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Big Love "CC!"

April 06, 2009
April 06, 2009

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April 6, 2009

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Big Love "CC!"

Everything about CC Sabathia's new life comes in extra large—his bank account, a city's expectations, his pinstripes—but it all pales in size next to this: the man's heart

The pitcherdoesn't look up. He keeps at it: drawing up his right leg, windmilling his leftarm, opening his hand. The baseball shoots forward, a white missile turning,dropping. Pock! It hits the catcher's mitt. The pitcher grips another ball.Pock! Again. Pock! Twenty men in Yankees uniforms surround him, prospects andcoaches, young and old, sitting, squatting, leaning, slouching. At first glanceit's a group study in nonchalance. That's a lie. The pitcher represents, forthem all, this spring's hope. Their eyes follow as his body tightens andunfolds, over and over.

This is an article from the April 6, 2009 issue

"All RIGHT,CC!"

Another voicedrifting down from the sky. He can feel the bodies 20 feet above him, milling.Ticket holders stop cold when they realize what—no, who—is happening below;they peer over the railing into the home bullpen at Tampa's George M.Steinbrenner Field, and before the guards can chase them off, they blurt outless a greeting than a stunned acknowledgment: Hey, CC Sabathia!

Ten pitches in,the sweat begins to bubble and break; it's early March, still jacket weather,but the pitcher's cheeks shine under the lights. He waves his glove—90-mphfastball coming, not even near his top speed—with the urgency of a drowsy manshooing a fly. Pock! Again, to the other side of the plate. Then a changeup, acurve, a cutter.

The crowd humrises: game time soon. It's about to begin, his career as New York's ace, asthe highest-paid pitcher in history, as the latest move by baseball's big-moneyfranchise to regain its primacy. An announcer reads off the visiting team'slineup, but it's almost beside the point. Tonight is about fingering the goods.About seeing what, exactly, $161 million buys.

CRYING? RIGHTthere on the mound? Because he can't strike out every kid he faces? Because hegave up a hit or a run? No, Margie Sabathia wasn't going to put up with that."Dude, please," she'd say to her son at inning's end. "You got tobe s------- me." She wouldn't embarrass CC—11 years old and already so bigthat she packed his birth certificate for every game—on the Little League fieldin north Vallejo, Calif. But he knew what was coming. She'd steam silently onthe ride home, six kids sardined into a two-door Ford Escort, and he wouldalmost hear her thinking, Who do you think you are? You're that good? Thatuntouchable?

The time he criedafter surrendering a home run, his grandparents came by. Margie didn't care.She marched CC into the bathroom, pinned him against the wall and waded in. Thethin walls couldn't contain the thumping, the yelps. His grandmother Etheledged to the closed door and asked, "What are you doing in there?" ButMargie didn't let up. She didn't care if he got shelled for six runs, so longas he didn't act as if he couldn't take the bad with the good. Dude, she'd say,there's always someone out there as good as you. You're going to get hit.Crying? Please!

You didn't messwith Margie. Yes, her husband, Carsten Charles Sabathia Sr.—Corky to all—taughttheir only child how to play ball, got him to shift from righty to lefty,coached his teams and took him to sporting events in the Bay Area: the Raiders,A's, Warriors, Giants. Corky was the softer touch; every month or so he skippedwork at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard or the trucking company and pulled CCfrom school so they could hit in a batting cage, just the two of them. But CC'sprincipals, teachers and friends all knew: Margie was the law. She worked thenight shift as a telephone operator at Travis Air Force Base so she couldattend her son's every game, and if he yelled "Damn!" or so much asbanged his helmet on the ground after popping up, she got to him quicker thanany coach, chiding him over the fence. CC got a D in history his sophomoreyear, and she yanked him off the basketball team for the season.

"What Margiesays, goes," says Robert Rigsby, who grew up going to the same church thatshe did. "I love her to death, and I will never cross her in a millionyears." When reached by SI, Rigsby, a District of Columbia Superior Courtjudge, was getting ready, as a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, to deploy toIraq for a six-month stint as a military judge overseeing trials for murder,rape and robbery. His wife, Anna Blackburne-Rigsby, is a judge on the D.C.Court of Appeals. "I'm afraid of two people on this planet," Rigsbysaid. "My wife, who can put me in jail, followed by MargieSabathia."

