ANAHEIM, Calif. — He was bigger maybe, threw harder probably and almost surely drove a nicer car, but what always seemed true of CC Sabathia was — is — that he seemed one of us, a regular guy who liked regular things and suffered from regular flaws. He had a good time. He knew what he liked. He discovered he was fragile. So he stopped having quite as good of a time and was better for it. He showed up almost every day for as long as he could, as long as his body would let him, and wasn’t particularly fancy about it. His clothes didn’t quite fit but the game suited him fine, so he repaired his knees, pried open a coronary artery, enjoyed the new perspective and kept pitching.
He’ll be 39 soon enough and he’s decided that’s plenty of pitching for now. This will be his final summer of baseball, the last of 19 big-league seasons, of what for a ballplayer is a lifetime and then some. He’s not there yet, not yet counting backward to one last season, one last month, one last start, after all those years counting up.
“Nah,” Sabathia said. “I’m just focused start-to-start. It’s easy when you’re playing for something else. This is a team sport, not an individual sport. And the first step to that is winning the division.”
In just his third start of 2019, Sabathia was knocked around Wednesday night in Anaheim, where he was betrayed by a couple of fourth-inning sliders that didn’t hang around long, a couple of too many to count along the way. He pulled his cap down tighter, so that his ears flared a little. He held his glove out in front of him the way he does. And he stayed at it for as long as he could, because that’s the way it works for a guy who’d taken the ball 540 times before. The Los Angeles Angels scored five runs in his five innings. Sabathia’s New York Yankees, depleted by injury, won anyway, for the sixth day in a row, for the eighth day in nine.
Still, just the other night he was sitting beside fellow starter J.A. Happ when he turned and said, “I like to be out here on the bench. I don’t want to miss something. You tend to think you’ve seen it all until you don’t.”
Soon enough, he’ll see a guy strike out his 3,000th batter, and it’ll be him. He’s three away. And win his 250th game. He stands at 247. And go out a revered Yankee who was greater than the sum of his 11 seasons in the Bronx, as tallied by the fans who fell for him and the teammates who came to know and trust him.
“CC is the man,” said James Paxton, the fellow left-hander who arrived from Seattle this season. “He’s awesome. A great leader. A great teammate. A great pitcher.”
When Paxton’s ERA was 6 after his first three starts, in part because he’d walked six batters across 15 innings, Sabathia reminded him he — Sabathia — had once been a power pitcher as well, and as such he wouldn’t aim for corners, he’d throw to broader areas — say, this half of the zone, or the other half — and let the hitters decide if they could hit it or not.
“I feel like that’s what I need to do as well,” Paxton said. “And I’ve done that the past couple starts.”
In them, he walked two, struck out 24 and allowed no runs, both wins for a Yankees team waiting on its offense to heal.
“He keeps it simple and I like that,” Happ said. “The biggest thing, and people talk about it all the time, there’s really no secrets. He gets out there, people know what he does, and he does it.”
Turns out, it fits the whole CC vibe.
“You go through different stages of life,” Happ said. “And he’s gone through that. From the time he was a rookie to now being 38 and a lot in between. I think he realizes you can’t take yourself too seriously.”
With five or six months remaining in a career that began on draft day 21 years ago, Sabathia pitched against 10 current managers when they were playing, including his own manager, Aaron Boone (1-for-6), and the man in the other dugout Wednesday night, Brad Ausmus (0-for-1). Sabathia also faced Boone’s bench coach, Josh Bard (0-for-5), hitting coach Marcus Thames (8-for-31), first-base coach Reggie Willits (0-for-5), and third-base coach Phil Nevin (1-for-8), along with Ausmus’ bench coach, Josh Paul (5-for-13), assistant hitting coach Shawn Wooten (4-for-14) and catching coach Jose Molina (1-for-22).
Given that Sabathia, as of Wednesday afternoon, had faced 14,558 batters in his regular-season career and 1,181 different batters, if you’d picked up a bat over the past couple decades, chances were as good as any that Sabathia would be standing 60 feet away.
After all, with most of a season remaining in a career that finds him first among active pitchers in innings, wins, strikeouts, starts, complete games (and losses, hits allowed, earned runs allowed, hit batters), among other lists, Sabathia faced 12 different Gonzalezes, 10 Wilsons, 10 Perezes, nine Youngs, six Ramirezes, seven current Hall of Famers and two Halls, along with two Josh Bells and two Daniel Robertsons.
Eleven times he faced today’s head of the players’ union. He matched up against a Kennedy, a Nixon, a Monroe, a Calhoun, a Harrison, a Buchanan, an Adam(e)s, a Bush, a Carter, three Jacksons, six Johnsons and all those Wilsons.
He walked Delino DeShields once. He struck out Delino DeShields’ son four times. He gave up a hit to Eric Young and another to Eric Young Jr. Raul and Adalberto Mondesi were a combined 3-for-19 against him, but that was mostly Raul’s fault.
He pitched against J.D. and Stephen Drew, Aaron and Bret Boone, Dmitri and Delmon Young, Mat and Ben Gamel, Andy and Adam LaRoche, Yuli and Lourdes Gurriel, Willy and Erick Aybar, Scott and Jerry Hairston, and Justin and B.J. Upton, and B.J. and Melvin Upton. He sorted Rickie from Jemile Weeks, Kyle from Corey Seager, Cesar from Maicer Izturis and, of course, Yadier from Jose from Bengie Molina.
He faced one Jon Jay and one Justice, also three Browns, three Green(e)s, two Whites and three Blancos. A Crosby and a Hawpe. A Stairs and a Story. An Infante and a Bourn. A House, a Barnes and three Butlers. A Salmon, a Trout and two Gils. A Berger and Freese. A Belt and a Halter. A Hunter and a Buck. Cash and Cora. Mayberry and Barney. A Hudson and Bay. A Teagarden with Fields, Flowers, a Lilly and DeRosa. A Church and Grace.
A Luna and, as of Wednesday night, La Stella.
It has not been perfect but it was not intended to be. It was close enough, with a whole summer to come, and the better part of a life after that. Until then, it’s back to start-to-start, the way it worked for a very long time.
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