Moving past a challenging offseason that followed years of private struggles, CC Sabathia is unburdened and ready to reintroduce himself
By Jon Schwartz
Yankees Magazine |
It's a ritual little changed over the last century. Every year, come mid-February, the baseball world heads south, where superstars take over small backfields and Minor League parks for several weeks. Spring Training is fan-friendly, it is lighthearted, and it is intimate. But mostly, it's sunny. And the sun can do a world of good. The UV rays in Florida and Arizona can wash away those late-season losses. The slumps and injuries that decimated an otherwise-promising year are all gone under the clear skies and palm trees. The heartbreak that all but one team held onto all winter can't hope to contend with the promise that a sunny new day can offer. Sunlight disinfects, they say.
Before CC Sabathia could go south, he had to go north, to seize control of a life that he felt spiraling in all directions but good. When he left the team to go to alcohol rehab at Silver Hill Hospital in Connecticut on the day between the end of the 2015 regular season and the American League Wild Card Game, Sabathia made the choice to announce his intentions publicly.
The statement he released through the Yankees' communications and media relations team on Oct. 5 got right to the point: "Today, I am checking myself into an alcohol rehabilitation center to receive the professional care and assistance needed to treat my disease." For Sabathia, there would be no hiding in the shadows. Instead, he would shine a light on all that he was facing.
A month at Silver Hill gave way to a winter of soul-searching, of reclaiming all that he had left at the bottom of hotel minibar booze bottles. And as the exhibition season beckoned, the 35-year-old pitcher found himself invigorated in a way he had never before felt.
"I was just so anxious to get back down to Spring Training and to have it be baseball again and worry about that," he said. "I just feel clearheaded. I've got a healthy body, and I'm just so excited to start the season and see what it brings."
CC Sabathia might be closer to the end of his baseball career than the beginning, but CC Sabathia 2.0 is just getting started. By going public, he took pains to give the world a chance to know who he really is. I wanted to take him up on it, so I headed south to meet the new CC, who seems -- in only the best ways -- the same as the old CC.
An Honest Discussion
He greets me at the door of his house, wearing a throwback Larry Johnson Charlotte Hornets jersey and ever-so-slightly clashing teal shorts. On his size 15 feet are puffy Homer Simpson slippers.
A far cry from his pinstripes, Sabathia is wearing a uniform of self-assuredness, of confidence, of contentedness. This is his house, and he doesn't have to hide. This is what he wants to wear, and he doesn't have to dress up to talk to me. He's comfortable in his yellow-skinned slippers, and finally, he's becoming comfortable in his own skin, too.
There's a disconnect, though, one exacerbated on the walk to the house's back room, which has a pool table and a window to the swimming pool outside. There's a TV on the wall, but this isn't the TV room. On another wall is a framed photomontage from Sabathia's 21-win 2010 season. This is a room where you talk about all that's great in your world, not where you recount the struggles you're working to overcome.
Take away the trappings of success, and the story that CC tells is common as can be to people familiar with alcohol use disorders.
"I think I did a pretty good job of hiding it," he said of his drinking, which began to register for him as a problem around 2012. "Were there signs? Yeah, of course. But it's sports, and it's athletes, and guys don't want to go behind your back and say anything."
Sabathia's biggest problems came when he was alone, drinking in the hotel rooms that pass for home during the long season. One drink from the minibar was fine, a few felt great, but then next thing he knew, it was all gone, and so was he. He would wake up and walk into the clubhouse silently, the fun-loving, gregarious veteran sedated by hangover and regret. The guy used to jumping around the dugout cheering on his teammates would instead sit on the bench or retreat to the clubhouse. And he'd feel guilty about that, which would perpetuate the cycle. At their worst, the demons would creep into the public eye, though, such as this past August, when Sabathia was caught on tape in a verbal sparring match outside a Toronto club, one that very nearly turned violent.
"If I wasn't drinking, I would have just laughed it off or said something smart back," he said of the instigation. "That's me. This is not my first rodeo. This is my 16th season, so I would have had a quick comeback instead of getting angry and kind of being out of control."