Still, Margiecalls her son Dude, which tells you something about their relationship. Aformer fast-pitch softball player, Margie strapped on gear to catch CC in thebackyard, quitting only when, at 12, he nearly broke her hand with a fastballand she pulled off the mask and said, "Get someone else. You're pastme." Hers was the opinion on girls and life that mattered most to CC; shewas the best friend he could trust with any secret, the one he turned to evenwhen it wasn't wise to do so. "So, Mom," CC once asked, "do you getin trouble for throwing eggs at people's cars?"

Of course youcould do far worse things in north Vallejo in the 1990s, especially in theSabathias' neighborhood, known as the Crest, where you could cruise up GatewayDrive to get drugs, and bleary-eyed men banged on the windows of passing cars.But Mare Island hadn't yet been shut down, and the Crest felt more hardworkingthan crime-ridden because the men hadn't gone away. Fathers still coached, werepart of their sons' lives. "The Little League field where we went to playused to be full of fathers," says Dave Bernstine, a baseball coach atVallejo High. "Now you see one or two."

And in that smallcorner of the Bay Area, at least, baseball was king. When CC was in secondgrade, his teacher asked her students to name their dream job, barring sports.CC still wrote baseball player and wouldn't back down. By age 12 CC wasthrowing fire; one of his fastballs shattered a kid's elbow. But then CC wasjust bigger and better than his peers, a lefthander ahead of the pack. Hefigured that would be enough. The first time Vallejo High's new coach, AbeHobbs, met him, CC was an eighth-grader gnawing on a supersized Snickers bar.His cousin Nathan Berhel brought him over to be introduced; a pack of Hobbs'spitchers was doing wind sprints. "What position do you play?" Hobbsasked.

CC pointed to theplayers gasping on the grass. "What are those guys?" he said.

"Pitchers."

"Uh ... Iplay first base."

CC filled out aform for Hobbs before his freshman year. Uniform size, pants and shirt? Big asyou got, he wrote.

Pock! Boys andmen cluster along the lip of the rightfield stands, clutching cups, programs.Even seen from above, the pitcher is massive, 6'7" and closing on 300pounds. What's that his wife says whenever she sees him, head lowered, roaringafter an inning-ending strikeout? "There goes the Bear."

It's true: Thepitcher has a grizzly's shamble, that heavy step and surprising agility; youcould almost imagine him plucking salmon from a stream. But Sabathia—easymannered, cap askew—doesn't suggest a killer. His family, his teammates, hislongtime boss and fans in Cleveland, his hometown friends and teachers, theyall speak of his sweetness. "He's got a Santa Claus--type personality: Comeon over and sit on my lap and let me tell you some good stories," saysYankees general manager Brian Cashman.

The announcer isdone with the preliminaries. "And now, the starting lineup for YOUR NewYork Yankees...."

HIS PARENTS splitwhen he was 13. It didn't feel so bad. Corky moved in with Margie's mother,Ethel, and since CC had been going to his grandmother's every morning his wholelife, things seemed nearly normal. CC even moved in with Ethel and Corky for awhile in high school, at Margie's urging. But Corky had a new job at the nearbyConcord Naval Weapons Station, and something—no one could figure out what—madehim start to disengage. The days playing hooky at the batting cage stopped.Corky moved out of Ethel's house. He showed up at fewer and fewer of CC'sgames, didn't drop by the double sessions of football practice like the otherfathers. "They would tell my dad what I was doing," CC says, "buthe wouldn't come see me. I didn't understand that."

Still, Margienever bad-mouthed Corky to CC, and his high school days spun out in a rareexample of adolescent harmony. By his junior year CC was Vallejo's three-sportforce. The Apache basketball team depended on his bruising presence at powerforward, and he was a good enough tight end for Cal and Hawaii to sniff himout. He was 6'6" and 245 pounds now, but never a bully, always ready towork hard when it was time. People were drawn to him by his sports exploits butstayed near because of his expansive vibe, his humility. That junior year hemet a sophomore cheerleader, Amber Carter, and she came home and told herbrother, Joe, a basketball player, "CC's going to be yourbrother-in-law."

