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Q&A: CC Sabathia Looks Back on Storied MLB Career, Transformation Off the Field

CC Sabathia is among the last of a dying breed across baseball.

The former Yankees hurler retired following the 2019 season with 251 career wins, 3,577 innings and 3,404 strikeouts, ending his career with a statistical résumé that may never be matched again. Astros pitchers Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke are the other only active hurlers with more wins. No active player is within 500 innings, and Sabathia still sits ahead of active leader Max Scherzer on the all-time strikeouts list.

The sheer volume of Sabathia’s career is staggering. As baseball continues to evolve into a game of heavy bullpen usage and innings limits for starters, Sabathia’s career feats feel almost unattainable. His left arm carried him from his childhood fields in Vallejo, Calif., to the World Series at Yankee Stadium. But while the outline of Sabathia’s life is that of a storybook, his journey to baseball superstardom was anything but a fairy tale.

Sabathia details a series of personal struggles that coincided with his MLB rise in his new memoir, Till the End. The book—cowritten with New York journalist Chris Smith—is a jarringly honest account of each stage of Sabathia’s career, where struggles with alcohol were a near-constant. Sabathia’s life is no sob story. He describes a happy and supportive household in Vallejo, with a tight-knit community serving as both protector and motivator for the young CC Sabathia, who totaled more than $250 million in career salary. He reached six All-Star games, and proudly became the 14th member of the Black Aces when he won 21 games in 2010. Yet his life became increasingly split in the latter stage of his career. Sabathia was a sage veteran and steady presence for New York on the mound. Managing life outside the white lines was the real challenge.

The future Hall of Famer pulls no punches in his accounts of excessive drinking. He’d down a 30-ounce cup of Crown Royal and Sprite shortly after exiting starts at Yankee Stadium, continuing to drink through the night and into the next day in his hotel room bar. Sabathia’s drinking led to a fight in Toronto in 2015. His lowest moment came later that year when he arrived for a bullpen session at Camden Yards too drunk to pitch or face the media. A trip to rehab followed, marking a turning point in his life. Four more MLB seasons followed, allowing Sabathia to reach the statistical heights that will stand the test of time.

Sabathia is one of the 21st century’s best pitchers, taking on an almost-mythic standing in the game’s history. Few pitchers in recent memory were as imposing on the mound, with his 250-plus-pound frame barreling toward the plate alongside a fastball nearing triple digits. Yet Sabathia often displays a childlike wonder at the life he’s led. There’s an earnestness on every page in Till the End, a refreshing willingness to tell the full story without judgment or trepidation. Sabathia is at peace with himself after hanging up his spikes. His openness makes him perhaps the most relatable Cy Young winner in recent memory.

Sports Illustrated spoke with Sabathia about 19 MLB seasons, his alcoholism, the next wave of Black players and more.

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

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Sports Illustrated: Was it difficult for you to be open about your struggles with alcohol in such a public forum?

CC Sabathia: No, it wasn’t really hard to write the book. I’m super open and honest about everything I go through and the stuff that’s happened to me. I just didn’t think they were interesting. I didn’t think anyone would want to read about it. I had normalized being an alcoholic, I had normalized all the different deaths I had in my life. I just didn’t think my life was that interesting to write a memoir, to tell people about it. In my mid-30s, I was having a conversation with my wife and she was like, "Your life is not normal; people don’t go through these things." And a light bulb went off and started this process.

SI: What was the inspiration for writing this book?

CS: What was at the forefront of my mind was my kids. I wanted them to have my thoughts down on paper so they know and understand what I was going through. I wish I had that with my dad. I’m now kind of the same age as my dad was when he went through his struggles, and he passed away at 47 years old. I wish I had what he was thinking throughout his life. I really wanted to be honest and thoughtful about what I was putting down on paper, because I wanted my kids to be able to look back at this. I’m not going to be in their life forever, so I wanted them to have some of my teachings and my thoughts with them forever.

SI: Did you envision the kind of success you had as an MLB player during your childhood in Vallejo?

CS: It wasn’t a surprise really to me because my father and my grandmother had always told me this was going to happen. I grew up in Vallejo with a lot of talent, and I wasn’t the most talented kid. But they made me believe this was going to be my life. They made me believe that if I made the right choices, if I was good to people and had good karma, that this could be my life. And I really believed that. My grandmother was convinced I was going to be a big league star, and my dad was the same way. So it didn’t take much imagination from me when they were the ones envisioning it. It’s a blessing I was able to live their vision.

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SI: You detail in the book your reverence for great Black players across MLB history, especially the Black Aces. Do you hope to have a similar relationship with the next generation of Black stars?

CS: Absolutely. I’ve had a great relationship with so many older players, and I want to be that for the next generation. I love being close to Kumar Rocker and Jack Flaherty and Hunter Greene. For sure, that’s why we play the game, to pass these stories down and pass our teachings down.

SI: You’ve expressed your concern regarding the relatively low number of Black players in MLB today. What can be done to address that issue?

CS: It’s a concerning trend and it has been for a long time. I think us forming the Players Alliance in the last 15 months is something that will definitely help. We went on our tour over the last year and passed out masks and supplies and baseball equipment.

