November 16, 2009

Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Nov. 30. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.

Before several games at Yankee Stadium during this year's playoffs, as players took batting practice, shagged fly balls, and scooped up grounders, there was an MTV Cribs-style video clip on the big screen in which CC Sabathia took us on a tour of his California house. There was a television on his patio, a television in his hot tub, and a television in his television. It was, quite clearly, Sabathia's dream home.

Last December 11, the Yankees signed Sabathia to the richest contract ever given to a pitcher -- seven years, $161 million -- allowing him, if he so chooses, to wallpaper his house with flat-screen televisions. (By my math, Sabathia could, after taxes, purchase 19,600 high-end Sonys.) The Yankees gave him that contract because he was a 28-year-old star in his prime. They gave it to him because they desperately needed a starting pitcher of quality. They gave it to him because they're the Yankees, and they can.

But the offer reached the magnitude that it did because Sabathia had emerged as not just an ace, but a singular ace, particularly during the three months he spent as a Milwaukee Brewer at the end of the 2008 season. During those three months, he went 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA. He finished sixth in the NL Cy Young Award voting even though he had pitched in half as many games as his main competitors Tim Lincecum, Brandon Webb and Johan Santana.

Sabathia pitched seven complete games for the Brewers (just one other pitcher, Roy Halladay, threw as many over the course of the entire season). As his new club fought desperately, and ultimately successfully, for its first playoff berth in 26 years, Sabathia made each of his final three starts on three days' rest, winning two and allowing a total of two earned runs.

Impressive, asserted the more cynical among us. But it was, after all, his contract year, and there's a reason why people view contract year performances with a suspicious eye. Let's see whether he's as motivated, as willing to undertake the arduous and rare task of pitching on three days' rest once he's got enough cash to keep his family in fine electronics for generations. Let's see if his personality changes or if he crumbles beneath New York City's klieg lights, as have so many before him who accepted money from the Steinbrenner family's coffers.

And then there's the matter of his postseason history: in his last four playoff starts, with the Indians in 2007 and the Brewers last year, he was 1-3 while yielding 20 runs in 19 innings.

During the 2009 regular season, Sabathia's wallet was bulkier, his uniform stripier. People who wanted to speak with him or take a picture with him or have him sign some piece of memorabilia they had thrust at him were more abundant, but he was the same as ever. He led the majors with 19 wins. He threw 230 innings. In the clubhouse, his smile was as wide as always and he was every bit as friendly with teammates and strangers alike.

During the playoffs, Sabathia also remained the same. He relished the chance to pitch on three days' rest, something he did twice and would have gladly done twice more in Game 4 of the ALDS and Game 7 of the World Series, had those series gotten that far. "I will be ready and able to pitch," he said, "whenever they need me to."

He remained open and humble beneath the New York media's intensified postseason glare, even after he was outdueled by former Indians teammate Cliff Lee in the World Series opener, when another pitcher might have pointed out that he had allowed only a pair of runs, both on solo homers, in seven innings.

"It's tough," Sabathia said. "Three walks. I wish I could stand here and say it was two pitches, but I was behind [in the count] the whole game."

The one way in which Sabathia was different was that he put an end, once and for all, to his reputation as a small-game pitcher. Each of his five starts was a quality start. He won three, and he accumulated a stingy 1.98 ERA. It is difficult to imagine that the Yankees, even with a bloated payroll and a red-hot Alex Rodriguez, would have won their 27th title without him.

Sabathia is my Sportsman of the Year, first and foremost, because of what he did on the field. While he might not win his second AL Cy Young Award -- that honor will probably, and deservedly, go to the Royals' Zack Greinke -- no pitcher was as valuable to his team as Sabathia was to the Yankees. He was an ace, a stopper, a leader of men, and he was at his best when it mattered most.

But Sabathia is also my Sportsman of the Year because he showed us, in this money-fueled era of pro sports, that cash doesn't always change athletes, or corrupt them, and that the idea of a "contract year" can sometimes represent nothing more than a matter of timing. I'm always wary of bestowing an honor upon a pro athlete -- or upon anyone, for that matter -- on the basis of some perception about his or her character. We often can't be sure of what lurks in the hearts of people whom we don't really know, until it is too late. But if it ever turns out that Sabathia isn't exactly what he appears to be, it would constitute one of the greater shocks of my career.

I spoke with Sabathia amidst the crush of champagne-soaked humanity in the Yankees' home clubhouse after they had put away the Phillies in Game 6. He was, as usual, the biggest man in the room. He had his son, Li'l C, on his shoulders, and his wife, Amber, at his side. On his head was a cap embroidered with the words WORLD SERIES CHAMPIONS" that he wore tilted towards one o'clock, as he's always worn his caps.

"CC," I said. "You got a big free agent deal, came to New York, won the World Series. Yet you seem to be the same person you've always been. Do you feel like that's true?"

Not the most incisive question I've ever posed, perhaps, but I enjoyed his response.

"It's hard not to be," he said. "You just gotta be yourself, and not change, and enjoy playing the game. I was able to come in here and have fun in this clubhouse and be myself, and I think that's the reason why I had a pretty good year. That's what you gotta be. My mom would kill me if I wasn't the same guy."

Sabathia's mother, Margie, has no need to wield any implement of harm. In 2009, her son was not only the same guy, but better than ever.Agree with this selection? Give us your pick for Sportsman here.

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