It might've stungthat CC went on to take Joe's starting job, but he was hard to hate. He was anygroup's voice of reason, its glue. He tried to skip basketball his senior year,but Margie wouldn't hear of it; in 1998 Vallejo had the most talent in its longhistory—three future Division I-A players—but CC made it cohere. The afternoonbefore playing the final of a Christmas tournament in Lodi, Vic Wallace, theVallejo coach, took the team to a mall to kill time. The Apaches, wandering intheir red warmups, were surrounded by gangbangers in blue, Crips who couldn'tabide anyone flashing Bloods colors. Expletives flew and Wallace could seeothers rushing over from all points. He told his players they needed to leave,now, but their backs were up; they didn't hear a word. Then Sabathia caught thepanicked look in his coach's face and said, "We didn't come up here forthis! We need to get up on out of here if we want to play this gametonight."

With that,Wallace says, "all the guys get together, and we leave. He calmed themdown. People listen to him."

That team went32--2, lost in the state semifinals. Players wept openly, their high schoolcareers done. Ethel—CC's second mother, really—had died in February, and he hadspent most of the season mired in sadness. But he didn't cry after that game.CC sat in a corner, smiling, and said, "Come on, guys, we had a great year.We did our best. This the most fun I've ever had."

Of course, hestill had baseball. He went 6--0 that spring with an 0.77 ERA, struck out 82batters in 46 innings, threw 95 mph. He also played first base and hit .586.His team trailed by three late in a playoff game against Merced when CC readiedto hit with the bases loaded. He saw the new relief pitcher—the same Mercedplayer whom, earlier in the game, CC had warned not to throw him fastballs. Hiscousin Nathan was pouring sunflower seeds into CC's hand through the fence whenCC grinned. He knew the reliever would throw him a curve. "Watch this,"CC said. "I'm about to go deep."

He smiled all theway to the plate, laughed as he took two warmup swings, looked at Margie in thestands. First pitch: curveball. And, lord, did it go deep.

On June 2, 1998,the Cleveland Indians made Sabathia, 17, the 20th pick in the first round.Margie and CC had hired two relatively raw agents, and negotiations bogged downon the signing bonus. The agents told CC to be patient. With nearly a monthgone and her son desperate to play, Margie walked into the house one morning tofind CC standing in the hallway, glove on, ball in hand. "Dude?" shesaid.

"Mom, I'mready to go," he said.

They sat on herbed. Margie dialed the Indians. She figured it would make the agents angry; infact, it would make them livid. But when then Cleveland general manager JohnHart came to the phone and asked what it would take to get the deal done,Margie said $1.5 million. Hart responded with $1.3. Margie said, "We'lltake it."

The pitcherdoesn't stop. A man stares down at him, opens his mouth, waits, squirms, as ifunsure how to address the mystery below.

Sabathia, born inCalifornia, famously allowed that he'd love to pitch there. Everyone knew hewould have taken less money to get closer to home. But then came his dominatingstint with the Brewers down the stretch last year: Traded to Milwaukee inmidseason, Sabathia ignored the pleas of his agent and risked his loomingfinancial bonanza as a free agent by starting three games on three days' rest,throwing seven complete games, going 11--2 with a 1.65 ERA and carryingMilwaukee into the playoffs for the first time in 26 years.

"The mostunselfish performance by any player," says Brewers G.M. Doug Melvin."To pitch like he did for the betterment of the ball club? To put thatahead of free agency? You just don't see that much anymore."

It was, indeed,such a display of baseball cojones that the Yankees felt they had no choice.Sabathia was 28 and had won 117 games, the most for any current pitcher hisage: Cashman had to have him. He offered seven years at $161 million—two yearsand about $60 million more than the Brewers and the Angels. It was the sport'snew standard for an offer you can't refuse.

Still, theYankees faithful are a romantic bunch. They like to think it takes uniquetoughness to win in New York, and that being a true Yankee has nothing to dowith money. This is odd for the richest team in sports, but the paradox abides:Yankees fans live by the wallet yet despise mercenaries. Free-agent pitchingbusts such as Ed Whitson, Kenny Rogers, Hideki Irabu and Carl Pavano serve asfoils in Yankees lore—derided examples of how not to be. With that puffy bodyand an opt-out clause after three years, Sabathia is more suspect than most newarrivals. Did he come only for the contract? Will Santa be too laid-back forthe Bronx?

