The pitcher doesn't look up. He keeps at it: drawing up his right leg, windmilling his left arm, 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 and coaches, young and old, sitting, squatting, leaning, slouching. At first glance it's a group study in nonchalance. That's a lie. The pitcher represents, for them all, this spring's hope. Their eyes follow as his body tightens and unfolds, over and over.
"All RIGHT, CC!"
Another voice drifting 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 out less 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-mph fastball coming, not even near his top speed—with the urgency of a drowsy man shooing a fly. Pock! Again, to the other side of the plate. Then a changeup, a curve, a cutter.
April 5, 2009
The crowd hum rises: game time soon. It's about to begin, his career as New York's ace, as the highest-paid pitcher in history, as the latest move by baseball's big-money franchise to regain its primacy. An announcer reads off the visiting team's lineup, but it's almost beside the point. Tonight is about fingering the goods. About seeing what, exactly, $161 million buys.
Crying? Right there on the mound? Because he can't strike out every kid he faces? Because he gave 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 to be s------- me." She wouldn't embarrass CC—11 years old and already so big that she packed his birth certificate for every game—on the Little League field in north Vallejo, Calif. But he knew what was coming. She'd steam silently on the ride home, six kids sardined into a two-door Ford Escort, and he would almost hear her thinking, Who do you think you are? You're that good? That untouchable?
The time he cried after 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. The thin walls couldn't contain the thumping, the yelps. His grandmother Ethel edged to the closed door and asked, "What are you doing in there?" But Margie didn't let up. She didn't care if he got shelled for six runs, so long as 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 mess with Margie. Yes, her husband, Carsten Charles Sabathia Sr.—Corky to all—taught their 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 skipped work at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard or the trucking company and pulled CC from school so they could hit in a batting cage, just the two of them. But CC's principals, teachers and friends all knew: Margie was the law. She worked the night shift as a telephone operator at Travis Air Force Base so she could attend her son's every game, and if he yelled "Damn!" or so much as banged his helmet on the ground after popping up, she got to him quicker than any coach, chiding him over the fence. CC got a D in history his sophomore year, and she yanked him off the basketball team for the season.
"What Margie says, goes," says Robert Rigsby, who grew up going to the same church that she did. "I love her to death, and I will never cross her in a million years." When reached by SI, Rigsby, a District of Columbia Superior Court judge, was getting ready, as a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, to deploy to Iraq 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," Rigsby said. "My wife, who can put me in jail, followed by Margie Sabathia."
Still, Margie calls her son Dude, which tells you something about their relationship. A former fast-pitch softball player, Margie strapped on gear to catch CC in the backyard, quitting only when, at 12, he nearly broke her hand with a fastball and she pulled off the mask and said, "Get someone else. You're past me." Hers was the opinion on girls and life that mattered most to CC; she was the best friend he could trust with any secret, the one he turned to even when it wasn't wise to do so. "So, Mom," CC once asked, "do you get in trouble for throwing eggs at people's cars?"
Of course you could do far worse things in north Vallejo in the 1990s, especially in the Sabathias' neighborhood, known as the Crest, where you could cruise up Gateway Drive 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 hardworking than crime-ridden because the men hadn't gone away. Fathers still coached, were part of their sons' lives. "The Little League field where we went to play used to be full of fathers," says Dave Bernstine, a baseball coach at Vallejo High. "Now you see one or two."
And in that small corner of the Bay Area, at least, baseball was king. When CC was in second grade, 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 was throwing fire; one of his fastballs shattered a kid's elbow. But then CC was just bigger and better than his peers, a lefthander ahead of the pack. He figured that would be enough. The first time Vallejo High's new coach, Abe Hobbs, 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's pitchers was doing wind sprints. "What position do you play?" Hobbs asked.
CC pointed to the players gasping on the grass. "What are those guys?" he said.
"Uh ... I play first base."
CC filled out a form for Hobbs before his freshman year. Uniform size, pants and shirt? Big as you got, he wrote.
