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Whatever his role, Sabathia’s LegaCCy is set

CC Sabathia is at peace with his decision to walk away from baseball. Replacing him -- on and off the field -- will be another matter entirely
(New York Yankees)
October 3, 2019

Oh, the places you’ll go!” says Dr. Seuss, in what is undoubtedly the most popular graduation gift in history. Parents, grandparents, friends, whoever, drop a copy at the feet of anyone moving on from -- but really on to -- anything, and there’s something charming about the text’s fantasy, its

Oh, the places you’ll go!” says Dr. Seuss, in what is undoubtedly the most popular graduation gift in history. Parents, grandparents, friends, whoever, drop a copy at the feet of anyone moving on from -- but really on to -- anything, and there’s something charming about the text’s fantasy, its Seussian mix of recognizable reality and utter silliness (come now, “Hakken-Kraks howl?”). For most recipients, though, the poetry’s genius is as misunderstood as the offering is clichéd. The places they’ll go are usually 9-to-5 stints in cubicles, staring deep into the maw of adulthood’s disappointments. The bright places where Boom Bands are playing? Maybe for a little while, but someone’s got to get the kids to bed.

One wonders whether there’s a wrapped copy waiting somewhere for CC Sabathia, who, when he retires from playing baseball this month at the age of 39, will depart the stage -- and the faint excuse for a real world he has occupied these past couple decades. He has enjoyed his fame, been as famous as famous can be, with the whole wide world watching him win on TV. Where, then, will he go now, now that he doesn’t have to go anywhere?

Japan is an option; he has mentioned visiting Tokyo more than once, and the Yankees came through with a 10-day trip as a retirement gift. Uganda for a spell, as well as watching the wildebeest migration from a hot air balloon above the Serengeti. The big man has big dreams. “I think he has the Maldives on his brain,” says Sabathia’s wife, Amber. “The house on the water with the slide into the water. If he sends me that one more time, I’m going to scream.

“He has a whole plan. I had to remind him that the four kids still have school.”

But this is CC’s time, now that he has reached more or less every height his previous life offered. A World Series ring, 250-plus wins, 3,000-plus strikeouts. He has been an All-Star and a superstar, an overpowering Cy Young Award winner and a craftsman. He has earned the respect of teammates and opponents, of fans throughout the circuit.

He has competed all his life. He has won.

“I’m content with everything baseball,” he says in the Oakland Coliseum visitors’ dugout, just a few miles from his childhood home in Vallejo, California. He sits next to his oldest son, Carsten Charles III -- Lil C -- his best friend. “I feel like I’ve checked pretty much every box. I’m definitely chasing another championship, but as far as baseball-wise, I don’t know that there’s anything that I’m going to miss.”

Sabathia sounds at ease and ready. Wisely, though, and maybe against his own preferences, Amber refused to allow him a quiet, understated goodbye. The 2019 season was, instead, a low-key farewell tour. She says that after the heart scare last offseason and the regular knee pain, she and CC knew that the end was near. But she -- like the Yankees -- had plans to make, chess pieces to move, and she insisted that whenever CC knew the time had come, he should announce it before the season. No matter what he says, CC Sabathia can’t just replace baseball in his life any more than the Yankees can replace all that CC has brought. So, the Sabathias spent the year ensuring that everything they both had built over the past two decades could endure. “And after 19 years,” she says, “he deserved this season, to really take it all in.”

And so, the 2019 season ends soon, and with it, CC Sabathia’s incredible career. Oh, the places he has gone. There are questions that he, and certainly the Yankees, will have to answer in these last few weeks (and the months and years that follow). But as he walks away, he is perfectly satisfied, indeed (98 and three-quarter percent guaranteed).

***

It’s a foggy August morning in Vallejo, the first day of a new school year at Joseph H. Wardlaw Elementary School. For CC Sabathia, it is one final regular season trip to the Bay Area as a player. For the kids walking into the cafeteria, it’s quite the opposite. Kindergartners, many still clutching a parent’s hand, are getting their first taste of school life, and as such, have no clue how unusual this morning actually is.

