MILWAUKEE – Milwaukee Brewers manager Ned Yost, who might well be a descendant of Pinocchio with his wooden demeanor, bounded down a set of stairs and toward his general manager, Doug Melvin. It was 5:05 p.m., and gossip had started to circulate on the field that CC Sabathia had arrived. Yost blushed.
"Doug, Doug!" he said. "Did you see CC? He's here!"
The smile on Yost's face was something out of Christmas morning, a permagrin unseen in his six seasons as Brewers manager. Yost clocked into his Miller Park office at 9:30 a.m. Monday, sat down and drew out his pitching rotation for the next month, giddy at what he saw: Sabathia and Ben Sheets, again and again, back-to-back every time, the two aces on the newest powerhouse in the National League.
Sabathia's arrival Monday put everyone in a good mood, even with the Brewers losing 4-3 to the Colorado Rockies. Bill Hall meandered across the clubhouse and wrapped his arms as far around the 6-foot-7, 290-pound Sabathia as his muscles and ligaments would allow. Prince Fielder, perhaps the only man in baseball with a waistline to match Sabathia's, asked if he needed to borrow a pair of pants. And Melvin, who swung the deal with Cleveland that sent four prospects for the reigning American League Cy Young winner – and who earlier in the day declared, with impunity, "We're going for it" – introduced himself to Sabathia, told him to pitch well and implored him to have fun.
Melvin started to walk away, then turned around for one last look at his new ace.
"Yeah," Melvin said, "you do look a little bit like Forest Whitaker."
Oh, everyone was a bit loopy here, and who can blame them? The Brewers – the Brewers? – won the biggest sweepstakes of baseball's trading season. They outmaneuvered the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals, their adversaries for a playoff spot that would be the team's first since 1982. They outfoxed the Los Angeles Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies, two more NL foes, and the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, all of whom would gladly have fitted Sabathia with their uniform.
In the back of his mind, Brewers reliever David Riske knew it was going to happen. For the last two weeks, he has exchanged almost daily calls with Sabathia, one of his best friends from their five seasons together with the Indians. The phone tag intensified Sunday, when word began to leak that the teams were close to consummating the deal.
Riske saw his training staff on the phone. He called Sabathia wondering whether the Indians' trainers had fielded a call. Sabathia noticed Indians general manager Mark Shapiro behind a closed door. He called Riske and asked if Melvin sequestered himself too.
By dusk, Sabathia knew the team that reared him since he was 17 – the one for which he won 106 games, all before his 28th birthday – had dealt him to a new team, a new league, a new opportunity. He called Riske. They celebrated over the phone, unaware that the deal had been weeks in the making.
About a month ago, Melvin pulled aside Brewers owner Mark Attanasio, who bought the team from commissioner Bud Selig's family in 2004, and told him that the Indians might soon place Sabathia on the trade block. Melvin wanted to know whether he could pursue him.
"Of course I said yes," Attanasio said, "though when he told me, I didn't think that – "
Attanasio stopped and looked to his left. On the field, hundreds of Cub Scouts were walking around as part of a pregame ceremony, and one den leader, overwhelmed by the Sabathia trade, interrupted Attanasio's thought and yelled: "Thank you! Thank you!"
(Our turn, in honor of Melvin, for a non-sequitur: This happened all afternoon. Attanasio now knows what it feels like to be Vince Lombardi in Wisconsin. It was like the Brewers had suddenly become the Packers. Brett Favre might want to un-retire, and the Packers might not want him, and all anyone in Milwaukee could talk about was CC Sabathia, and maybe it's because he'd make a pretty good left tackle, but, no, they wanted to discuss his left arm, and how Melvin was a genius, and how Attanasio was the kind of owner they'd needed for years.)
Anyway, back to Attanasio. He didn't think Sabathia would be available, and he gave Melvin the magic words: Get him. Forget the money. Attanasio said the Brewers might finish in the red this season, though that doesn't matter right now, not with the rush of goodwill and their next game – Sabathia's first start – evolving from standard-fare Tuesday baseball into a sellout event.
"It's the biggest acquisition this organization has ever made midseason – by far," Hall said, and he was telling the truth. "To get the top guy out on the market – not in the offseason, when everyone's getting big-name guys, but right in the middle – shows what great strides we've made since Mark took over. The organization is moving in the right direction. What more proof do you need?"
Milwaukee's 29-16 record since bottoming out in last place May 19 is the pudding. The turnaround saved the Brewers' season, Yost's job and the indignity of having to sell off valuable parts rather than buy come July.
Sabathia, in fact, spoke about the postseason in the future tense, sliding this nugget – "And when we get to the playoffs … " – into the middle of his news conference. It was the capper on a long day, one in which he spent most of the morning packing his stuff and memories from 7½ seasons and 237 starts with Cleveland, flew to Milwaukee, slipped on a new jersey, soaked in love from teammates, played catch, high-fived Cub Scouts, looked oblivious to the standing ovation he received when appearing on the video board and talked shop after the game with his catcher, Jason Kendall.
Fitting in was no problem. Sabathia is a world-class charmer and was the conscience of the Indians. Some of his teammates cried upon learning about the deal. Riske, on the other hand, almost shed a tear of joy himself.
Sabathia was a 17-year-old out of Vallejo, Ca., when he met Riske, and they have grown closer since. Sabathia took him back to the Oakland suburb to roam the streets of his neighborhood. His son, Carsten Charles III, is about the same age as Riske's oldest, Payton, and Riske's little boy, Maddox, ran up to Sabathia outside the clubhouse, jumped in the air and slapped hands after the game, mimicking the feeling of all Milwaukeeans.
"Everyone's excited," Riske said. "But not like me."
He'd be surprised.
- Doug Melvin