CC Sabathia didn’t ask too much of the game he loved.
He didn’t expect it to slow down when he did, after age took the bite off his fastball. He didn’t ask it to spare his ego, instead wearing a brace on his surgically repaired right knee in an effort to squeeze a few more years out of his left arm. He didn’t assume he’d be on the roster during the postseason this year, and when he did make the cut for the ALCS, he cheerfully headed to the bullpen to end his Hall of Fame-caliber career.
The only thing he asked for, really, was to leave on his own terms.
Technically, he didn't receive that small allowance. His left shoulder gave out – he suffered a dislocated joint in his pitching shoulder – in the eighth inning of the Yankees' ALCS Game 4 loss to the Astros on Thursday night. But in every way that matters, Sabathia got what he wanted.
“I think it's just kind of fitting,” he said serenely on Friday, his left arm in a sling and his 19-year career over. “I threw until I couldn't anymore.”
Actually, he threw past that point.
Sabathia, who was replaced on the ALCS roster by righthander Ben Heller, said he felt his shoulder pop on the cutter he threw to retire Aledmys Diaz on a flyout. He stayed in for three more pitches against George Springer, performing through pain and incapable of looking to see where his pitches ended up (a called strike, two balls, all cutters).
“I felt terrible,” he said. “I was just letting it go and whatever happened happened.”
After trainer Steve Donohue trudged to the mound, Sabathia attempted another pitch to see if he could keep going. He couldn’t. The crowd bathed him in affection, giving him a standing ovation and chanting his name. The Astros' George Springer and Gerrit Cole applauded, too. As he walked off, Sabathia was crying.
“That's what got me more emotional than the actual injury,” he said. “Just hearing the fans and the way that they were cheering me, and it was just — makes me feel good. Makes me feel like I made the right choice 11 years ago. I love these fans. I love this organization. It was just awesome to hear that and get that on the way out.”
And now that it’s really (really) over, we get to hear what Sabathia went through just to get his 39-year-old body to the point of performing in a major-league baseball game. Game days required two, sometimes two and a half hours of preparation, but so did bullpen sessions that lasted only 15 pitches. The pain was constant – he’ll get a knee replacement in retirement – and he would undergo a slew of treatments just to make it manageable, if just barely.
“Worth it,” he said.
In the end, Sabathia will be remembered as the dynamic Indians ace, the pending free agent who risked a huge payday by repeatedly pitching on short rest to lead the Brewers to the postseason and the veteran Yankees leader. He won a Cy Young Award, eclipsed 3,000 strikeouts and made the All-Star team six times. His list of off-the-field accolades and charity work is just as extensive.
MLB analyst Joe Girardi, who managed the Yankees to the 2009 World Series championship in Sabathia's first year with the team, broke down while talking about him. He concluded his remarks with ''I love you, man.''
“One of the greatest things CC has, and I think is one of the greatest things on a human being, is he's kind of dripping with humility,” Aaron Boone said. “That's real. That's who he is. A lot of people can come across that way. CC is that. And it's why I think he's beloved ... As far as a ballplayer, a competitor, and a teammate, it's hard to draw it up any better than CC Sabathia.”
The hastened goodbye hurts a little, Boone said, but he said it would be nice to have Sabathia back in the dugout for Game 5 instead of the bullpen. There’s some happiness to be had here, too, he said – the joy of a career well-played. Boone believes Sabathia will have a significant role in the organization moving forward.
“This person that we all revere so much left it all out there,” said Boone, a teammate of Sabathia's with the Indians. “He gave us everything he had. And he just -- he left it all out on the mound. Even though it's sad to see him walking out, there's something kind of awesome about it in a weird way too. I know he'll be in a good place knowing he gave everything he had.”
Sabathia, ever easygoing, brought levity to it all. He was enjoying the bullpen too much, he said, and told his wife, Amber, that maybe this was for the best. He felt too good. By July next year, “I’ll be like, I think I can pitch.” He sounded serious.
Instead, Sabathia took his final bow. He thanked the fans and marveled at what he was allowed to do for nearly two decades. “I always felt like being the pitcher, the game stopped and started on me,” he said. “I was in control all the time and the best part about it [is that there are] 50,000 people [watching you] in the Bronx and [things] don't start until I'm ready.”
Things didn’t end until he was ready, either. So in that respect, Sabathia actually did go out on his own terms. Baseball had repaid its debt to him.
“That's what I signed up to do — pitch as long as I could and as hard as I could and take the ball every time out,” he said. “I have no regrets at all.”
With Erik Boland