VISITORS TO THE YANKEES CLUB house never have trouble finding CC Sabathia. He’s the biggest man in the room with a coast-to-coast smile and personality to match. It’s no coincidence that Sabathia occupies Derek Jeter’s old locker; if anyone qualifies as the leader of the 2018 Bombers, it’s Sabathia—a stately combination of experience, maturity and old-fashioned guts when the game is on the line.
At 38, the lefthander is the oldest player on the roster, a distinction he wears with pride. He is also one of the American League’s top pitchers, and with 244 career victories, a possible Hall of Fame candidate after his retirement. But there’s more to Sabathia’s resume than his accomplishments on the mound: he’s one of the reasons why the Yankees are such a tight-knit group and benefit from positive clubhouse chemistry.
Sabathia’s wisdom, gleaned over an 18-year career with the Indians and Brewers before signing with the Yankees in 2009, has made him the leader on a team that’s developing young stars such as Aaron Judge, Gleyber Torres and Luis Severino. Sabathia is Buddha, a steadying influence as the Baby Bombers pursue the franchise’s first world championship in a decade.
Here are Sabathia’s thoughts about life as an elder statesman, his role within the clubhouse and his timetable for retirement.
COMMERCE: What’s it like being surrounded by teammates who are 10 to 15 years younger than you? How does it feel to be the “Old Man,” the “seasoned veteran” in the clubhouse?
CC SABATHIA: I’m having more fun playing baseball now at 38 than I did earlier in my career. Part of it is this team— a great bunch of guys and an easy clubhouse to be part of. But I’ve reached the point in my career where I love coming to the ballpark every day. I really feel like a Yankee.
What helped you make this transition? You had many successful years in Cleveland before coming to New York; to most people you were an Indian.
I felt more pressure pitching for the Indians and Brewers than I ever have with the Yankees. When I signed with the Yankees, there were a lot of guys who were already stars— Derek Jeter, A-Rod, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte. All I was trying to do was fit in, so that was helpful and easier for me because I didn’t have to carry the team. All they asked me to do was give them a chance to win every five days.
How did you end up being such a leader with the Yankees?
(Laughs) It’s probably just because I’m old. I’ve been here 10 years, so I have more experience in New York and with the media. That makes a difference, especially now that we’re seeing so many new young guys come along.
Do you have a specific leadership style?
I just do my thing, take care of my pitching and try to have the best possible outcomes when I’m on the mound. I try to lead by example, because I’m not really the kind of guy who gets in other players’ faces. That’s definitely not me. If something needs to be said in a meeting, it would probably come from me or Gardy [Brett Gardner] because we’ve been around the longest. If someone has a specific question, they can always come to me.
You went through some tough times a few years ago when you admitted to an alcohol problem. Considering how well you’ve pitched since then, would you say the worst is behind you?
Hopefully yes, although an alcoholic can never allow himself to think he’s beaten it. I fight it on a day-to-day basis. The biggest changes in my life have come from my choices when I’m on the road. I make sure I’m around my teammates and not alone. That keeps me out of trouble. At home, I have my family and friends to support me. In the clubhouse, it’s the guys, so every day I try stay on top of it, 24 hours at a time.
Winning another championship run with the Yankees, assuming you guys get there and you’re ready to would be a nice way to end this terrific go home. Are you?
It depends what day you ask me. Someone asked me earlier in the season what would happen if we won. I said I would retire because I wouldn’t want not really what I meant. I still love pitching and would like to keep at it as long as my knees stay healthy. Whether it’s one, two, three or four more years, I don’t know. On the days when I don’t pitch well, I tell myself, “That’s it—I’m going home tomorrow.” Other days, I feels like I could be out there for five more years.
What’s remarkable is how well you’ve pitched without the fastball of your early years. Most pitchers retire once the velocity is gone. How have you made yourself the exception to that rule?
In the middle of the 2015 season, I realized my fastball wasn’t coming back. I had to figure out another way to get hitters out or else my career was going to be over. That’s when I learned the cutter from Andy Pettitte—and I’ve been lucky that I was able to throw strikes with it. Now I pitch in a different way.
You don’t miss the days of throwing 98-mph fastballs by hitters?
Nah, that’s not the only way to pitch. Now I concentrate on inducing soft contact and changing speeds. It’s about getting outs and helping your team win, not just swings and misses.