Consider the active leaderboards topped by CC Sabathia: wins (251), losses (161), games started (560), complete games (38), hits (3,404), innings pitched (3,577 1/3), earned runs (382), home runs (382), walks (1,099), strikeouts (3,093), batters faced (14,989). It’s, obviously, a record of clear and dramatic success. But it’s also a record of durability, of longevity, of the basic dignity of honest work. After 19 seasons, Sabathia’s numbers will now finally stop climbing. And the way that he went out is a testament to exactly those themes.
Sabathia’s appearance in Game 4 of the ALCS was set up as both significant and not. It was the top of the eighth; two runners were on and none were out. This was potentially his last time on the mound at Yankees Stadium, and it was a postseason game, and it was a jam that needed someone to find a way out. But the Yankees were down, 6-3, and the game had thus far been a mess of errors of various sizes. Glorious exit, this was not. Sabathia was there only to ensure that a bad situation did not get worse, and, perhaps, to give fans a say goodbye.
But the situation got worse (another error; a runner scored; a hit-by pitch) and then much worse. Sabathia threw a 1-1 ball to George Springer, just inside, and that was it. The Yankees’ trainers came out to the mound. His shoulder had given out. This was the end.
It was viscerally and inescapably brutal. Here was Sabathia, a pitcher whose place in modern baseball was statistically and culturally unmatched, walking off the field for the last time not on his own terms but on those of his anatomy, forced off in the middle of an at-bat. There was no surprise in the foundation of all this: Sabathia had already announced his intent to retire after this season, and he’d already had the final start at Yankee Stadium. Yet the specific circumstances still could be felt only as a shock. It was as if, in the process of navigating a particularly difficult and affectionate goodbye, Sabathia’s body had suddenly and forcibly pushed him out the door. It was, generally, a bad evening for the Yankees. (They went on to lose 8-3, putting them down in the series three games to one.) But this was a notable gut punch.
And, in a sense, it was an exit that was perfectly fitting. Sabathia pitched until he, literally, could not do so anymore. He pitched until his shoulder gave out. His career can be described, if not quite defined, by his remarkable endurance: Sabathia pitched in pain for years on his surgically repaired knee and pitched in an even darker sort of pain while grappling with the demons of alcoholism. Either could have easily ended his career. He could have retired five years ago, or even 10, with what would have been a perfectly admirable baseball life. Yet he did not. Instead, he just kept doing the work. He ended with a set of numbers that may never again be touched (it could very well be the case that no one else will ever have the opportunity to start so many games, let alone do this well in them) and a career that is a testimonial to the power of showing up and the virtue of playing hard.
Sabathia, for years, pushed to the limit with not just his body but his whole self. And his career ended exactly so. Sabathia, for years, pushed to the limit with not just his body but his whole self. And his career ended exactly so. He gave until he could physically give no more. “When I released the ball, my shoulder went with it,” he told reporters on Friday, revealing that he’d actually been injured on the prior batter, meaning he’d faced Springer with a partially separated shoulder and—still—kept going. He pitched until he could not throw another pitch, which is, perhaps, as close as baseball can give anyone to dying the way he lived.
The Yankees removed Sabathia from the ALCS roster on Friday, ending any last-ditch hope of a chance at another appearance. This was the end. And, sad as it was, it couldn’t have fit any better.