Sabathias commit to youth as opt-out looms

CC Sabathia #52 of the New York Yankees CC Sabathia #52 of the New York Yankees looks on against the Detroit Tigers during game two of the American League Division Series at Yankee Stadium. (Oct. 2, 2011) Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

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Come on, come on!" Amber Sabathia shouts, corralling a young man into a group photo. "OK. Now everybody say 'Yankees!' "

It's the first day of school at P.S. 106 in the Bronx's Parkchester neighborhood, and Amber and her better-known husband CC planned this visit months ahead of time. They'd give each of the 1,700 students a backpack -- a signature initiative from their PitCCh In Foundation -- spread their usual brand of good cheer and maybe add a few more fans to the considerable Yankees base.

The headliner isn't here, however; thanks to a scheduling issue from Hurricane Irene, the Yankees are in Baltimore for the day, playing the Orioles in a makeup affair. No worries: Amber, who has a teaching degree from San Francisco State University, can impressively work a room solo.

"She runs most of it. She's very hands-on,'' CC said of Amber. "It's pretty cool that she's that involved.''

"I love children,'' Amber said. "When the teachers are walking by and saying, 'Thank you,' I say, 'No, thank you for what you do every day.' ''

Combine Amber's magnetism, CC's ace-caliber pitching and personable nature, and the reach of the Yankees' brand, and you have an endeavor with real legs. The Sabathias formed PitCCh In with the intention of helping inner-city youth "by working to raise their individual self-esteem through educational and athletic activities,'' as the website reads, and the foundation's director of development, Stephen Eriksen, said, "Within every five years, we want to get [backpacks] to every elementary school in the Bronx.''

"We're definitely using the fact that he plays for the Yankees to our advantage,'' Amber said. "Our foundation color is navy blue.''

They have big plans in the big city, and yet there's one huge, looming question that could dramatically impact the Sabathias, PitCCh In and the Yankees.

When CC signed a seven-year, $161-million contract with the Yankees in December 2008, he received an opt-out provision after the 2011 season. With the Yankees' postseason run now over, the time is coming for the Sabathias to act, or not act, on their negotiated right.

If they're not certain of their future, the Sabathias have never forgotten their past. CC and Amber were high school sweethearts at Vallejo Senior High School in Northern California, an area where many families struggled to make ends meet.

"What happened was, when [CC] first made it, started making money, our hometown of Vallejo was reaching out to him for money for this, money for that,'' Amber said. "He was always giving back, but he was more or less just writing checks.''

In 2008, the Sabathias huddled with CC's mother, Margie Sabathia-Lanier, and family friend and publicist Kathy Jacobson, and they formalized the plan for PitCCh In. They would split their efforts between Vallejo and the area of CC's employment. They held their first event at a bowling alley in Cleveland while CC pitched for the Indians and shifted their operation to Milwaukee when the Indians dealt CC to the Brewers in July 2008.

That trade benefited the Brewers, whom Sabathia led to their first playoff appearance since 1982, but it also helped the Yankees, who had been targeting the lefthander since the 2007-08 offseason.

"Transferring to Milwaukee was a big help,'' Amber said. "That made us know that no matter where he went, he was going to be OK.''

Amber and CC resolved that wherever CC signed, the whole Sabathia family (they have four children) would move there full-time. Upon committing to the Yankees, the family quickly purchased a house in New Jersey's Bergen County.

And with the Sabathias came the backpacks, an initiative conceived by Sabathia-Lanier.

"His mom said her biggest [challenge] as a single mother, growing up with CC, raising him, was school supplies,'' Amber said. "When school came around, she was so stressed because financially, she couldn't afford to buy CC a new backpack and buy school supplies.''

In addition to the backpacks, PitCCh In holds a "Christmas Caravan'' each December in Vallejo, treating area kids to holiday presents, and there will be the "CC Challenge'' -- an "Amazing Race''-style competition in Manhattan -- on Nov. 12. The Sabathias also helped turn the North Vallejo Little League into a model league with groomed fields and extensive concessions sales.

Earlier this year, at the annual Baseball Assistance Team dinner in Manhattan, CC received the Bart Giamatti Award, given to a current player "for his sportsmanship off the field.''

The marriage between the Sabathias and the Yankees has been fruitful. "He's everything that we expected him to be,'' Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "His reputation was exactly spot on.''

"I've enjoyed it 10 times more than I thought,'' CC said. "It's kind of unbelievable. Just from day one of spring training, I felt like part of the team. The guys are great. The clubhouse is so great.

"I think, for me, the biggest thing is moving my family out. Having everybody know where they're going to be settled and making this our home. Once everything is good at home, it makes it easier to come here and do your job.''

"I told him he could go play in China and I'd be there,'' Amber said. "So we knew wherever he was going, he was buying a house.''

The Sabathias recently were driving over the George Washington Bridge en route to Yankee Stadium, Amber recalled, when CC turned to her and said, "Did you ever imagine that we would be living here?''

"I said I never imagined we'd be living here,'' Amber said. " . . . We're used to good cities, but nothing compares to New York.''

The opt-out decision must be made by five days after the end of the World Series, when the free-agent market opens. Given Sabathia's on-the-field success with the Yankees, it makes no sense for him to simply stick to his current deal, which runs through 2015. The Yankees could proactively keep Sabathia in pinstripes by extending him a few years beyond 2015 before the opt-out decision comes into play.

"We're definitely invested here,'' Amber said. "I could not imagine going anywhere else. But I know baseball is a business, at the same time . . .

"But I definitely love it here, and this is definitely our home.''

There's strong reason to believe it will remain their home. That the Yankees will commit more years and dollars to their ace, and that the Sabathias will build on what they've established in the area these past three years with PitCCh In.

At the moment, though, the Sabathias and the Yankees agree on just one issue, for sure -- another World Series title could have strengthened an already great relationship among the team, the pitcher and the pitcher's adopted city.

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