Major league life has been rewarding for Sabathia, who grew up under tough circumstances not far from here but will retire with riches beyond most anyone’s imagination. “Some days,” says Amber, who met CC when they were high school students in Vallejo, “I go outside my house, I’m taking the dogs out, and I look around. And I’m like, I had one bathroom in my house growing up. Single-parent home. Didn’t have a garage. It’s crazy to have been there, not knowing. … Being able to look back and see what we’ve overcome, and some of the obstacles that have been in front of us, to be where we are today is just such a blessing.”

Amber’s first time in an airplane was when she went to visit CC when he was starting out as a Minor Leaguer. And while they can’t possibly transfer their own life trajectory to all the students at Wardlaw, they can still offer the crucial message of dreaming, performing and excelling.

“I think it’s incredible for our kids to see that someone from here has not only been successful, but really still values their community and comes back and helps us out and gives back,” says the school’s principal, Juli Robbins. “For them to see that sense of community [is] wonderful for our kids.”

Today is about giving out backpacks filled with school supplies, but it’s also about giving hope and sending messages. The Sabathias’ four kids, ages 9 to 15, chat and interact with the young students. They dance to the beats from the DJ, pulling out all the moves for “Baby Shark,” “Gangnam Style,” you name it. There’s no shame in the fact that these 5-year-olds have no clue who this family is, or that they can’t understand that they’re now part of a lineage of some 50,000 students to have received school necessities from the PitCCh In Foundation. But someday, the connection will resonate. “That kid that was crying?” CC says later, glowing from another successful and emotional event. “I cried every day when I started kindergarten. It made my heart melt.”

That’s been the story of the whole year for CC, for Amber and for the foundation. The LegaCCy Season, they called it, has been about using this last opportunity on the field to spread good cheer and offer unique opportunities. The backpack programs will be able to continue once CC retires. The work to renovate ballfields in urban areas will go on, as well. But these in-person moments -- particularly the 52 Boys & Girls Club kids Sabathia has met with in every road city this year -- won’t be the same after this season. Amber knows that once the foundation’s namesake retires, the works gets immeasurably harder, so in addition to the on-field aspects of the farewell tour, she and CC are determined to do anything they can this year to secure the foundation’s future. Part of that involves small practicalities; the PitCCh In Foundation’s logo no longer includes a silhouette of Sabathia pitching. The goal is to go broader, to continue working with other players, such as Aaron Judge, Dellin Betances, Dexter Fowler and others. Yet as the pitcher retreats from the forefront of his own foundation, he feels anything but melancholy.

“It’s awesome!” Sabathia says of the world turning even after he steps off the ride. “I don’t want things to stop once I’m done. I want the PitCCh In Foundation to live on, and that’s the way we can do it. I’ve seen my guys retire. I’ve seen Derek retire. I’ve seen Mo retire. Seen Andy retire. Those three guys, you think, ‘How can the Yankees go on?’ But it goes on! And it won’t be different for me, and I’m not even close to what those guys were.”

***

Judge is one of those who the Yankees will go on with. Over the past three-plus years, he has watched the big left-hander, asked the right questions, and confidently taken on some of the roles that, when Sabathia was his age, would have been reserved for a veteran. Watch Judge walk into the clubhouse and select the music, or follow his All Rise Foundation’s social media posts, and you can see the impact a personality like Sabathia can have on a young star. “I’ve asked him for a lot of help,” Judge says. “He’s been a guy I’d lean on with a lot of different questions and stuff like that.”

It’s not as though Judge will thrive by emulating Sabathia’s two-seam grip, and he’s not the type to be first over the dugout railing to yell at opponents or umpires. It’s the smaller things. Speaking in the visitors’ clubhouse in Oakland, Judge recalls a moment in that same room from 2013. He had just been drafted, and the Yankees invited the Northern California native to visit the big league team before a game against the A’s. The 32nd overall pick, Judge had some pedigree, but he was still shocked when the superstar pitcher called him over to sit next to him at a table.

