It is rare for a free agent in baseball to become the heart and soul of a team. It may be just as rare for that free agent and his family to firmly take root in their new city. As we’ve learned over the last ten years, CC Sabathia wasn’t just any free agent. Yes, he was a force on the mound. More importantly, he became one of the faces of the Yankees. He did that, in part, by living out his New York career with a vulnerability not often seen from a public figure.
It is one thing to open yourself up to criticism for on field performance. It is an entirely different thing to open up your personal life to the world. This is especially true for a New York Yankee. But as we all know, CC Sabathia is a different breed. He not only survived his tenure in New York, but he thrived in it.
When you consider context and timing, there is a strong case that CC was the best and most important Yankees free agent signing in the last fifteen years. After not making the playoffs the year before and opening up a new stadium, the Yankees tagged Sabathia as the man to lead their struggling rotation. CC accepted the challenge, but hedged his bet a little: he insisted on an opt out in his contract citing concerns that his family may not feel comfortable in New York.
At the time, it made all the sense in the world. CC’s previous teams were in the midwest and in small markets. He had a young family that he wanted to protect. We all know how tough New York can be for a family first entering this intense environment. But at CC’s lowest moment, New York became the perfect place for him and his family.
On the last Sunday of the regular season in 2015, CC Sabathia walked into Joe Girardi’s office in Baltimore and told him that he needed help. A couple of nights before, CC cleaned out the hotel minibar. While recovering from the binge, Sabathia knew he needed immediate help. This is a quote from his Player’s Tribune article:
Honestly, it would have been easier in a lot of ways if I had waited — I would have drawn much less attention to myself. But if I didn’t enter rehab right away, I knew I wouldn’t go through with it. With addictions, it takes so much effort to convince yourself to do something to fix the problem, but it’s very easy to talk yourself out of going through with it.CC SABATHIA
In a baseball sense, the timing couldn’t have been worse. The Yankees were days away from opening up their playoff run and needed one of their most important pitchers. This was no longer about baseball. CC put his life in front of his profession and did so on a grand stage. As he says later in the Player’s Tribune piece:
Of course, the timing wasn’t the best for the Yankees and the fans, but that wasn’t my main concern. When I decided to get help, I wasn’t scared anymore of what people would think of me. I was scared of drinking again. So many of the major choices in my life, going back to when I was just a kid, have been baseball decisions. But this was a life decision.CC Sabathia
As expected, there was a small percentage of the fan base that didn’t take kindly to CC’s decision. There were some incredibly hurtful things said about him. This is the terrible side of being a professional athlete. Sabathia knew this was coming, but he put himself first. His family became the sole priority in his life. His baseball career no longer mattered at that moment. It was an incredible public act of courage, strength and vulnerability. It was a decision that could break a man.
Except CC didn’t break. He experienced a renaissance that made him a better and stronger version of himself. Surviving that difficult ordeal made him a better husband, father and teammate. And the city embraced him even more. Every time CC took the mound he carried scars that are familiar to us. Every pitch he threw was an act of redemption from darker moments. He was no longer just a pitcher for the Yankees. CC Sabathia became the pitcher of the people.
It would be irresponsible to speak about CC and not mention his incredible wife Amber. It takes a real special person to manage the responsibilities of motherhood, support the community and manage the demands of a public profile. Amber has done this with aplomb. She embraced her platform to make those around her feel loved and supported. CC’s success is largely tied to his partnership with Amber. She deserves a great measure of gratitude and appreciation for being such a huge part of her husband’s life. In turn, she has been a part of our lives as well.
Back in the winter of 2008, we all felt pretty good about what CC Sabathia was going to bring to the Yankees. We were expecting multiple years of elite workhorse performance, and we got them. But it would be hard to imagine back then what we actually received after all of these years.
We got the tremendous performance, but that pales in comparison to the man we witnessed. In many ways, we grew alongside CC. Some of us went through high school and college with him. Some fans had families during CC’s run. And some overcame their own demons. CC will always be more than a Yankee. He is one of us. And we will forever love him. He is our 52. Thank you CC.