Sabathia and Lee were in same Tribe

NEW YORK – Carl Willis, who would be CC Sabathia's(notes) first professional pitching coach, and Mike Brown, minor league pitching coordinator for the Cleveland Indians, drove 40 miles west from Burlington, N.C., to greet their first-round pick, who was flying from Northern California to Greensboro on the Fourth of July, 1998.

Sabathia, not yet 18, would be their responsibility. Neither knew Sabathia, but of course knew of him, the reports of his blazing fastball and uncommon maturity. So it was with an earnest sense of duty they'd traveled in Brown's car and stood shoulder to shoulder at the airport, waiting to greet the future of the Indians' pitching staff, even their organization.


Yankees Game 1 starter CC Sabathia has a 1.19 ERA with 20 strikeouts and a 3-0 record in the '09 playoffs.

(Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

The door opened and passengers streamed into the gate area. Mostly, one after another, they were little people. A dozen, then another dozen, more.

Finally, Willis turned to Brown and nodded toward one of the gentlemen of short stature.

"Suppose that's him?" he asked.

Brown grinned.

Just then, every bit of 6-foot-7 ducked through the door. Sabathia spotted them immediately, two baseball guys standing together, and they him. They each hauled a bag and stowed them in the car trunk. Sabathia sat in the front, Willis, the former big league pitcher, in the back.

"I knew my place," Willis would say, chuckling.

Sabathia's education would start on that 45-minute drive back to Burlington, Willis and Brown carrying the conversation, Sabathia nervously and gamely answering their questions. They went straight to the little Appalachian rookie league ballpark, where Sabathia stretched and threw a bullpen session. They all went for something to eat and talked some more.

Fewer than three years later, Sabathia reached the big leagues. A year after that, the Indians traded for another left-hander, tall but not Sabathia tall, full of fastball but not quite Sabathia fast. Cliff Lee(notes) arrived from Montreal (with Grady Sizemore(notes), among others) for two players, including Bartolo Colon(notes). After he'd made a few starts in Double-A Akron, the Indians sent Lee to Triple-A Buffalo and to his new pitching coach, Carl Willis. Two months later, Lee, too, had reached the major leagues, if only for a taste.

By 2004, Sabathia and Lee were helping lead the Indians' pitching staff, Willis as their pitching coach. That is how they stayed until Cleveland would no longer pay them. Sabathia, who would win the American League Cy Young Award in 2007, was dealt three weeks before the 2008 trading deadline. Lee, who won the award in 2008, was traded to the Phillies at the 2009 deadline. And Willis, who'd helped nurture and polish them both, was fired along with the rest of Eric Wedge's staff with a week remaining in this regular season and the Indians.

So it is that Sabathia and Lee will oppose each other in Game 1 of the World Series, Sabathia for the Yankees, Lee for the Phillies, both of them at Yankee Stadium. And so it is that Willis will be in front of his television set in Durham, N.C., praying neither fails.

"What they're trying to do, I'm going to be so excited," said Willis, who pitched nine seasons and won a World Series as a reliever for the 1991 Minnesota Twins. "From the first pitch from CC, to Cliff sprinting out of the dugout before the bottom of the first, if I could have a wish for an outcome, they'd both go nine, have it nothing-nothing after nine, then turn it over to the bullpens."

A young man is raised in an organization, sometimes raised by the organization, and he views the game through it. Teammates become brothers. When Sabathia lost his way in 2005, getting bombed in four mid-season starts, Lee stood by in the bullpen of an opposing club while Sabathia and Willis worked through new mechanics, hoping to find the answer. Lee won 18 games that season, and Sabathia learned the slider he has now.


Phillies Game 1 starter Cliff Lee is 2-0 with a 0.74 ERA this postseason.

(Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

When Lee spent most of 2007 losing games or in the minor leagues or both, Sabathia constantly called him with encouragement. Sabathia won 19 games that season, and Lee learned that throwing harder wasn't always throwing better, and made more of a commitment to change speeds.

"We're close," Sabathia said. "It's just weird because a couple years ago we were talking about maybe pitching in a World Series together. Now we're in different clubhouses. It's just a little weird. But, it'll be fun."

Willis will watch as a father might over two sons. He knew them when they were raw and they needed him. One at a time he'd hugged them and wished them well. And they'll hope to establish their fastballs on both sides of the plate.

"We talked about it so much," Willis said.

They'll think about pitching well enough to give their teams a chance to win. Nothing is given. Just pitch, then let the game finish how it will.

"So much," Willis said, "is out of their control."

They'll both pitch hard inside, confident and unafraid.

"Their approach," Willis said, "is very much the same."

But not exactly the same.

"The glaring difference," he said, "other than CC's size, CC obviously has more velocity and because of that velocity and life he may be able to get away with the occasional mistakes a little more often than Cliff will. And Cliff has that top-to-bottom, spike breaking ball that is much more consistent than it used to be."

By "spike," Willis was referring to Lee's grip, in which his index finger curls under itself, raising his knuckle off the baseball. Lee has that, Sabathia has the devastating changeup, and they'll take turns on the mound once, maybe twice, maybe even three times in this Series.

"Wow," Willis said. "To watch these two guys, them pitching on the biggest stage in baseball, to already have seen them control each and every game they've pitched, has been amazing. They have been the deciding factor in every game they pitched, no matter the team or the bad weather. It's, I don't know, I sit back and I can't believe I was a part of these two guys. Hey, I'm biased, but they're the best two starting pitchers in the game. I really believe that."