed from two, even three decades ago. "If you see me [showing emotion] out on the field," he says, "just think, if you'd watched a Babe Ruth game or a Little League game, the whole game was like that -- everybody on the field was like that. I'd be out there screaming and yelling. It was good competition. We had some great players come out of that city. But it was a show. And the way I am, I represent that city. It's just in me.
"That's why when you asked me if I ever could have dreamt this about my career, no! I never would have thought that I'd be third under Randy Johnson and Steve Carlton. That's crazy. I'm a kid from Vallejo. Only person to get out of there."