KANSAS CITY, Mo. – They had spent five minutes discussing the relative merits of Tony Romo as a quarterback, New York Yankees reliever Brian Bruney calling him one of the three best in the NFL and CC Sabathia wearing the incredulous sort of look that doubles as scary when sported by a 300-pound man.
This is how Sabathia most enjoys spending his downtime in the clubhouse: mired in arguments, laughter and sometimes both – always busy, though, a kinetic tempest. And on a lazy Friday afternoon, with the Yankees' domicile at Kauffman Stadium nearly empty, Sabathia spilled all his energy into Romo and Jessica Simpson and who will win the Thanksgiving tussle between his Raiders and Bruney's Cowboys.
"Want to bet?" Bruney asked.
"How much?" Sabathia said.
"I don't know," Bruney said, "$161 million?"
It was as if Bruney manufactured the whole conversation simply to deliver the perfect punch line. For the rest of his career, Sabathia will dovetail with $161 million like Gehrig does 2,130, Aaron 755 and Mendoza .200. The difference is that Sabathia has been an in-uniform Yankee for all of two months, and his teammates are already popping off indiscriminate rounds of buckshot at the big man. Damn.
Admittedly, Bruney runs about 250 himself, so perhaps he's the only one around with such courage. Though it's doubtful. Sabathia's seamless assimilation into the Yankee meat grinder shows just the sort of personality he possesses – the one that, for now, seems impervious to the rigors of New York he learns daily.
Why, earlier in the day, Sabathia found his New Jersey home the product of a Page Six blurb. Now the whole world can see a picture of Sabathia's house in all of its 12,000-square-foot, six-bedroom, $15 million-and-oh-by-the-way-paid-in-cash glory. Pssst. Hey. You hear? He's neighbors with Stevie Wonder!
And during his first start, something of a disaster – and not just by New York standards, either – an intrepid cameraperson caught Sabathia adjusting what looked like a fake pregnancy belly across his torso. It was a heat pack over his abdominals, which turned the Yankee terror alert to a blinking red. Never mind that he averaged 93 mph on his fastball and his release point remains catawampus and his career ERA is higher in April than any other month and that Sabathia uses the pack every start in the cold.
"Nobody had ever seen me do it before," he said. "I guess that makes it a big deal."
Quickly he's learning that everything he does is a big deal. It's like the old Alan Greenspan joke: If CC Sabathia sneezes, the Yankees' season totters on the precipice.
Whether this derails Sabathia, inspires him to even greater things or somewhere in between is a better question for seven years down the road, and with the season barely a week old, his start against Kansas City on Saturday represents about 0.4 percent of his expected output for the Yankees. Still, it's a landmark game: Sabathia hasn't had a good one in pinstripes, and the frenzied are beginning to froth for success, because the Yankees haven't had a pitcher this accomplished since Roger Clemens. Next up for him is the home opener in new Yankee Stadium on Thursday.
The Yankees' free-agent express this offseason sought players of similar quality to those of their championship heyday, ones who would not end up with the middle circle of that Venn diagram where money and attitude intersect. Mark Teixeira awes teammates with his work ethic, and A.J. Burnett earns respect for the shape he's in. And while Sabathia's physical marvels go without saying, his greatest trick yet was slinking into the middle of the Yankees' crowded social order.
"They're integrated with this team already, and it's April 10?" manager Joe Girardi said. "It happened very quickly because the type of the guys they were."
Sabathia understands everything ties back to performance, no matter what teammates think, and he has experience righting himself here. Last year with Cleveland, after starting 0-3 with a 13.50 earned-run average through four starts, Sabathia came to Kansas City, struck out 11 in six scoreless innings and posted a 1.88 season ERA from that point.
Girardi, for whatever it's worth, called Sabathia's bullpen session leading up to Saturday's start "fabulous," though he admitted rarely does practice translate to perfection. The onus, then, is on Sabathia to push the Yankees' winning streak to three and feel better than he has in an up-and-down spring and pitch his city – "We're full-time New Yorkers now," Sabathia said – the sort of game it craves.
One full of 95-mph fastballs and devastating sliders and all of the other amuse bouches pitchers of his caliber provide. Maybe they'll come. Maybe it'll take another few starts. Sabathia hopes not, though when he envisioned himself as a Yankee, the team's meaningful games sold him along with the nine-figure check.
"At the end of the day," Sabathia said, "you have to be happy for yourself."
Which will come soon enough. Sabathia is too good, too smart, too consistent to keep repeating his 4 1/3-inning, eight-hit, six-run, five-walk, no-strikeout, first-start embarrassment. He'll start slinging those unhittable pitches, looking like a right-handed Clemens, and that $161 million won't seem quite so egregious anymore.
Bet on it.