Everything was right but for the shoes.
Every time CC Sabathia looked down, he could see how wrong they were. Standing on the mound at Miller Park on July 8, 2008, his navy blue Brewers top and white pants were all correct. But on his feet, his Nike cleats were still bright red—leftovers of Cleveland, his home before the trade that, in just three short months, changed his career and the Brewers' fortunes.
"We tried to paint them and everything, but the paint kept coming off," Sabathia recalls now. "I kept looking down at my shoes and thinking, ‘I've got to get some new cleats.'"
That was just about the only thing that went wrong for Sabathia that late summer and fall. Shipped from the Indians to the Brewers before the All-Star break, the defending AL Cy Young ripped off a second half that few matched before or since. Over 17 starts for his new club, he went 11–2 with a 1.65 ERA and 128 strikeouts in 130 2/3 innings, earning top-six finishes in both the NL Cy Young and MVP voting.
He threw a staggering seven complete games—as many or more than 27 other teams recorded that entire year—including three shutouts and a one-run masterpiece on the final day of the season on three days' rest for the third straight start. In doing so, he helped end a 25-year postseason drought in Milwaukee, establishing himself as one of the most impactful trade deadline additions in league history.
"We didn't understand how it was that easy to him," says teammate and friend David Riske. "I've never seen anybody throw like that."
Going into the year, Sabathia had a sense that his time in Cleveland was running out. A first-round pick back in 1998, the 28-year-old lefty entered his eighth season with the big league club fresh off a Cy Young win, his third All-Star selection, and a postseason that saw the Indians come within one win of the pennant. But the front office was unable to reach a contract extension agreement in the offseason with the free agent to be. "Once we came to the conclusion that we weren't going to get anything done, I figured they were going to trade me," Sabathia says.
It didn't help that the powerhouse Indians fell apart in '08. Cleveland struggled through the first half, with sub-.500 records in April, May and June. By the end of that last month, Cleveland was 37–46, a distant 10 games back in the AL Central, and poised to sell at the July 31 trade deadline.
Despite a rough first two months—he had a 4.72 ERA at the end of May—Sabathia's status as the best pitcher on the market appealed to many teams, but perhaps none more than the Brewers. Stuck at .500 at the end of May, Milwaukee went 16–10 in June to jump into the thick of the NL Central and wild-card races. But to keep his team afloat, general manager Doug Melvin knew he needed a bonafide ace to pair with righty Ben Sheets. "There was a point where I said, ‘If we've got a chance, let's go for it,'" he says.
Melvin reached out to his Cleveland counterpart, Mark Shapiro, in early June to begin negotiating. Knowing the competition would be fierce he wanted to strike quickly. "I told him I'd be willing to give up more talent if I could get Sabathia earlier in the trade deadline process," Melvin says. Quickly put on the table was minor league first baseman Matt LaPorta, the No. 7 pick of the 2006 draft. The 23-year-old was raking in Double A and was the team's top prospect by Baseball America's rankings. It would be a hefty price to pay, but Melvin knew his rotation needed help.
Talks continued through June, with the Dodgers emerging as the Brewers' biggest competition. At one point, Melvin thought a deal had been worked out that would've sent Sabathia and third baseman Casey Blake to Los Angeles for a package built around top prospects Carlos Santana and Andy LaRoche. But Dodgers ownership wouldn't pull the trigger on a rental, allowing the Brewers to swoop in.
Finally on July 7, the teams came to an agreement: Sabathia for LaPorta, lefty Zach Jackson, righty Rob Bryson, and a player to be named later. That last piece took some creative negotiating, as Cleveland couldn't decide between two prospects it liked: third baseman Taylor Green or outfielder Michael Brantley. So Melvin and Shapiro compromised: If the Brewers made the playoffs, the Indians could have whichever they preferred most by season's end. If Milwaukee missed out, Melvin would choose. In the end, it was Brantley who was shipped out (and who, as it turned out, became the only star for Cleveland; LaPorta played four mediocre seasons in the majors before washing out of baseball in 2013).