Pock! Boys and men cluster along the lip of the rightfield stands, clutching cups, programs. Even seen from above, the pitcher is massive, 6'7" and closing on 300 pounds. What's that his wife says whenever she sees him, head lowered, roaring after an inning-ending strikeout? "There goes the Bear."
It's true: The pitcher has a grizzly's shamble, that heavy step and surprising agility; you could almost imagine him plucking salmon from a stream. But Sabathia—easy mannered, cap askew—doesn't suggest a killer. His family, his teammates, his longtime boss and fans in Cleveland, his hometown friends and teachers, they all speak of his sweetness. "He's got a Santa Claus--type personality: Come on over and sit on my lap and let me tell you some good stories," says Yankees general manager Brian Cashman.
The announcer is done with the preliminaries. "And now, the starting lineup for YOUR New York Yankees...."
HIS PARENTS split when 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 whole life, things seemed nearly normal. CC even moved in with Ethel and Corky for a while in high school, at Margie's urging. But Corky had a new job at the nearby Concord Naval Weapons Station, and something—no one could figure out what—made him 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's games, didn't drop by the double sessions of football practice like the other fathers. "They would tell my dad what I was doing," CC says, "but he wouldn't come see me. I didn't understand that."
Still, Margie never bad-mouthed Corky to CC, and his high school days spun out in a rare example of adolescent harmony. By his junior year CC was Vallejo's three-sport force. The Apache basketball team depended on his bruising presence at power forward, and he was a good enough tight end for Cal and Hawaii to sniff him out. He was 6'6" and 245 pounds now, but never a bully, always ready to work hard when it was time. People were drawn to him by his sports exploits but stayed near because of his expansive vibe, his humility. That junior year he met a sophomore cheerleader, Amber Carter, and she came home and told her brother, Joe, a basketball player, "CC's going to be your brother-in-law."
It might've stung that CC went on to take Joe's starting job, but he was hard to hate. He was any group'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 long history—three future Division I-A players—but CC made it cohere. The afternoon before playing the final of a Christmas tournament in Lodi, Vic Wallace, the Vallejo coach, took the team to a mall to kill time. The Apaches, wandering in their red warmups, were surrounded by gangbangers in blue, Crips who couldn't abide anyone flashing Bloods colors. Expletives flew and Wallace could see others 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 the panicked look in his coach's face and said, "We didn't come up here for this! We need to get up on out of here if we want to play this game tonight."
With that, Wallace says, "all the guys get together, and we leave. He calmed them down. People listen to him."
That team went 32--2, lost in the state semifinals. Players wept openly, their high school careers done. Ethel—CC's second mother, really—had died in February, and he had spent 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, he still had baseball. He went 6--0 that spring with an 0.77 ERA, struck out 82 batters 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 readied to hit with the bases loaded. He saw the new relief pitcher—the same Merced player whom, earlier in the game, CC had warned not to throw him fastballs. His cousin Nathan was pouring sunflower seeds into CC's hand through the fence when CC grinned. He knew the reliever would throw him a curve. "Watch this," CC said. "I'm about to go deep."
He smiled all the way to the plate, laughed as he took two warmup swings, looked at Margie in the stands. 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 down on the signing bonus. The agents told CC to be patient. With nearly a month gone and her son desperate to play, Margie walked into the house one morning to find CC standing in the hallway, glove on, ball in hand. "Dude?" she said.
"Mom, I'm ready to go," he said.
They sat on her bed. Margie dialed the Indians. She figured it would make the agents angry; in fact, it would make them livid. But when then Cleveland general manager John Hart 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'll take it."
The pitcher doesn't stop. A man stares down at him, opens his mouth, waits, squirms, as if unsure how to address the mystery below.
Sabathia, born in California, famously allowed that he'd love to pitch there. Everyone knew he would have taken less money to get closer to home. But then came his dominating stint with the Brewers down the stretch last year: Traded to Milwaukee in midseason, Sabathia ignored the pleas of his agent and risked his looming financial 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 carrying Milwaukee into the playoffs for the first time in 26 years.
"The most unselfish performance by any player," says Brewers G.M. Doug Melvin. "To pitch like he did for the betterment of the ball club? To put that ahead 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 his age: Cashman had to have him. He offered seven years at $161 million—two years and about $60 million more than the Brewers and the Angels. It was the sport's new standard for an offer you can't refuse.