The man in thestands has it at last. He leans over the railing and yells, "Who wants tobe on the WEST Coast?"

A STRANGE THINGabout marriage: Some couples grow apart, break up and, with all the failuresand betrayals and pressures out of the way, rediscover what they liked abouteach other in the first place. That happened with Margie and Corky. They were,she says, "the best of friends once we split," even as the tie betweenfather and son loosened. Corky and CC never went to sporting events togetheranymore. Then CC left for the minors, distance compounding distance, with Corkya bit of a mystery now, a subject older family members talked aboutdelicately.

Finally, inJanuary 1999 CC picked him up from a doctor's appointment, and Corky told hisson what Margie had known for two years: He had contracted HIV. He needed CC tohelp take care of him financially. "I never asked him how he got it,"CC says. "I felt a lump in my throat, but I didn't cry then. I cried lateron. I just prayed I could have him as long as possible."

After CC's firstsummer in the minors, he and Amber had gotten serious. He took her to meet hisdad for the first time, at a medical facility. Excitement at seeing Corky,pride in his new girlfriend—for whatever reason, CC didn't pick up on theclues. His dad had never once come home high; he had never used in front ofMargie or CC. But Amber saw it: When they left, Corky wasn't allowed to venturepast the front door. "We met him at a drug clinic," Amber says. "Isaid, 'CC, your dad's at a drug rehab.'"

The followingsummer the 20-year-old CC finished up his minor league apprenticeship withDouble A Akron. Corky drove out with Margie and helped their son get settled.At the end of the season CC went home to Vallejo, and for the first time sincehe was 13, he and his father took the ferry into San Francisco for a Giantsgame. They didn't watch much. Instead, they walked the concourses checking outthe banty new ballpark, so different from blustery Candlestick Park. "Sevenyears," Sabathia says. "We were just hanging out. It was prettycool."

He went 17--5 asa rookie with the Indians in 2001, and the rewards started flowing: afour-year, $9.5 million contract; seats at a heavyweight title fight; rumorslinking him to tennis star Serena Williams. Amber, a student at San DiegoState, had been accepted for transfer to Cleveland State, but when she heardCC's lukewarm reaction, she knew what it meant: Young man, rich and feelingfree. She stayed put and broke up with him, and he didn't argue. He waspartying every night in Cleveland, wearing flashy jewelry, which had never beenhis thing. Margie visited him in May 2002, didn't like what she saw and sat himdown just before she left. "Dude, I'm not feeling good," she said."You're going out too much: You need to slow your roll."

"Nah," CCsaid. "It's cool."

A week later,after midnight on May 17, the phone woke Margie out of a dead sleep. She pickedit up, and there was CC's voice, all the cool gone, trembling like a scaredlittle boy's. "Mom, there was a gun," he said over and over. "Theyput a gun to my head."

Earlier thatnight Sabathia and his cousin Jomar Connors had gone to WISH, a nightclub inCleveland's Warehouse District, for the birthday party of a local model. Therewas an after party for a group of VIPs in a suite at a nearby Marriott. WhenSabathia and Connors arrived, a small group of women and two men—formerCleveland State basketball stars Damon Stringer and Jamaal Harris—were waiting.Sabathia was wearing $15,000 diamond earrings, a $26,000 necklace with aplatinum cross and a $60,000 Rolex watch, and he was carrying $3,200 in cash.Stringer left with Harris, went to Stringer's home and retrieved a 9-mm pistolfrom the safe, which also held $16,000 in cash.

Sabathia andConnors left the party too, but in the hotel lobby CC realized his Rolex wasmissing. Connors went back up to the room to search for it, and when Stringerand Harris returned, they showed Sabathia the gun and forced him into theelevator and back up to the suite, where they forced Sabathia and Connors tolie on the floor and picked them clean. Hotel security cameras capturedStringer and Harris leaving the building at 4:03 a.m. Both were arrested withindays and pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery. Stringer would serve 25 months.Harris, who had CC's diamond in his ear when he was arrested, did 19months.