Going into his final week with Cleveland, Sabathia had heard plenty of rumors about where he'd end up. But as the Indians and Brewers were haggling, he heard from Riske, who'd come up with him through Cleveland's system before being traded to the Red Sox before the '06 season and was now with Milwaukee. "He called me and was like, they're making up your jersey here," Sabathia says. Indeed, Tony Migliacci, Milwaukee's longtime clubhouse manager, had begun work on Sabathia's jersey over Fourth of July weekend and had let Riske know. "He came up to me and was like, I think we got your buddy," Riske says.
Still, when the call came, as the Indians were traveling from Minnesota to Cleveland, Sabathia was hit hard. "I held it together," he says. "But once I got home, I cried, my wife and I cried. I thought I'd be in Cleveland my whole career. But I was excited about getting a chance to play somewhere they wanted me."
Given the option to report after the All-Star break, which was a week away, Sabathia instead joined his new team right away. A day after the trade, he got to Milwaukee and suited up for his first start, wrong-colored cleats and all. Facing the Rockies, he went six innings and allowed three runs (two earned), walking five and striking out five. It was hardly a big first impression, but the sellout crowd at Miller Park didn't care. Nor did they or anyone else know just how good Sabathia would end up being.
In Sabathia's second turn in Milwaukee, he threw a complete game, holding the Reds to two runs over nine frames and striking out nine. His next time out, at San Francisco, he went the distance again, this time with one run allowed and 10 punchouts. Five days later in St. Louis, he threw his third straight complete game, this one a shutout, with seven strikeouts. Milwaukee won all three games. Over the rest of the season, the Brewers would lose only three times when he took the mound.
"He was in such a good groove, we thought that if he gave up three runs, it was a bad night for CC," Melvin says.
Watching from the bullpen, Riske and the Brewers' relievers marveled and relaxed. On his turns, they barely had to work: Sabathia completed six innings in all but one of his 17 starts as a Brewer and went seven or more in 13 of them. "We knew we weren't going to pitch that day," Riske says.
"I wasn't really thinking about if I could keep going. It was like, this is what I can do," Sabathia says. "I felt like I could pitch a complete game every time I went out there."
For Sabathia, it was a fun time all around. The clubhouse was full of players he knew and liked: Mike Cameron, Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, Bill Hall, Riske. "I felt like I'd been there 10 years," he says. "It was a good vibe, and I fell right in."
Sabathia benefited from two people in particular in Milwaukee: veteran catcher Jason Kendall, and pitching coach Mike Maddux. The former helped him adjust quickly and easily to the National League and dozens of hitters he'd never before faced. "I didn't shake him off at all," Sabathia says. Maddux proved even more instrumental by teaching the lefty a two-seam fastball. Previously armed with only a four-seamer, changeup and slider, Sabathia added the sinker to his repertoire and saw immediate results. "It made a huge difference, getting double plays and ground balls, swings early in the count," he says.
As Sabathia soared, so did Milwaukee. The Brewers went just 10–9 in July after getting him but took off in August, with a 20–7 record that month, including an eight-game win streak during which Sabathia won twice, allowing one run over 16 innings against Washington and San Diego. The pinnacle was his start on Aug. 31 against Pittsburgh, another complete game in which he allowed just one hit—a comebacker to the mound that he bobbled. "We think he got robbed of a no-hitter," Melvin says. By month's end, the Brewers had a 4 ½-game lead on the Mets for the NL wild card and looked like a lock for the playoffs.
Then disaster struck. Milwaukee went 3–12 over the first half of September and dropped half a game behind New York for the wild card. Sheets suffered an elbow injury that ended up requiring Tommy John surgery. The offense hit just .227/.311/.370 on the month. Things got so bad that on Sept. 15 Melvin fired manager Ned Yost with just two weeks to go in the season.
"We kind of went through a time that year where we needed CC to pitch," Riske says. "We couldn't wait for his start, because we knew we were going to get a win out of him."