“It took me two seconds after meeting him to realize that, OK, what everybody says about him, how he treats teammates, treats people, and the respect he gives, it’s all there. I learned that really quick,” Judge says. “We just talked for a little bit. You could tell the love and care he has for his teammates and friends.”

The Yankees are going to miss Sabathia, but from an analytical perspective, his on-field production won’t be impossible to replace. He still loves the competition, and he says that if his knee felt better, he’d play another year. But whether via free agency or the trade market, or perhaps from within the team’s farm system, there will be pitchers available this offseason who can fill the statistical void left by Sabathia’s retirement. Inside the clubhouse, it’s another story.

It calls to mind the message of Moneyball, that you sometimes need to focus on replacing the aggregate rather than the individual.

“Guys like CC are not replaceable, so you look for some combination that’s within,” says assistant general manager Jean Afterman. “But it’s hard to replace the qualities. CC actually filled a void left by others leaving. And that’s a great thing about baseball.”

So much of his unquantifiable value can be seen in a small, silly moment from earlier this season, just days after he became the third left-hander in history to record 3,000 strikeouts. The Yankees were celebrating Star Wars Day on May 4 by giving out a bobblehead of CC in a Jedi outfit. Always game for a laugh (especially at his own expense), and building off years of tradition of blowing out Halloween in the Sabathia house, CC marked the occasion by showing up to Yankee Stadium in full Yoda costume -- makeup and everything. He interacted with fans, handing out boxes of the promo items at the gate, then returned to the clubhouse, washed off the makeup, and put on his actual uniform.

The whole thing was notable for two reasons. First, it was all Sabathia’s idea, not some stunt dreamed up by an agent or a P.R. team. “He’s the calming voice for the Jedis, right?” the pitcher said as he sat in the makeup chair. “The voice of reason for the Jedis. Like the old guy. And I’m like the old guy now. So, it’s perfect.” But beyond that, what was so purely CC was when the idea struck him -- in the middle of that same game in which he recorded the milestone strikeout. He recalls telling Tyler Wade the idea sometime during the bottom of the second inning, in between batters. That inning ended with No. 3,000.

That’s what will continue to resonate. Most pitchers in that spot are at the very least pretending to be thinking only about the game at hand. You don’t talk to them, you don’t joke with them. CC can’t turn that side of himself off, though. It’s something that sticks in the minds of guys who have been away from the game for years. “CC just had so much confidence,” recalls Mark Teixeira, “that he could go out and execute his pitches and be successful, yet he was able to still be social and able to still have conversations during his starts in the dugout, whatever it might be. That made the team relax a little bit more, as well.”

***

Amber runs the PitCCh In Foundation, and she organizes the Team 52 running club that fundraises by participating in races such as the New York City Marathon. She sits on the board of the New York Road Runners. She also is raising four incredibly impressive children. This is a massive year for the foundation’s future, and she has no trouble soliciting donations for upwards of $50,000 or $100,000, because she’s that confident in the causes she supports.

Ask around the clubhouse, though, and you get the impression that her passion project has played no small part in the Yankees’ success over the Sabathias’ 11 seasons in New York. “I think she’s been extremely special, not just for the Yankees, but for baseball,” says Cameron Maybin. “She’s been an ambassador for enriching youth, enriching kids in inner cities, just promoting confidence and believing in yourself and your dreams. I’m sure it’s a lot more special for CC to be able to share some of the amazing moments off the field that he’s been able to share with somebody like Amber.”

In fact, when CC dropped the news earlier this year that he planned on moving from the field to an advisory role in the front office, it was fair to wonder if the Yankees would be better off crafting some sort of package deal. Because even CC isn’t sure that he’s the most valuable Sabathia.

