How CC Sabathia became the heart and soul of the Yankees

Welcome to CC Sabathia Week. We are using this week – the last home stand of the 2019 season –to honor CC Sabathia. Each day, we have a post about everyone’s favorite big man and his career. Bobby wrote his HOF case Monday and Steven wrote about the 2012 ALDS yesterday. Today, we get into Sabathia’s impact off the field.

Tonight is almost certainly CC Sabathia’s final regular season appearance at Yankee Stadium. I’d love to see him go out with a flourish, but regardless of what happens, performance isn’t everything when it comes to the veteran lefty. He’s had a fantastic pitching career, no doubt, but his influence within the Yankees’ clubhouse and the organization as a whole is immeasurable.

Over the years, Sabathia has become the Yankees’ heart and soul. He quickly became a team leader when he came aboard for the 2009 season, and over time, we’ve seen the effects of his presence. How did it all come about?

It was all part of the plan

Obviously, the Yankees wanted Sabathia to be the staff ace in 2009 and beyond. The team had just missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993, needed pitching, and Sabathia was a free agent. In other words, the stars were aligned. Yet, more than just CC’s ability on the mound interested the Yankees.

The Yankees’ clubhouse didn’t have a great reputation in the mid-to-late aughts. Why that was the case isn’t necessarily clear, though those teams were pretty business-like from my recollection. Winning was the only thing that mattered. From afar, that almost certainly made those Yankees clubs look a bit up tight.

Moreover, per Mission 27: A New Boss, a New Ballpark, and One Last Ring for the Yankees’ Core Four, by Mark Feinsand and Bryan Hoch, there was a rift between the dynasty-years Yankees and the others.

Where there’s smoke there’s fire, which meant that Brian Cashman had no choice but to patch things up in the clubhouse. Obviously, getting CC to join the team would go a long way to returning to the postseason, but that wasn’t everything that went into the team’s pursuit:

“Culture was an issue in that clubhouse,” Cashman said. “We were broken, and it needed to be addressed.”

“CC was interested and open to coming here, but there were also concerns because he knew we had a broken clubhouse,” Cashman said. “He said that was [the perception] around the whole league. So I talked to him about, ‘That’s one of the reasons we’re talking to you — not just because of who you are as a player, but someone who brings people together.'”

Just as the Yankees hoped, Sabathia helped change the Yankees’ clubhouse dynamic for the better. Winning a World Series in year one certainly went a long way, but there have been plenty of other anecdotes about Sabathia’s impact. Let’s highlight a few of those.

Rookie or veteran, it’s no matter

For decades, the Yankees were one of the oldest teams in baseball. Sabathia played for veteran-laden Yankees clubs from 2009 through 2016. But now, the core is young. Baseball, like other sports, has a history of rookie hazing and veterans acting superior to young players. But thanks to guys like Sabathia, the Yankees didn’t fall into that trap during its recent youth movement.

Last year, The Athletic’s Marc Carig wrote about the close-knit Yankees clubhouse even though it’s filled with a bunch of newcomers. To no one’s surprise, Sabathia has been instrumental in welcoming everyone.

[Sabathia’s] first clubhouse had a comfortable couch in the middle of the room next to a large television. One day, he made the mistake of sitting on it, a grave offense that prompted a tongue-lashing from a veteran. It would be a few years before he could sit there without being hassled. He stifled his outsized personality, but resolved that if he were ever in position someday to set the culture, he would do things differently.

Years later, Sabathia has made good on his word. 

This isn’t a new thing with Sabathia, either. For years, he’s been treating rookies the way he wanted to be treated back in 2001. Dellin Betances brought that up at Sabathia’s PitCCh In Foundation’s LegaCCy Gala the other day:

“I remember in 2011, my debut — I didn’t pitch that well and he was the first person to text me, just keep your head up,” added Yanks pitcher Dellin Betances. “He always gave good advice. He’s like a big brother. His competitiveness, the way he takes the ball every five days. Early in his career and even now, he’s an ultimate competitor. He’s a winner.”

That’s just one example. Here’s one more from last week. In relief of Sabathia in Detroit, Domingo Germán earned his 18th win of the season. It was about as meaningless of a September game as you can imagine, and yet…

R2C2 has given us insight into CC’s relationships

Sabathia and Ryan Ruocco’s podcast has been a great way for fans to get a snippet of what the lefty’s relationships are like with his teammates.

In particular, a recent episode with ex-Yankees prospect Justus Sheffield really left me impressed with Sabathia. Sheffield threw just 2 2/3 innings with the Yankees before he was traded, and yet, he and Sabathia’s relationship go back much further than his September call up. Even as a prospect in the minors and major league spring training in 2018, CC served as a mentor to Sheffield. As if there weren’t enough young guys in the major league clubhouse to provide guidance to, Sabathia also made sure to help out minor leaguers.

No matter who joins, it’s clear that Sabathia’s dynamic with the other guys is excellent. The topics range from other sports, movies and TV, the state of baseball, or the Yankees’ performance. Whether it’s new guys like Mike Tauchman or Cameron Maybin, young guys from different backgrounds like Gleyber Torres or Luis Severino, or longtime teammates like Brett Gardner, Sabathia has a bond with everyone.