With third base coach Dale Sveum now in charge, Milwaukee had just 12 games left to save its season. So it turned to Sabathia, who took the ball whenever and wherever to deliver his new club into the postseason. Over the last week of play, he made three starts, all on three days rest.
"Everyone was mad about that, what are the Brewers doing to you," Sabathia says. "I was doing it. That was me that was telling them I wanted to pitch on three days rest. I wasn't concerned at all. I just wanted to win, and I didn't want the season to end."
Those last two weeks, Sabathia says, all had the intensity of playoff games. Melvin remembers pacing so much in the owners' box during games that he wore out a pair of shoes. But thanks to a late collapse by the Mets, the two teams entered the final day of the season tied at 89¬–72. For Game 162, Sabathia would face the Cubs, who had clinched the NL Central a week earlier, on three days rest for a third straight time. New York would take on the Marlins.
"I knew we were going to win that game," Sabathia says. "I just needed a run or two."
He got it. Despite allowing a run in the second inning, Sabathia held from there, holding the Cubs scoreless until the Brewers tied it in the seventh, then took the lead in the eighth on a two-run Ryan Braun home run off Bobby Howry. Needing three outs to go to clinch at least a share of the wild card, Sveum sent out Sabathia at 107 pitches. He retired the side in order to finish the 3–1 win.
After the game, the team had to wait for the Mets and Marlins to finish up. Florida scored two in the eighth to break a 2–2 tie and held on for the win, setting off champagne corks across Wisconsin. For the first time since 1982, the Brewers had made the postseason, thanks in large part to Sabathia's heroics—though he never had a doubt.
"Had the Mets won, we would've beat them the next day too," he says laughing.
The Cinderella story didn't get a happy ending. Facing the NL East champion Phillies in the Division Series, the Brewers lost Game 1, then turned to Sabathia in Game 2. But he couldn't keep the magic going, giving up five runs and four walks in 3 2/3 innings—his shortest outing with Milwaukee.
"I think I just got mentally tired of pitching," Sabathia says. "I don't think I was physically tired. I got a little worn down mentally. I felt great going into [that start], but looking back, I think I was a little tired."
"Sometimes it's just not going to be your night," Riske says. "But it was his night for however many straight weeks before that."
Milwaukee won Game 3 at home to avoid the sweep but couldn't rally further, falling in Game 4. Philadelphia went on to win the World Series, while the Brewers faced a future that more likely than not wouldn't include their ace.
"I never talked about it, but I pretty well knew that we weren't going to be able to sign him at the end of the year," Melvin says. "The better he pitched, the less chance we had of keeping him."
So it came to pass. That December, Sabathia—the best starter on the market—signed a record seven-year, $161 million deal with the Yankees. A year after carrying the Brewers to the playoffs, he did it again for New York, posting a 3.37 ERA in 230 innings and helping the team win its first World Series since 2000. He's still in the Bronx nearly a decade later at age 38, once again trying to guide the Yankees to October.
Sabathia's superb second half is something that we may never see again in an era of baseball where starters are rarely asked to go through an order three times, much less complete a game. "There's only a few pitchers that I could see even possibly doing that," Melvin says. "Maybe a guy like [Max] Scherzer or Chris Sale." That makes his performance all the more incredible and historic: a combination of durability, efficiency and effectiveness that harkened back to the game's black-and-white past.
"It was a perfect storm and a different time," Sabathia says. "Now I'm older, so I wouldn't be throwing that many complete games, but I miss watching guys do that."
Those days may be gone, but Sabathia's impact is still felt in Milwaukee, where he helped reshape the franchise's path. A decade later, as a new crew tries to take the Brewers back to the playoffs, fans still approach Melvin, who left the GM role in 2015 but still works for the team, to ask whether he has another Sabathia-style trade in the works.
What stands out to Sabathia, though, is how calm he was the entire time. The weight of a city and franchise was on his shoulders, as was inning after inning. "Everything was huge," he says, "but I didn't feel any pressure about it." Instead, he took the ball day after day and delivered win after win. All that mattered was the man in front of him—and, of course, getting the right-colored cleats.