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Cheesehead Fling Theory

Sept. 15, 2008
Sept. 15, 2008

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Sept. 15, 2008

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Cheesehead Fling Theory

His stay may be short, but Wisconsin fans are loving CC Sabathia anyway

ON JULY 7, the dayhe was traded from the Indians to the Brewers, lefthander C.C. Sabathia toldthe media in his new professional hometown that his first name (the letters arethe initials for Carsten Charles) would henceforth be spelled CC—no periods. Hesaid the rechristening was no big deal; he made the change at the request ofhis marketing rep. But the abbreviation cc—as in cubic centimeters, themeasurement of a motorcycle's engine size—was already held in high esteem inMilwaukee, the home of the 107-year-old Harley-Davidson company and a town thatgenerally prizes longevity in its local icons. A talented pitcher he may havebeen, but this CC fellow was giving himself a lot to live up to. But a funnything happened over the last two months: Sabathia, 28, became the biggest thingin Brewtown, and not only because, at 6'7" and 290 pounds, he displacesmore ccs than the Harley Fat Bob that delivers game balls to home plate atMiller Park. Nine Ws, zero losses, six complete games, a near no-hitter and a1.42 ERA in a dozen starts go a long way toward winning the hearts and minds ofthe hometown crowd, especially when that performance has helped a team 26 yearsremoved from its last playoff appearance build a four-game lead in the NationalLeague wild-card race. Brewers general manager Doug Melvin, who packaged fourprospects, including Double A slugger Matt LaPorta, to get Sabathia fromCleveland, says Sabathia is such a major part of the team's playoff push that"it feels like he's been here all along."

This is an article from the Sept. 15, 2008 issue

Permanence isusually a prerequisite for veneration on the Wisconsin sports scene. Thealltime most beloved Brewer, Robin Yount—a two-time American League MVP andHarley enthusiast—went from Rockin' Robin to the rocking chair in Milwaukee,spending his entire 20-year career there. The ultimate Packer, Brett Favre,started so many consecutive games (253) that most high school underclassmen inthe state had not—until Sunday—lived a day in their lives without Favre beingthe quarterback for the Green and Gold. Wisconsinites love their athletes forwinning, of course, but also for their willingness to resist the lure of theCoasts and stay awhile. What makes Sabathia unique is that everyone knows CC'sdays in Milwaukee are numbered. A free agent after this season, Sabathia willlikely command the most lucrative contract ever given a pitcher, perhaps asmuch as $150 million for six or seven years. The Yankees have already indicatedthey will pursue him this off-season, and Sabathia, a native of Vallejo,Calif., has recently been house-hunting in Southern California. With theBrewers' pockets set at small-market depth, it's all but certain that watchingSabathia throw his hard, sweeping slider on their behalf isn't a pleasureMilwaukee fans will have next year.

Sabathia, though,jumped from the shores of Lake Erie to those of Lake Michigan at a time ofemotional vulnerability for Wisconsin sports fans, who spent most of the summermired in the painful Breakup with Brett. That months-long melodrama left fanswith conflicting allegiances—Pack or Jets? Favre or Packers G.M. TedThompson?—and injured feelings. Sabathia has been embraced as the ultimatedistraction therapy. Last Friday, with Favre two days away from his first startfor the Jets, Sabathiamania raged in the parking lots outside Miller Parkbefore the big lefty faced the Padres. "CC brought something to the Brewersthat they were missing," said Wes Reinke, a 24-year-old student from Fonddu Lac who, it must be noted, was wearing a brett the jet T-shirt. "He'skind of a—I don't want to say 'god,' but a superhero that they neverhad."

The psychologicalboost from the acquisition of Sabathia was immediate for the team (the Brewershave gone 33--22 since the trade, after starting 49--39) and for a fan basethat has been conditioned to believe players of Sabathia's ilk areunattainable, even for half a season. "That's what baseball's economicsystem has told us for the past 20 years," said third baseman CraigCounsell, whose father was director of community relations for the Brewerswhile Counsell was growing up. Sabathia received several standing ovationsduring his first start, a win over the Rockies on July 8. Fans have flocked toMiller Park ever since, selling out 22 straight home games leading up to LaborDay. "We placed impossible expectations on [CC], and he's surpassedthem," says Counsell. "That's really hard to do nowadays, when peopleexpect the world from their star athletes." Now there's even potential forMilwaukee to produce the NL MVP (in leftfielder Ryan Braun) and the Cy Youngwinner. In the Brewers' clubhouse on Saturday, whoops erupted from a groupwatching TV when one of CC's prime Cy competitors, Brandon Webb, was beingshelled by the Dodgers. Reliever Carlos Villanueva began to shout, "Earnedruns, earned runs!"

There is arefreshing lack of delusion among Brewers fans about the odds of CC's stayingin Milwaukee beyond 2008. Not that they aren't trying to persuade him to stickaround. While he was eating at Brookfield's Original Pancake House last weekwith his old high school catcher from Vallejo, David Bernstine, a fan jokinglytold CC he'd take a pay cut from his job to keep the ace in town. Sabathia sayshe sees the same traits in Milwaukee and Cleveland faithful—"they'redie-hard, they love their teams"—except for one thing: "The Brewersfans are definitely more starved [for success]."

A playoff droughtof more than a quarter century will do that to you, and Sabathia will bedeified if he takes the Brewers on a deep postseason run. As Shaun McGuire, a46-year-old electrical company manager wearing a favre '08 pro bowl jersey toMiller Park last Saturday, says, "He's a stopgap, but this is a business,and we've learned to appreciate what we have now. Who'd have thought that Favrewould ever leave?" The faithful know that CC probably will. But this is themoment of the half-season hero in Wisconsin. In exchange for the ride, allfuture slights have already been forgiven.

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With Favre gone, the pitcher has been EMBRACED ASDISTRACTION THERAPY.
ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY FRED HARPER