The day after therobbery Sabathia publicly berated himself for having been in that situation,but by then he had already taken corrective measures. Just minutes after theincident, before he called his mother, he had dialed Amber and proposed."If you were here, none of this would've happened," he said. "Let'sjust get married."

"CC, you'redrunk," Amber said. "It's four in the morning."

"I was goingto propose in the next couple of months. Call my mom, because I already toldher."

A WEEK LATERAmber packed up her apartment and left for Cleveland. CC's mother and fatherhad come in the day after the robbery, and CC hadn't let them out of his sight.Margie left after a week. Corky moved in and stayed for good. "That wasit," Sabathia says. "He lived with me until the day he passedaway."

The robbery, CCbelieves, "was really a blessing in disguise. To have a gun to your head isscary, but it put everything in order. I had gotten the [baseball] contract andI was young, 21, and I felt like I was on top of the world. I had all this, andthen I saw how quickly it could be taken away from me."

Amber moved inwith him. Corky, free of drugs but hyperwary of spreading HIV, took control ofthe kitchen, making sure never to share his utensils. He tried to pick up wherehe'd left off with CC, treating him and Amber as if they were both 15. He'dcome down to the pool room in the basement at 10 p.m., announce to themillionaire and his fiancée, "O.K.! Time for bed!" and turn off thelights. Amber wondered when Dad would be leaving, but CC made it clear: notanytime soon.

He didn't pressCorky about the past—what had gone wrong with Margie, why he'd missed so muchof his son's life. Now, CC thought. Now is good. "I felt like a kidagain," he says. "I was excited just to have him around day to day.When I was a kid, we had a great relationship where I could talk to him aboutanything. I had missed that. And I got that back."

He and Amber weremarried in June 2003, and a month later, as CC was en route to his firstAll-Star Game, Margie called to say that Corky, on a visit back to Vallejo, hadbeen found to have terminal stomach cancer. Amber was pregnant and due inSeptember. Corky insisted that he'd live long enough to see his grandsonborn.

Corky livedthrough the summer and mustered the strength to fly to Cleveland in September,arriving exhausted and drawn. But he rallied enough to stand outside thedelivery-room door and wait until he could come in to hold the newborn boy,Carsten Charles Sabathia III. Then Corky flew back to Vallejo and, thatDecember, died at age 47.

CC didn't weepwhen he heard the news, maybe because he'd already seen his parents at peace.CC had given Corky a car and an apartment in Vallejo and had been willing topay for hospice care for the final months, but Margie wouldn't hear of it:Three times a day she'd stop by Corky's place and change his bedding, make surehe took his painkillers and medications, keep him company as he lay dying. Theynever got a divorce. "This is my son's father," she'd say to people whocouldn't understand. "I will love him regardless."

An urgency tookhold of CC then, gaining further force the next spring when his uncle AaronBerhel died of a heart attack at 53. Then in June 2004 Nathan, Aaron's25-year-old son, the one who had played ball with CC while growing up and givenhim sunflower seeds before every at bat, severed an artery at a party inVallejo—nobody ever found out how—and bled to death on the street. Sabathiaviewed the body and pitched the next day and won. But for the rest of the 2004season and into 2005, he would twitch in his bed the night before a start. Hecarried the dead with him to the mound. He wore a black rubber band on hiswrist for his dad and had rip nb stitched into his glove. Never one to containhis emotions, he was ever more disturbed by marginal calls. He screamed intohis glove, overthrew—and got pounded. "I'm going out there every singlegame," he says, "and pressing: I might throw a no-hitter today! I'mgoing to throw 100 mph! I'm doing this for Nathan, I'm doing this for my dad,I'm doing this for everybody. It was draining."

Finally, afterfive straight losses, Sabathia tinkered with his mechanics. He began throwingthe cutter. And for the first time in a year, he gave himself permission tostop mourning.

"Somethingclicked, and I thought, I don't need to do this for them," Sabathia says."They're up there watching? Let them enjoy it. Have fun and do what you do.They wouldn't want me to pitch each game for them; that's not even how ourrelationships worked. My whole attitude—everything—changed."

Sabathia finishedthat 2005 season by going 10--1 with a 2.24 ERA over the last eight weeks. Hewon 19 games and the Cy Young Award in 2007, and he won over Milwaukee and therest of Baseball Nation in 2008. "Since that point?" says Mark Shapiro,the Cleveland G.M. "He's been the most dominant pitcher in the bigleagues."