Still, the Yankees faithful are a romantic bunch. They like to think it takes unique toughness to win in New York, and that being a true Yankee has nothing to do with 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 pitching busts such as Ed Whitson, Kenny Rogers, Hideki Irabu and Carl Pavano serve as foils in Yankees lore—derided examples of how not to be. With that puffy body and an opt-out clause after three years, Sabathia is more suspect than most new arrivals. Did he come only for the contract? Will Santa be too laid-back for the Bronx?
The man in the stands has it at last. He leans over the railing and yells, "Who wants to be on the WEST Coast?"
A strange thing about marriage: Some couples grow apart, break up and, with all the failures and betrayals and pressures out of the way, rediscover what they liked about each 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 between father and son loosened. Corky and CC never went to sporting events together anymore. Then CC left for the minors, distance compounding distance, with Corky a bit of a mystery now, a subject older family members talked about delicately.
Finally, in January 1999 CC picked him up from a doctor's appointment, and Corky told his son what Margie had known for two years: He had contracted HIV. He needed CC to help 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 later on. I just prayed I could have him as long as possible."
After CC's first summer in the minors, he and Amber had gotten serious. He took her to meet his dad 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 the clues. His dad had never once come home high; he had never used in front of Margie or CC. But Amber saw it: When they left, Corky wasn't allowed to venture past the front door. "We met him at a drug clinic," Amber says. "I said, 'CC, your dad's at a drug rehab.'"
The following summer the 20-year-old CC finished up his minor league apprenticeship with Double 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 since he was 13, he and his father took the ferry into San Francisco for a Giants game. They didn't watch much. Instead, they walked the concourses checking out the banty new ballpark, so different from blustery Candlestick Park. "Seven years," Sabathia says. "We were just hanging out. It was pretty cool."
He went 17--5 as a rookie with the Indians in 2001, and the rewards started flowing: a four-year, $9.5 million contract; seats at a heavyweight title fight; rumors linking him to tennis star Serena Williams. Amber, a student at San Diego State, had been accepted for transfer to Cleveland State, but when she heard CC's lukewarm reaction, she knew what it meant: Young man, rich and feeling free. She stayed put and broke up with him, and he didn't argue. He was partying every night in Cleveland, wearing flashy jewelry, which had never been his thing. Margie visited him in May 2002, didn't like what she saw and sat him down 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," CC said. "It's cool."
A week later, after midnight on May 17, the phone woke Margie out of a dead sleep. She picked it up, and there was CC's voice, all the cool gone, trembling like a scared little boy's. "Mom, there was a gun," he said over and over. "They put a gun to my head."
Earlier that night Sabathia and his cousin Jomar Connors had gone to WISH, a nightclub in Cleveland's Warehouse District, for the birthday party of a local model. There was an after party for a group of VIPs in a suite at a nearby Marriott. When Sabathia and Connors arrived, a small group of women and two men—former Cleveland State basketball stars Damon Stringer and Jamaal Harris—were waiting. Sabathia was wearing $15,000 diamond earrings, a $26,000 necklace with a platinum 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 pistol from the safe, which also held $16,000 in cash.
Sabathia and Connors left the party too, but in the hotel lobby CC realized his Rolex was missing. Connors went back up to the room to search for it, and when Stringer and Harris returned, they showed Sabathia the gun and forced him into the elevator and back up to the suite, where they forced Sabathia and Connors to lie on the floor and picked them clean. Hotel security cameras captured Stringer and Harris leaving the building at 4:03 a.m. Both were arrested within days 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 19 months.
The day after the robbery Sabathia publicly berated himself for having been in that situation, but by then he had already taken corrective measures. Just minutes after the incident, before he called his mother, he had dialed Amber and proposed. "If you were here, none of this would've happened," he said. "Let's just get married."
"CC, you're drunk," Amber said. "It's four in the morning."
"I was going to propose in the next couple of months. Call my mom, because I already told her."
