If you were to take out a ruler and measure it on a map, the Bronx, is about as far away from Northern Vallejo, CA as you can get in the United States. To a young man growing up there, the distance can seem insurmountable, even if you were just hoping to travel there to see it with your own eyes. But to become an elite player, to reach the pinnacle of your sport as a pitcher, to win a World Championship for the most storied franchise in sport, well maybe it’s best not to think about such things.
Even now, 13 years in to a Major League career, CC Sabathia manages to keep close in mind where he’s from without dwelling on what he has already done. “There’s so much I can improve on,” Sabathia says while sitting in his living room in suburban New Jersey. I haven’t had time to think about what I’ve accomplished. I collect things, push them to the side and think about my next start. Maybe some day, I’ll be able to look back on it, but that’s not the kind of person I am.”
Despite not spending much time about those achievements, which include a Cy Young Award, six All-Star appearances and an ALCS MVP, Sabathia remembers all to well the road from Vallejo to the Bronx. As a teen, he was a devout Oakland Raiders and A’s fan, growing up in the Bay Area. “Those A’s teams in the late 80s, Dave Stewart, Rickey Henderson, Carney Lansford, Mike Gallego, those were my teams.”
As a member of the Boys and Girls Club, Sabathia can vividly remember Stewart, one of his favorite players, at the peak of his career, coming to spend time with him and the kids in his club. “He took the time to come talk to us,” Sabathia remembers. “I took a picture with him and got his autograph. That moment is why I started my foundation when I got to the big leagues.
The PitCCh in Foundation is devoted to helping kids both in Vallejo, where he met his wife, Amber, in high school, as well as The Bronx and New Jersey. The foundation rebuilt the Little League field in Vallejo, where Sabathia learned to pitch while dad coached and mom worked the concession stand. “It’s great to see mom back out there,” he says smiling.
Sabathia also had his high school field rebuilt, a field which now bears his name. “It’s one of the greatest honors I’ve received,” he says. “I feel a big responsibility to help kids in the inner city play baseball. If one kid says, ‘Hey, CC took time out to speak to us,’ then maybe that will make a difference the way Dave Stewart’s visit made a difference to me. We owe it to the kids, to ourselves and to Major League Baseball to get these kids involved. It’s up to us to come up with solutions”
The Major League dream came swiftly for Sabathia. After signing with the Cleveland Indians out of high school, by age 20, he was the youngest player in the Majors. “Socially, it was hard,” he says. “The next youngest guy was 26 years old. Guys like Ellis Burks, Jim Thome, Chuck Finley, Matt Lawton, they took me under their wing..”
Sabathia learned how different Major League life would be very early in his career. As a new player in the league, he and Amber decided to get married during an off-day in the schedule—just a civil ceremony at the local courthouse with parents present. Later that day, while watching television, the newlyweds watched a news report relaying the announcement of their wedding earlier that day. “I guess we had better tell our friends,” Amber told CC.
That momentary invasion of privacy helped prepare the Sabathia family for the spotlight they would receive when CC signed a multi-year contract with the Yankees as a free agent in 2009. In his first season with the team, Sabathia anchored the pitching staff that would help him win his first World Championship.
This season, preseason pundits haven’t picked the Yankees to win it all as they seemingly have for the last several years, Sabathia says it hasn’t changed the locker room at all. “The expectations are always high in New York,” he says. “As a team we expect to win. Everyone else is talking about what we don’t have, but we have a lot.” Spoken like a man who enjoys every minute of the Major League experience. A man who married his high school sweetheart and is a doting dad to four children. And a man who at age 32, finds himself traveling through rarefied air in the record books.
When you look at the all-time win leaders, there aren’t many Yankee greats ahead of Sabathia on the list. Sabathia has passed the likes of Ron Guidry, Allie Reynolds and Hall of Famer Lefty Gomez. He’s even passed Dave Stewart, the man who helped inspire his ascent to the Major Leagues. “I know I’m closer to the end of my career than the beginning,” Sabathia says. But when asked what he wants to be remember for most, the answer is at the fabric of every generation that passed baseball down to its next set of fans through backyard games of catch. “I just want to be a good dad.”