The crowd'scheers, a few decibels louder with each announced Yankee, roll over the lip ofthe stands. The pitcher stares down at his catcher. He holds up fourfingers—four more pitches—as the Star Wars theme thunders and the announcerarrives at the main event.

"... Andstarting on the mound, number 52, CC Sa-bath-ia!"

He throws hislast pitch and steps off the mound, and as he drapes a towel over his shoulder,the vague aura of loneliness that attends all pitchers dissolves. The 20players and coaches who have been watching motionless straighten as one andcrowd around Sabathia. He makes sure to bump fists with each one, leaning overto get the one guy crowded aside in the first rush, nodding all the while as ifto say, Couldn't do it without you, guys.

Upon arriving inTampa, Sabathia asked to have the locker of the impressionable Joba Chamberlainplaced next to his. He spent at least one morning teaching Chamberlain how andwhen he throws his cutter. Nights, Sabathia made gestures such as joiningfellow staffer Chien-Ming Wang at his first NBA game; days, he made surepitchers bound for the minors were nearby as he talked shop with Phil Hughesand A.J. Burnett. One afternoon he stood pounding his fist into his glove,nodding and staring at a puzzled Andy Pettitte until, finally, Pettitte grinnedand started nodding too.

Now Sabathiasteps out of the bullpen, walking down the first base line. People rise out oftheir seats in a wave as he strides by, repeating his name, clapping, sittingdown only when he's passed.

THINGS IN theCrest have steadily gotten worse since Mare Island went dark in 1996. There'shardly money for rent—never mind sports fees—and baseball is king no more. InMarch thieves broke into the North Vallejo Little League office, stole 150uniforms and the concession food and candy, trashed the computers and trophiesand tore down photos of alums like Sabathia. "It's not the same city,"says Sabathia. "A lot of closed businesses, a lot of my friends out ofwork. I feel like there's something I should do ... but I don't knowwhat."

He is, of course,in a unique position. Last May, in the face of a $16 million deficit, Vallejobecame the largest municipality in California to declare bankruptcy. IfSabathia isn't worth more than the city he grew up in, he's at least running asurplus. Still, there seems to be little resentment of his good fortune inVallejo, because Sabathia hasn't committed the cardinal sin of the pro athlete:He doesn't big-time his hometown. Each winter he's seen ducking into VallejoHigh basketball games or working out with the school's baseball team. He walksin the annual Martin Luther King Day parade with his entourage: Amber, theirthree kids (CC, now 5; Jaeden, 3; and Cyia, six months) and Margie. Sabathiabought a batting cage for Vallejo High one year, paid to resurface the NorthVallejo Little League fields another.

Once he signedhis Yankees contract in December, Sabathia stepped it up. In February he askedto meet with Vallejo High athletic director Tami Madson and football coach MikeWilson and his wife, school board member Hazel Wilson, and told them he wantedto supply the football, basketball and baseball teams with new uniforms—a giftMadson estimates at $100,000, more if footwear is included. Then Sabathiaturned to Hazel and asked her to set up two college scholarships, CharlieHustle awards in memory of his cousin Nathan.

With Margieserving as his local point person, Sabathia also pledged more than 400backpacks, each filled with supplies, to the kids at his elementary school,Loma Vista, and is putting the finishing touches on a plan to overhaul his oldLittle League complex for next spring, complete with new scoreboards, dugoutsand concession stands. Long-term? "I want to do a baseball academy, a Boys& Girls Club--type thing in north Vallejo, indoor fields: Have a bus pickup kids from each elementary school, have them come do homework for 90 minutes,then the rest is baseball," he says.

Last September,during a Brewers series with the Cubs, Sabathia flew Hobbs, his high schoolcoach, into Chicago. He still considers Hobbs a second father, the man who, hesays, "saved all of us" by teaching boys in the Crest not just to playbaseball, which is the easy part, but also to love the work the game demands.Weekends, Hobbs would have CC and his buddies hustling from early morning untilwell past dark, and it didn't end there. He'd turn his car lights on thebatting cage, burning out one or two batteries a season so the boys could keephitting.