A week later Amber packed up her apartment and left for Cleveland. CC's mother and father had 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 was it," Sabathia says. "He lived with me until the day he passed away."
The robbery, CC believes, "was really a blessing in disguise. To have a gun to your head is scary, but it put everything in order. I had gotten the [baseball] contract and I was young, 21, and I felt like I was on top of the world. I had all this, and then I saw how quickly it could be taken away from me."
Amber moved in with him. Corky, free of drugs but hyperwary of spreading HIV, took control of the kitchen, making sure never to share his utensils. He tried to pick up where he'd left off with CC, treating him and Amber as if they were both 15. He'd come down to the pool room in the basement at 10 p.m., announce to the millionaire and his fiancée, "O.K.! Time for bed!" and turn off the lights. Amber wondered when Dad would be leaving, but CC made it clear: not anytime soon.
He didn't press Corky about the past—what had gone wrong with Margie, why he'd missed so much of his son's life. Now, CC thought. Now is good. "I felt like a kid again," 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 about anything. I had missed that. And I got that back."
He and Amber were married in June 2003, and a month later, as CC was en route to his first All-Star Game, Margie called to say that Corky, on a visit back to Vallejo, had been found to have terminal stomach cancer. Amber was pregnant and due in September. Corky insisted that he'd live long enough to see his grandson born.
Corky lived through the summer and mustered the strength to fly to Cleveland in September, arriving exhausted and drawn. But he rallied enough to stand outside the delivery-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, that December, died at age 47.
CC didn't weep when 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 to pay 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 sure he took his painkillers and medications, keep him company as he lay dying. They never got a divorce. "This is my son's father," she'd say to people who couldn't understand. "I will love him regardless."
An urgency took hold of CC then, gaining further force the next spring when his uncle Aaron Berhel died of a heart attack at 53. Then in June 2004 Nathan, Aaron's 25-year-old son, the one who had played ball with CC while growing up and given him sunflower seeds before every at bat, severed an artery at a party in Vallejo—nobody ever found out how—and bled to death on the street. Sabathia viewed the body and pitched the next day and won. But for the rest of the 2004 season and into 2005, he would twitch in his bed the night before a start. He carried the dead with him to the mound. He wore a black rubber band on his wrist for his dad and had rip nb stitched into his glove. Never one to contain his emotions, he was ever more disturbed by marginal calls. He screamed into his glove, overthrew—and got pounded. "I'm going out there every single game," he says, "and pressing: I might throw a no-hitter today! I'm going 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, after five straight losses, Sabathia tinkered with his mechanics. He began throwing the cutter. And for the first time in a year, he gave himself permission to stop mourning.
"Something clicked, 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 our relationships worked. My whole attitude—everything—changed."
Sabathia finished that 2005 season by going 10--1 with a 2.24 ERA over the last eight weeks. He won 19 games and the Cy Young Award in 2007, and he won over Milwaukee and the rest of Baseball Nation in 2008. "Since that point?" says Mark Shapiro, the Cleveland G.M. "He's been the most dominant pitcher in the big leagues."
The crowd's cheers, a few decibels louder with each announced Yankee, roll over the lip of the stands. The pitcher stares down at his catcher. He holds up four fingers—four more pitches—as the Star Wars theme thunders and the announcer arrives at the main event.
"... And starting on the mound, number 52, CC Sa-bath-ia!"
He throws his last 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 20 players and coaches who have been watching motionless straighten as one and crowd around Sabathia. He makes sure to bump fists with each one, leaning over to get the one guy crowded aside in the first rush, nodding all the while as if to say, Couldn't do it without you, guys.
Upon arriving in Tampa, Sabathia asked to have the locker of the impressionable Joba Chamberlain placed next to his. He spent at least one morning teaching Chamberlain how and when he throws his cutter. Nights, Sabathia made gestures such as joining fellow staffer Chien-Ming Wang at his first NBA game; days, he made sure pitchers bound for the minors were nearby as he talked shop with Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett. One afternoon he stood pounding his fist into his glove, nodding and staring at a puzzled Andy Pettitte until, finally, Pettitte grinned and started nodding too.