But as a whole, the Black community and really the entire baseball community needs to understand that baseball isn’t dying; there’s just a lack of opportunity. We need to get Black kids to the Perfect Game Showcases, we need to get them Rapsodo machines so they can put numbers up and get drafted and get scholarships. Now, everything is about numbers. So college coaches and scouts, they want numbers, and some of these kids in the ‘hood, they can’t go out and record their numbers. There are a bunch of these kids who should be going to the next level. As former players we understand that, and as we come together as one unit, we can use our resources to help each other out.

SI: How would your career have been different if you were drafted by a team other than Cleveland after your high school career in Vallejo?

CS: I wouldn’t have lasted two years in the big leagues if I were anywhere else but Cleveland. I truly grew up there. I got to Cleveland and I was still a boy. I was 17 years old. I got to the big leagues at 20. I’m still close to so many people in the organization. From old teammates to their old GM Mark Shapiro to even the clubhouse attendants, in a sense they raised me. I got drafted by the perfect organization, and if I didn't get drafted by them I’d be in the big leagues for no longer than f------ two years.

SI: You write glowingly about the Milwaukee clubhouse during your brief time there in 2008. Is that one of the more enjoyable periods of your career?

CS: That was the most fun I had playing baseball since my 12-year-old summer. The guys, the city, the organization, the way we were winning, it was just exciting. That was so much fun, and I was locked in. Everyone was making a big deal about free agency and all the money I was going to make or miss if I got hurt. And I was feeling good. People said, "You gotta stop pitching, because you’re gonna mess up your money." But I was like, "Nah, the more I pitch, the more money I make." I wanted [Milwaukee] to give me the ball every three days. It was really because of the guys. Mike Cameron, Rickie Weeks, Billy Hall, Prince Fielder. Those guys are what made it my favorite time in the big leagues.

SI: The Yankees have always been a buttoned-up organization, one characterized in the book as being known as snobby. Did you have any hesitation about signing with New York?

CS: There definitely was [hesitation] because my dad planned this all out in his head, so I didn’t want to go and then fail and not have him here to tell me it’s O.K. I was almost not going to try, because I was scared to fail. But If you want to win the World Series and you want to call yourself the best, how could you not come to the Bronx? They’re going to give you the best opportunity to win every year. So that was the reason I signed. I wanted to win.

When I got here it was so fun; it was the opposite of what I thought. Being able to win the championship that first year was just incredible. From the outside looking in, it can be snobby or stuffy, but it wasn’t when I walked in.

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SI: You were an effective pitcher for nearly two decades, a true ace for an extended stretch. What about your career are you the most proud of?

CS: The length of my career and how long I was able to be a pretty good pitcher still kind of surprises me. Like, I didn’t show up in the big leagues one day saying, "Oh, I’m going to get 3,000 strikeouts; I’m going to get to the Hall of Fame." It was about surviving each day. And turning that day-to-day worry into a 19-year career, that is a huge surprise and something I feel blessed about to this day.

SI: Clubhouses in your era are described as featuring alcohol pretty significantly. Do you think the clubhouse culture around baseball is different today?

CS: I definitely think it’s a more mellowed-out culture now. Thinking back to my last couple of years in the league, it’s a lot different than when I was younger. Guys are healthier in general today. They work out year-round, they know what they need to eat before games. I was eating Wendy’s. They understand you need to do things in moderation, and that’s something I couldn’t do as an alcoholic. That was something I learned about myself, knowing [alcohol] is something I just can’t have in my life.

SI: How common was it in your era for players to struggle with alcoholism and substance abuse?

CS: You know what’s crazy? You don’t really know. Nobody really knew that I was struggling. We are together a lot, but you can hide things. You can go to your room; you can have a bad day. With me, people would notice my mood swings. I’m upbeat in the clubhouse, and there would be days where I’d be hungover and not come with that energy. So you can sometimes tell, but you don’t really know for sure. Chris Young and Dellin Bentances are two of my best friends to this day, and they didn’t really know how bad I was struggling. So you can hide your struggles, and I did that for a long time.

SI: Your wife, Amber, is featured heavily in the book, often having to fix problems caused by your alcoholism. What kind of toll do you think your drinking had on Amber?

CS: I think it took a major toll. And I could see that. When I was going into rehab, I could see that I was losing her. Early in my career she would clean up my mess and then get over things. But it was getting to the point where she would stop caring. And when she stopped caring, I knew I was losing her. I had never considered [rehab] seriously before that.

SI: How has your relationship with Amber changed since you’ve stopped drinking?

CS: Our relationship is always good when I’m not drinking; it’s great when I’m not drinking. We’re best friends; we’ve known each other since we were 16 years old. We’re going to cuss at each other once a day, and we’re going to laugh really hard with each other once a day; that’s just how we are. We’ve flourished even more since I stopped drinking. She’s always been my rock; she’s the reason for my success as a professional. We’ve always been close, and we’ve only gotten closer since I stopped drinking.

SI: What do you hope people take away from your book?

CS: I want to speak out and talk about alcohol dependency as a Black man. We don’t talk about these things in our community. It’s something that’s kind of taboo and I want to embrace that stigma. There are people that can help you; there is help out there for you. Don’t wait until you hit rock bottom before you get help. Everybody’s rock bottom is different. Mine wasn’t getting arrested or a DUI or any of these things. It was waking up, understanding that I depend on alcohol every day and knowing I don’t want that anymore.

There are people like me, that are in the same situation I was in, that are scared to get help. So hopefully they can read my story and just reach out and get the help they need.

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