CC Sabathia is 38 years old, and Brett Gardner is 35. They’ve seen things in their baseball lives, but nothing that can compare to the experience they shared a decade ago. For Gardner, it was the beginning of the road, his first full season in the Major Leagues. Sabathia, meanwhile, had just signed what was at the time the largest contract for a pitcher in baseball history.
Even if their roads to the 2009 Yankees were different, it’s telling to spend some time chatting with the two players about their memories from that remarkable season. That team was a powerhouse, of course, with some of the greatest players in the history of the game, but most of what Sabathia and Gardner go back to are the fun memories, the loose moments -- the walk-off home runs and the pie-in-the-face celebrations. They also insist that the 2019 squad reminds them more than a little bit of that club that won it all a decade ago.
Sabathia and Gardner will certainly play different roles in 2019 than they did in 2009. CC is no longer the ace, and Gardner no longer a young speedster. But as they explained to Yankees Magazine deputy editor Jon Schwartz, even if their contributions will be different, they have every intention of ensuring that the outcome is the same.
Entering 2009, expectations were obviously really high. It’s the first year in the new Yankee Stadium, you have CC, you have A.J. Burnett coming, you have Mark Teixeira. In what ways did the locker room embrace those expectations?
CC Sabathia: I think we kind of took them head-on. We knew what the expectations were -- to win the World Series. We had a brand-new stadium, it was kind of a new era starting. I think we all knew. But that’s the expectation every year coming in here. That’s the expectation right now, is to win the World Series. That’s the best part of being here, and it was something that I wanted to be a part of. It’s why I signed here. From day one, that was the expectation, to go out and try and dominate and win the World Series.
Brett Gardner: I think it was before day one. I think it was as soon as we went out and signed CC and A.J. and Tex. It was World Series or bust. And like CC said, it’s that way every year. But for me, the year before, I got called up and made my debut, and it was great and exciting, but it was weird and awkward because we were out of the race. For us to miss the playoffs that year for the first time in however many years, it was a little bittersweet for me making my debut that year. But coming into spring in 2009, it was a completely different feel. A lot of different guys and a lot of new faces and a very veteran team. And like you said, we attacked it head-on and knew that we had the best team in baseball.
Brett, CC was obviously so established in the league by the time he got here. I know it was a long time ago, but do you recall your reaction to hearing that you guys had signed him?
BG: Well, looking back, he was obviously the best available starter on the market. Not just the body of work he had put in up to that point, but the season before, with what he did going over to Milwaukee and putting the whole team on his back. It’s kind of what he’s done here the last 10 years. Being able to not just carry the team, but carry the pitching staff, guide young guys along. It’s been very rewarding for us as an organization to have him here.
With everything that was going on, what do you guys remember about Spring Training that year?
BG: I just remember there being a lot of hype. That was my first full season in the big leagues, and I remember I was fighting for a job. But I just remember a lot of hype, and I remember finally being No. 11 for spring instead of No. 91, so that was exciting.
CC, you were given the honor of opening up the new building, starting on Opening Day against Cleveland, of all teams. What’s that sensation like of walking into a new place and pitching in the first game there?
CS: Yeah, that was nerve-wracking. Opening Day was a big start for me, with the contract. Opening Yankee Stadium, then the first game against Boston -- all of those games prepared me for being able to pitch down the line in playoff games and World Series games and stuff like that. But it was weird, opening up the Stadium and playing against my old team, which I had been so close to. That group of guys that we had in Cleveland was like this group of guys that we have now on this team. Everybody coming up together, getting good together, growing up together. It was surreal to have my old guys facing my new team. But I was just happy I got through it and didn’t perform too badly.
There was so much mystique around the Core Four. But what were some of the practical ways you all benefited from being around those guys who had already won in New York?
CS: I think it was just the fact that they had done it there. For me, having the chance to be around Andy [Pettitte] every day, learning from him, and him pitching so well in New York and in the playoffs and having all the success, it was easy for me to just gravitate toward him and try to learn from him, to do everything he did. Coming out here and doing the running he did. Everything he did, I just followed him. It ended up paying off for me. Just those guys being around and being able to follow their example made all the difference for us.
As you got later and later into the regular season, did the pressure level change? Do the goals start becoming more real?
CS: I feel like it was less pressure! We didn’t get off to a good first-half start. We were playing not that good, had some ups and downs, and we came back from the All-Star break and won eight straight. And I remember in that run of us winning those eight straight, I felt like we were going to win. We could do it. This is who we could be. So I feel like, as you get rolling, and things start to happen for you, I feel like it takes pressure off. Because that’s the goal, anyway, is to win the World Series. So, it just makes it easier when the team is playing well.
Brett, with 2009 being your first full year, at what point did you start feeling comfortable as an everyday guy?
BG: Man, I don’t even know if it happened that year or not. It might have taken me a couple years to feel like that. If I remember right, I broke my finger that year, sometime in July maybe. Sliding feet-first, of all things. Crazy game. So, I missed several weeks there in the middle of the season, and I remember that being a frustrating time for me. But I just remember -- and I still do this, but nowadays I maybe take it a bit more for granted -- just being so thankful for being able to go out there and put those pinstripes on every day and be a part of that team. It was special.
What was the dynamic in the clubhouse like?