Dr. Mark Willenbring, the former director of the Division of Treatment and Recovery Research for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, tells me a few weeks later that Sabathia actually fits the profile. The archetype of the sodden, stumbling drunk walking down the street with a bagged bottle of liquor is the overwhelming minority. Instead, the people who fall victim to an alcohol use disorder "are often people who are very, very highly functional, otherwise successful in business or professional careers, who are very organized and have a lot of control over all their other behaviors, and they can't figure out why they can't control this," he said.
Sabathia would worry about losing everything -- family, teammates. He would dwell on the fact that he never was going to beat this. He couldn't find the next step, so instead of reaching for a way out, he'd dive deeper.
"That's what perpetuates drinking, is the hiding and shame," said Dr. Peggy Prekopa, a clinical psychologist based in New Jersey. "When you're not hiding, you're not ashamed, and it won't perpetuate the cycle. His drinking alone was probably not a happy time. It was probably miserable. And the more miserable you feel, what do you do? You drink more. Because that's you coping."
Or as Willenbring said, "Over time, what often happens is, the more severe the addiction gets, it moves from drinking to feel good to drinking to stop feeling bad."
When it came to a head in Baltimore on the last weekend of the season, Sabathia had finally had enough. He knew that he couldn't keep avoiding the inevitable.
"I was at a point where I felt like I wasn't going to be able to do it on my own," he said, "and I didn't really know what the next step was until I woke up on Sunday and was like, 'I just need to go and kind of reset and get some professional help.'" The next day, he checked in to Silver Hill and announced his problem to the world.
During the Oct. 5 news conference at Yankee Stadium, General Manager Brian Cashman explained the situation as he knew it. Beyond the ticktock of the past 24 hours, though, was the key message that the Yankees, from top to bottom, were totally behind their family member.
"Time and place have no bearing," Cashman said. "There's something here that needs to be taken care of, and I applaud him for stepping up and doing everything necessary to solve this problem for himself as he moves forward.
"Everyone from the Yankees organization, from ownership on down -- teammates, coaches, manager, front office -- are supporting CC, and we'll see him another day."
To me, the words resonated with decency. With compassion. With propriety. Cashman flatly stated that Sabathia was dealing with a life issue and that it took precedence over any baseball game happening the next night or beyond.
Leaving the presser, it was hard not to feel proud, the same way you do when any massive entity chooses to support its workers over short-term gain. But I also felt a wave of melancholy, my thoughts turning to those left behind before this new age of enlightenment. Just seven weeks earlier, the Yankees had joined all baseball fans in remembering the death of Mickey Mantle 20 years prior. Among the most beloved Yankees of his or any generation, Mantle showed the world his all-American boy persona while simultaneously drinking himself to an early death away from the ballpark. As he neared the end, his legacy teetered between the memories of his on-field heroics and his insistence that he was actually a role model for how not to live.
Prekopa is grateful for that evolution, and particularly for the way the team responded to Sabathia's public declaration.
"It's hugely gratifying," she said. "Hugely. More people will be willing to talk about it. Fewer people will hide."
Still, as we sit together near the end of our chat, I have to ask Sabathia an uncomfortable question. The past few months were obviously among the hardest of his life. But could it be that he's actually fortunate? It's not just that he lives at a time when treatment is a realistic option. There are also darker considerations. Not everyone gets to decide when it's time to get their drinking under control. Many times, it's forced on them after an incident that ruins a life or worse. And not a lot of people come out of rehab and right back to a job that pays $25 million a year.
I brace myself for any reaction that CC might have. I'm sitting on his couch, in his house, and I wonder if I'm touching too close to nerve. But he betrays just the slightest flinch.
"You have to be grateful," he said. "The way people see things differently and the world is changing. It's good to be able to play in this time where people see you as not only an athlete, not only a Yankee, but as a human."
Sabathia answers every question I ask. He looks me in the eye. He explains to me how a two-day detox begat four weeks of intensive soul-searching inside Silver Hill's bubble. He talks of learning coping skills, ways to get out of situations. He tells me that he learned about himself, the good and the bad, about what he needs from the people around him, the support system that he's going to create to get him through this season and onward through the rest of his life. He speaks of an understanding of stakes that he didn't have before, a knowledge of what happens the next time he reaches for a bottle.
"Anytime I think about having a drink," he said, "I'll just think about being away from my kids for 30 days. … It's not so much going into rehab; it's everything that you're giving up by having this drink."