Backing his teammates

There’s no way this post could be written without this:

Who could forget that incident? Only topped off by this:

“That’s for you…*****.”

You don’t mess with any of CC’s teammates. And they love him for it:

“That’s the type of guy you want to go to battle with,” Aaron Judge said.

“We love C, he’s our guy,” Romine said. “He’s one of our leaders. He was throwing a good game. He has a tremendous amount of respect from his teammates.”

It’s not just standing up for teammates in the heat of the battle, either. Sabathia’s support comes in many varieties. If you’ve ever watched any of the Yankees’ starters pre-game warmups, you may have noticed the rest of the rotation watching along. You guessed it: Sabathia helped create this tradition.

Embed from Getty Images

He and the rest of the Yankees’ rotation have built a nice support system for each other. I would need to double check, but I believe Sabathia and Ruocco discussed this with James Paxton and JA Happ.

Parting thoughts

I can’t help but feel like I’m shortchanging how much Sabathia has meant for the Yankees’ clubhouse. He walked into spring training in 2009 and instantly became one of the team’s leaders. And as his seniority with the Yankees grew, he helped mold the clubhouse into a welcoming place for all.

Even though he’s retiring, the Yankees will feel Sabathia’s influence for years to come. His example has rubbed off on the Baby Bombers and the organization as a whole. Who knows how long it would have taken the Yankees to resolve their clubhouse woes had Sabathia decided to go elsewhere in the winter of 2008.

Not only does CC improve clubhouse chemistry, but in turn, he also makes things much more fun for fans. Winning has always made the Yankees great to root for, well before Sabathia was here, but I don’t think it’s ever been this fun to watch the Yankees. CC’s impact is a big reason for that.

The Yankees still expect to win everyday, just like they always have, but they also have fun doing it. Would we have seen things like the walk-off pies, Toe-night show, Thumbs Down, or Didi Gregorius’s postgame tweets without Sabathia? I’m not so sure. Older veterans possibly would have shut that stuff down in the past. Sabathia’s done so much performance-wise to help the Yankees win over the last decade, but I think I may be even more thankful for him helping bring the organization to the 21st century.


Thoughts after Luis Severino Returns to the Big Leagues


The Yankees’ Postseason Roster Picture with Two Weeks to Go


  1. Vivek Dadhania

    The CC Sabathia acquisition is probably one of Brian Cashman’s best long-term signings ever

  2. dzb

    Great summary of why CC is so special and will have such an important legacy in NY (and across the game). People used to make sarcastic remarks about how the team would place a lot of emphasis on personalities, but this team has shown how valuable chemistry can be in a game of individual performances. I agree that R2C2 has been instrumental in getting everyone to fully recognise how great CC is (and I look forward to each new episode!).

    I would like to see Dellin come back since I think he and Judge both follow the CC model (and I think that has rubbed off on guys like Severino and Torres),

    All of this makes it much more fun to watch and support the NYY!

  3. Scully

    In regards to the clubhouse being broken in the late 2000s… I would assume a lot of it had to do with Jeter and ARod’s frosty relationship and Joe Torre losing patience with A Rod’s media circus. It does beg to ask… if Derek Jeter was the captain, and the clubhouse was broken… some of that had to fall on his shoulders. I remember watching those 1996-2001 teams and Jeter was the young guy who goofed off and had a good time while simultaneously being all business in between the lines.

    Jeter never seemed to be having a good time during the second part of his career in the same way that he was in the early part of his career. It just became about winning. “Fun” wasn’t a thing anymore. Some of that could have just been the dynasty suffocating the 2002-2008 teams with expectations and failures to win the World Series.

  4. dasit

    all-time favorite yankees (in no particular order)


    judge is the only guy i can even conceive of cracking the top 5

    • dzb

      I have an inordinate fondness for Cone. I felt like his arrival was the moment was the moment they announced their intention of getting back to the top, and as a commentator he is a joy to listen to.

      I think Torres and Severino will emerge as the next generation of fan favorites, not only because they are so talented, but also because of their personalities. If Urshela continue to perform I can see him endearing himself to fans since he is a lot of fun.

      On the other hand, no matter hos successful DJ is, he is hard to love!

  5. RetroRob

    CC’s departure (as a player) is yet another reason to believe Gardner will be back next year. Clubhouse culture is often both overrated and underrated by fans, but there’s little doubt it’s part of the equation. Gardner and CC are regarded as the clubhouse leaders. They likely won’t want both to depart in the same off season.

    It would be great if CC wins tonight, #100 for the team, all while clinching the AL East.

    • Wire Fan

      Yeah Gardy is going to get the CC treatment – relatively cheap 1 year deals for as long as he is relatively productive and wants to keep playing

      In addition to the leadership/chemistry aspect, the 26 man roster next year means 5 OFs (assuming no EE). Given Hicks, Stanton and Judge are all injury risks they need depth, especially in CF where Tauchman is the only other CF behind the oft injured Hicks.

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