Now Sabathia steps out of the bullpen, walking down the first base line. People rise out of their seats in a wave as he strides by, repeating his name, clapping, sitting down only when he's passed.
Things in the Crest have steadily gotten worse since Mare Island went dark in 1996. There's hardly money for rent—never mind sports fees—and baseball is king no more. In March thieves broke into the North Vallejo Little League office, stole 150 uniforms and the concession food and candy, trashed the computers and trophies and 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 of work. I feel like there's something I should do ... but I don't know what."
He is, of course, in a unique position. Last May, in the face of a $16 million deficit, Vallejo became the largest municipality in California to declare bankruptcy. If Sabathia isn't worth more than the city he grew up in, he's at least running a surplus. Still, there seems to be little resentment of his good fortune in Vallejo, 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 Vallejo High basketball games or working out with the school's baseball team. He walks in the annual Martin Luther King Day parade with his entourage: Amber, their three kids (CC, now 5; Jaeden, 3; and Cyia, six months) and Margie. Sabathia bought a batting cage for Vallejo High one year, paid to resurface the North Vallejo Little League fields another.
Once he signed his Yankees contract in December, Sabathia stepped it up. In February he asked to meet with Vallejo High athletic director Tami Madson and football coach Mike Wilson and his wife, school board member Hazel Wilson, and told them he wanted to supply the football, basketball and baseball teams with new uniforms—a gift Madson estimates at $100,000, more if footwear is included. Then Sabathia turned to Hazel and asked her to set up two college scholarships, Charlie Hustle awards in memory of his cousin Nathan.
With Margie serving as his local point person, Sabathia also pledged more than 400 backpacks, 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 old Little League complex for next spring, complete with new scoreboards, dugouts and 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 pick up 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 school coach, into Chicago. He still considers Hobbs a second father, the man who, he says, "saved all of us" by teaching boys in the Crest not just to play baseball, 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 until well past dark, and it didn't end there. He'd turn his car lights on the batting cage, burning out one or two batteries a season so the boys could keep hitting.
Hobbs's oldest son, Luke, grew up around CC and is severely autistic. In Chicago, Abe and CC talked baseball and reminisced about a trip they'd made to Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park when CC was 14. Sabathia casually asked him about a treatment machine called a "hug box" that has proved to be effective in calming autistic patients—and, at $5,000, costs more than Hobbs could afford.
"I got back from Chicago, and the machine was at my house," Hobbs says. "CC didn't mention it."
The pitcher emerges from the dugout and steps over the first base line, onto the playing field. It is 7:16 p.m. A Tigers journeyman named Ryan Raburn is standing in the batter's box. And this is how it begins, on a cool night in Tampa: The same way it always begins. The crowd quiets. The catcher waits. The pitcher draws up his right leg, windmills his left arm and opens his hand.
All his life he's been preparing for New York. People don't understand that about CC Sabathia; he didn't really know it about himself. But Hobbs always told him that he wouldn't be truly great until he settled into being a father and a pro, until his circumstances matched his preternatural maturity, and in Chicago last season Hobbs surveyed the whole package—the wife and two kids, a third on the way, the decade of pro experience, the coming huge contract and its attendant pressures—and told CC, "I've been waiting for this time for you."
Still, during his dazzling 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 derby unwound, the Angels were the club Cashman feared most. In December the Angels offered Sabathia a five-year deal for $20 million per, but their ham-handed 24-hour deadline put him off. And something else kept nagging at him.
Now that the 2008 season had proved that CC Sabathia played to win, he couldn't get around the idea that he had no choice. This, he insists, is the thought that kept rattling in his head: If I want to win more than I want to be home, how can I not go to New York?
"I couldn't answer that question," he says. "[The Yankees] got the best players, and they're committed; they always get what they need. If you really want to win, why wouldn't you come here? And once I couldn't answer that...."
Maybe Hobbs is right. Sabathia says he's not a bit worried about New York and its expectations; what is that, really, compared to facing a gun or a dying man's hospital room? "Three years ago? Maybe not," he says. "Today? I'm ready."
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 his hometown a hand up? Sure. Adopt two AIDS orphans, because who better than someone 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 as you got.