Hobbs's oldestson, Luke, grew up around CC and is severely autistic. In Chicago, Abe and CCtalked baseball and reminisced about a trip they'd made to Wrigley Field andComiskey Park when CC was 14. Sabathia casually asked him about a treatmentmachine called a "hug box" that has proved to be effective in calmingautistic patients—and, at $5,000, costs more than Hobbs could afford.

"I got backfrom Chicago, and the machine was at my house," Hobbs says. "CC didn'tmention it."

The pitcheremerges from the dugout and steps over the first base line, onto the playingfield. It is 7:16 p.m. A Tigers journeyman named Ryan Raburn is standing in thebatter's box. And this is how it begins, on a cool night in Tampa: The same wayit always begins. The crowd quiets. The catcher waits. The pitcher draws up hisright leg, windmills his left arm and opens his hand.

ALL HIS life he'sbeen preparing for New York. People don't understand that about CC Sabathia; hedidn't really know it about himself. But Hobbs always told him that he wouldn'tbe truly great until he settled into being a father and a pro, until hiscircumstances matched his preternatural maturity, and in Chicago last seasonHobbs surveyed the whole package—the wife and two kids, a third on the way, thedecade of pro experience, the coming huge contract and its attendantpressures—and told CC, "I've been waiting for this time for you."

Still, during hisdazzling run with the Brewers, Sabathia didn't realize that he was, in fact,competing himself into a corner. He had never played for the contract.Milwaukee felt as comfy as a favorite chair, but as the free-agent derbyunwound, the Angels were the club Cashman feared most. In December the Angelsoffered Sabathia a five-year deal for $20 million per, but their ham-handed24-hour deadline put him off. And something else kept nagging at him.

Now that the 2008season had proved that CC Sabathia played to win, he couldn't get around theidea that he had no choice. This, he insists, is the thought that kept rattlingin his head: If I want to win more than I want to be home, how can I not go toNew York?

"I couldn'tanswer that question," he says. "[The Yankees] got the best players,and they're committed; they always get what they need. If you really want towin, why wouldn't you come here? And once I couldn't answer that...."

Maybe Hobbs isright. Sabathia says he's not a bit worried about New York and itsexpectations; what is that, really, compared to facing a gun or a dying man'shospital room? "Three years ago? Maybe not," he says. "Today? I'mready."

For everything.Carry the Yankees into a new era, start the first game in the new stadium,change a clubhouse culture, win a championship? O.K. Give the kids in hishometown a hand up? Sure. Adopt two AIDS orphans, because who better thansomeone who's experienced the same horror and loneliness? That's the plan.Anything else? Bring it. The kid wrote it once, but he's serious now. Big asyou got.

People were drawn to Sabathia by his sports exploitsbut stayed near because of his EXPANSIVE VIBE, HIS HUMILITY.
"Most UNSELFISH PERFORMANCE by any player,"says Melvin of Sabathia's '08 stretch run. "To put that ahead of freeagency?"

 

PHOTOPhotograph by Chuck SolomonMARGIE'S "DUDE" A tough, devoted mom molded Sabathia into a winner, from dominant Little Leaguer to the prize of this winter's free-agent class.PHOTORAY STUBBLEBINE/REUTERSSHINE THAT LIGHT ON ME Thought by some to be too SoCal for New York, Sabathia quickly took a leadership role in a clubhouse that needed a breath of fresh air; teammates such as Burnett (next to last photo, left) and Chamberlain (far right), in turn, have embraced their new ace's cuddly personality.PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMON[See caption above]THREE PHOTOSGENE J. PUSKAR/AP[See caption above]PHOTOMATT STROSHANE/DISNEY/AP[See caption above]PHOTONAM Y. HUH/APGONE, BUT NOT FORGOTTEN In his first seven seasons Sabathia helped Cleveland reach the playoffs twice and won a Cy Young Award, but he gained iconic status in the second half of last season when he almost single-handedly lifted the Brewers to their first champagne moment in 26 years.TWO PHOTOSDAVID MAXWELL/EPA[See caption above]PHOTOALLEN FREDRICKSON/REUTERS[See caption above]TWO PHOTOSMORRY GASH/AP[See caption above]