“Probably her, for sure,” CC says, suggesting that the team will have a harder time replacing Amber than it will replacing him. And in truth, it’s hard to find anyone who has a higher approval rating than the unofficial captain of the Yankees’ wives and girlfriends.

“She is incandescent,” Afterman says.

Amber recalls when she and CC were starting out in Cleveland, just young high-school sweethearts. One day, she arrived at the ballpark for one of the Indians’ games, and none of the other women were in the family section. She was confused as to why no one else had showed up for the game, so she went down to the family room, and the wives were finishing up a baby shower. Amber told the wives that she would have been there if she had known about it, but the message came back clear: No girlfriends allowed.

“Back then, it was girlfriends and wives, and there was no mix,” she recalls. “From that point on, it was in my heart to make sure that everyone is involved.” Over the years, that has meant organizing outings, supporting new families, welcoming new teammates. The players know that their significant others are taken care of, and that’s no small burden removed. “I keep telling them,” she says, “‘Somebody better step up here because you guys are going to have a hard time after I leave.’” But she also acknowledges that she’s still going to come around. It’s in her nature to be there for people, to take care of things other people miss. At this year’s team picnic, following an afternoon game in August, the wives lined up for a group photo, and Amber looked down the line and saw that the women had inadvertently but conspicuously aligned themselves by skin color. “It was like all the Latin wives, then the black wives, then it was all the white girls. I was like, ‘Oh my god, you guys! What are you doing? Mix it up! You two -- go over there! You two, over there!’ And they were like, ‘What are we going to do without you, Amber?’”

After the 2008 season, when the Yankees began their pursuit of Sabathia, they knew what they were getting in CC and in Amber. The latter was anything but an afterthought. “For young wives that are coming into the league, I don’t think they know what hits them,” Afterman says. “It’s like having cold water splashed on your face every single day. And Amber is a guiding presence because she’s been there. She started off as a young wife. She’s been with different clubs. And for the Yankees, she gets us. She understands us. … I think she has the ability to make everybody feel comfortable around her, and in an uncomfortable world, that’s a wonderful trait to have.”

In Oakland, waiting in the dugout before a small ceremony in which the A’s will present a check to the PitCCh In Foundation, Amber watches her four kids. Everyone has enjoyed this farewell season, the chance to spend so much of it together on the road, in London, in Cleveland for the All-Star Game, chasing their father around as he pursued milestone wins and strikeouts. She looks at the kids, and she sees the future, but she also sees the past. In Lil C (really not so little, but go with it), she sees her husband’s humility, but also the incredible skills the teen displays on the baseball field and basketball court. Jaden has her dad’s heart, his sensitivity. Cyia is the grizzly bear that patrols and protects the mound. And Carter inherited the brains, the love of books and chess, and a curiosity about the world. Amber loves her husband, loves his heart and his drive and his fire and his imperfections. And like CC, she’s ready for the future they’ve earned. “I think we’ve grown up in it,” she says of the baseball life. “But we’ve kind of grown out of it. On to the next steps.”

***

Professional baseball is really all Sabathia has known for the past two decades, but if you think he’s wavering on his decision, think again. “I just moved my knee right there, and it hurt,” he jokes. “My knee says no unretiring.” Since his first knee surgery in 2006, and through all the subsequent procedures, “It never stopped hurting. I never got any kind of relief.” This year, there has been an entire ordeal to get game-ready, with less pitching and more scraping than he’s used to. A lot of ice, a lot of stim, a lot of time with trainers. There aren’t good days and bad days, it’s just a constant. He’s going to need the knee replaced, but first he wants to play some basketball, some softball, golf. Competitors like to compete, even when the formal competition ends.

Teixeira, who retired after the 2016 season, loves his new life. He works some 50 days a year on ESPN’s baseball coverage, and says that no matter what he does, he can go home feeling like he went 4-for-4. He enjoys going on vacations and eating what he wants. He likes his real estate business, and enjoys the teamwork and camaraderie he gets professionally. But still, “I think I really miss success,” Teixeira says. “I miss hitting home runs.”