CS: It was a great locker room. We had so much fun, I feel like from day one, from the start. And that was something I was worried about. Coming here, you hear so many stories and different things.
CS: But from day one, we all got along, we all had fun. A.J. was pie-ing people. It just seemed like a different team than what I was used to seeing.
BG: I think it can be dangerous when you have that many big personalities and that many superstars in the room. It could lead to some conflict. But not at all. Between A.J. and Johnny Damon and Swish (Nick Swisher), there was always a party going on. There was always somebody running their mouth or being loud and having a good time. Team chemistry is so important, and we had great chemistry that year.
CS: We took off right away, with all the walk-offs. And we started the pie-ing. It was just magical from the start.
CC, how different is it playing in the postseason with the Yankees as opposed to with the Indians or Brewers?
CS: I always say, in 2007, I entered that postseason thinking I needed to go out and dominate every start, throw no-hitters and one-hitters in every start, for us to have a chance to win the World Series. When I got here, it was less pressure, I felt, just because I had these guys behind me. No knock on the guys in Cleveland, we were just as talented, but these guys were proven. I had Derek Jeter behind me. I had A-Rod behind me. I had [Robinson] Canó. I felt like if I stumbled, I had Andy to pick me up; I had A.J. The group of guys, the amount of talent, it takes the pressure off when you don’t feel like you need to go out and be perfect. You can just go out and do your job, and we were going to win.
After you clinch the pennant against the Angels, how hard is that wait for Game 1 of the World Series?
BG: You just can’t wait to get it started. Obviously, the media day before it, the anticipation builds up. That atmosphere is something I’ll never forget.
Cliff Lee was so good for Philadelphia in Game 1. After that loss, did you still feel that the team had done it before and would do it again?
CS: I had never done it before! So, I didn’t know. I was devastated. I wanted to go out and pitch like I did in Game 1 of the ALCS. We didn’t get that accomplished. I gave up the two homers to Chase Utley, and we ended up losing the game. And Cliff dominated. So no, I had never felt that before, being down in the World Series. That was a tough night.
How much enjoyment did you guys get from the way that Hideki Matsui played all season?
BG: Matsui, every time I think about him, I smile. Just a true professional. A tireless worker. And always worked to refine his craft. Later on in his career, as he went from playing the outfield to DH, that transition was pretty seamless. He was always going to give you a professional at-bat. Once the playoffs came around, it seemed like that was the moment he had been waiting for all his life. I talked about CC putting the team on his back a couple times; Matsui -- talk about stepping up big time. That was a whole lot of fun to watch.
One moment that sticks out from that World Series is Johnny Damon stealing second in Game 4, then refusing to stop and taking third, as well. As a guy who knows his way around the bases yourself, what’s your reaction when you’re watching that?
BG: Johnny was always going to give us something entertaining. That was something that, if I remember right, (third base coach) Rob Thomson had mentioned before the game -- “Keep an eye on these guys getting out of position.” Ten years ago, there weren’t nearly as many shifts in the game as there are now. Most people see that as a crazy play, but him getting to third base is why Brad Lidge [throws a fastball] instead of bouncing a slider, and that’s why A-Rod is able to connect on that pitch that’s left up a little bit. Pitchers don’t want to bury a breaking ball when you’ve got a guy on third base. So Johnny getting to third base, that one play could have very easily been the difference in the whole outcome of the World Series. It’s something I will never forget.
Game 6, Mariano Rivera gets Shane Victorino to ground out to Canó, and while the Yankees are world champions for a 27th time, you’re champions for the first time in your careers. What was that moment like?
CS: You know what I was thinking? I was thinking I didn’t want to be the last one to jump on the pile. I didn’t want it to be a dogpile and hurt somebody. So, I was trying to be one of the first ones out there. I had my foot up there, I was ready when Victorino hit that ground ball. I still remember it. I was already out there, I was ready to celebrate and let loose.
BG: You’re always the first one on the field! When Derek hit his walk-off in his final game at home, if [Antoan Richardson] had been out at the plate, it would have been you and Derek out on the field together.
It was an unbelievable feeling. Playing as a little kid, you dream of making it to the big leagues and playing in the World Series. But to be able to play in and win a World Series, and that feeling of running in from center field to that pile in the infield, I would give anything to feel that again.
I think 2009, 10 years ago, it’s not really safe to assume anything, but you just feel like, “It’s my first year in New York--”
CS: “We’re doing this!”
BG: “--We’re going to do this four out of the next five years.” And here we are 10 years later, still searching for that feeling. So, I would give anything to feel it again. I don’t want to say I blacked out, because I don’t remember a whole lot of it, but it was just a tremendous sense of accomplishment.
Is there a moment from the victory parade that stands out to you?
CS: The thing I remember vividly is [looking] down, and Spike Lee is running with my float. I’m like, “What is going on?” And my wife told me that he’d been with us since the last light, just running. That was just something weird that I can remember like yesterday. Looking down and thinking, “What is Spike Lee doing in the street, running with the float?”
BG: Aside from just all the people hanging out of the windows, not just four stories up, but we’re talking 80, 90, 100 stories up, and just throwing their whole printer or fax machine full of paper out the window. It was crazy, man. I would give anything to be able to get back in that parade and see that again. It would bring back some good memories, for sure.