The sunshine that Sabathia is letting in does more than offer a happy redemption story. It also puts him on the hook.
"His willingness to be open about it is clearly there," Prekopa said. "That does two things. It helps him to kind of navigate through the shame that he has about the fact that he is an alcoholic and has gone to treatment for alcoholism. And it helps him come out from the shadows and talk about it."
She likens it to quitting smoking. If you decide to quietly throw away your cigarettes and quit, you're beholden only to yourself. But by telling everyone that you're quitting, you're also empowering them to stop you from lighting up. Essentially, Sabathia has deputized the entire world to serve as his guardians out in the wild.
But Prekopa and Willenbring are both adamant that Sabathia's transparency could very well make his life harder than easier. Right now, as he undertakes a difficult journey that almost always includes a few hiccups along the way, might the added pressure of sunlight do more harm than good? Willenbring stresses that the key to recovery is managing the recurrences, not living with the fantasy that one month in a rehab facility is a magic elixir that will work for everyone.
"It's a lifelong battle, for sure," Sabathia told me. "It's something that I look forward to, the challenge, I guess. I know how good my life can and will be staying sober as opposed to going back to drinking."
The Next Act
And so the calendar has turned to baseball, and we return to the field, where everything makes sense. We can talk about the knee brace that Sabathia started using late in 2015, the one that he says helped him go 3-2 with a 2.17 ERA in his final five starts. April baseball in New York is often cold and uncomfortable, but each day, the light shines a bit longer, the sun beats down a bit brighter.
CC Sabathia doesn't want to be a totally new man. He just wants his better angels to prevail. Over a long and successful career, he has built a ton of goodwill, an earned and deserved reputation as one of baseball's good guys. During his difficult offseason, teammates reached out, but so did plenty of opponents. He's going to need a lot of help this year, so it's a good thing that so many people want to help him.
"I'm so close with all those guys, that they'll be there for me in an official or unofficial way," Sabathia said, listing Carlos Beltran, Dellin Betances and Michael Pineda, among others. "There's so many guys that I have love for around the clubhouse, and I think I feel like they feel the same way about me. I'm just happy that they're there, and I can use them and not feel uncomfortable going to them about something."
Nothing is going to come easy for Sabathia moving forward. He says all the right things about not wanting to touch alcohol again, but so does everyone when they get sober.
"Here's the biggest problem with rehab: You can't learn recovery skills," said Dr. Willenbring, whose Alltyr Clinic in St. Paul, Minn., prefers individualized treatment and medication for patients with alcohol use disorders. "The work doesn't start until you get home."
The pitcher is entering a difficult time for any player. Age wins nearly every time, and Sabathia, who turns 36 in July, came into Spring Training not even guaranteed a spot in the starting rotation. Rough outings happen even in the best times. But CC is coming out of some of the worst times. He says that he knows the triggers. He says that he's going to devote himself to being around teammates more, to reading more, to Netflix and video games, and it's comforting to believe him. But what about when he suffers through a rough outing on the road this year? What about when the liquor store is just across the street from his hotel?
He acknowledges that it will be hard, but maintains that he's all set with a strong routine. He knows whom to call; he finally knows how to ask for help. But he also spent a month learning about himself. As he points out, isn't it possible that I'm looking at it from the wrong perspective?
After all, he has seen the emptiness at the bottom of the bottle. He already knows what it feels like. He knows himself. And as a result, he feels a level of control that he hasn't before. So as Sabathia falls back on the ultimate baseball cliché, it somehow makes me more confident in him than I had been before.
"That's why I'm not too worried about dealing with failure," Sabathia said. "As a baseball player, that's all we deal with. So I'm kind of conditioned in that way."
For years, CC Sabathia has been his own toughest opponent, nastier than anything another team could throw at him. Now, as the sunshine begins to envelop a new baseball season, he's feeling stronger than ever. Mike Trout, Josh Donaldson, Miguel Cabrera? Sabathia's certain that he has beaten back tougher foes. And this time, the whole baseball world is cheering him on.
Jon Schwartz is the managing editor for Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the April issue of Yankees Magazine. Get this article and more delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription at yankees.com/publications.