Sabathia, though, looks outward. He’ll miss the fantasy football draft, the camaraderie. He loved the clubhouse and always worked to perfect it. But the game? The moments? The cities? All year, he has been saying that he hasn’t been nostalgic. His mother, Margie, says that she thinks he’ll sit and reminisce when it’s over, that he’ll have a really good cry, and Amber says she does see him absorbing everything more, taking more pictures. So, maybe he’s just full of it.

But those left behind, inside and out of the Yankees clubhouse, can benefit from the perfect teammate mold that he cast over two decades of work. Afterman recalls an awards dinner years ago, when she was presenting on a dais that included Sabathia, as well as stars such as Miguel Cabrera and that year’s AL Rookie of the Year, Mike Trout. She noticed that Trout watched and emulated everything CC did. “CC applauded, he applauded. CC stood up, he stood up. CC sat down, he sat down. If CC used the salad fork, he used the salad fork. Young players rely upon the veterans to tell them and show them what to do. This is a very difficult business, and it’s hard to find your way around. And I think guys like CC feel that responsibility very keenly.

“He’s always aware that young players are watching him. So, what he does carries a lot of impact.”

And so, Sabathia subtly reaches out to a young Aaron Judge and shows him the ropes, and he passes down insight to Gleyber Torres, Betances and anyone else who will listen. In the seats, Amber grooms Jenna Green and Tori Voit the same way that Laura Posada embraced her 11 years ago.

The sport has a life cycle, and CC Sabathia finds himself at either the right or wrong end of it, depending on your perspective. Don’t cry for the southpaw as he walks away; he’s certainly not. Over this past season, in addition to earning his fourth Roberto Clemente Award nomination, he received gifts from opponents, checks for his foundation, and the outpouring of love and respect that he deserved. The Red Sox gave him the No. 52 from their out-of-town scoreboard; just as notably, though, when David Ortiz addressed the crowd at Fenway to thank them, and to thank the Yankees, as well, for their support as he recovered from a shooting in the Dominican Republic, he mentioned Sabathia by name. Everyone sought out CC this year. It’s a rare outlier in a sport that can sometimes pay short shrift to veterans in this youth-mad era.

“We love to celebrate prospects, the Baseball America guys and all that stuff,” Astros pitcher Gerrit Cole said during All-Star Week. “Quite frankly, the guys like CC don’t get enough attention. There’s one thing about a guy projected to do something. It’s fun to talk about. And then there’s a guy that’s literally done it. For years. And posted every single day, and pitched through so much pain, in such big moments.”

And perhaps that was the truest virtue of this LegaCCy Season. As much as it allowed Amber the chance to handle practicalities of the foundation and of the rest of their lives, and as much as it gave the Yankees’ front office the opportunity to plan accordingly, the most meaningful impact might have been the chance to say goodbye to a true giant of the game, to make sure that CC Sabathia didn’t just fade away. He’s perfectly aware that the game is going to move on without him. But that made it all the more important for the players who will stick around to spend his last few months in uniform recognizing what gets lost as the game moves forward.

“When I came up, the veteran players were Derek, Andy, Jorge, Mariano, guys that I played with for a long time, and then, boom, one day they’re gone,” says Brett Gardner. “It’s definitely tough, it’s definitely an adjustment, but the game doesn’t stop or slow down for any one player. I think at the end of the day -- hopefully at the end of the parade at the end of this year, but no matter how this season ends -- CC can walk away knowing that he gave everything he had to this game for the entire time he was here.”

So, on and on he will hike, and you know he’ll hike far, and face up to his problems, whatever they are. But today is his day. CC Sabathia’s mountain is waiting, so now he’ll get on his way.

Jon Schwartz is the deputy editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the October 2019 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep at yankees.com/publications.