Sunday, May 13, 2018

Randy and CC – A Tale of Two Lefthanders



Randy and CC – A Tale of Two Lefthanders 

By David H. Lippman 

There was a story on the radio yesterday that C.C. Sabathia has indicated that he will retire after the Yankees win the World Series this year, which I found expected, inevitable, and saddening.

While Sabathia suffered from some injuries during his tenure with the Yankees, he also enjoyed some moments of true glory – the 2009 World Championship…finally notching a 20-win season…his gritty performance in 2017. He also suffered self-inflicted pain from battles with alcohol, often the bane of many human beings, regardless of profession.

Just as importantly, Sabathia truly exemplified the Yankee traditions. He is a leader in the clubhouse and in the pitching rotation. When he was on the disabled list earlier this year, he defied baseball rules and his injuries (but upholding protocol to back one’s teammates) to vault out of the dugout to lead the battle against Joe Kelly and his head-hunting.

During his tenure with the Yankees, Sabathia has been one of my absolute favorites with the Yankees. He wears his cap at an odd angle, looks baggy on the mound, and seems like a cheery working stiff, carrying the ethos of Thurman Munson without the grouchiness.

But what really attracted my loyalty to him was how he fit in to the New York Yankee environment. It was an epiphany I had quickly, when he first arrived in New York in late 2008, proving himself the diametric opposite of another fabled lefthanded pitcher.

After the Yankees’ humiliating defeat in the 2004 American League Championship Series, the Steinbrenners realized that the team lacked pitchers like David Cone, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens, and David Wells, who, when confronted with a do-or-die game, would shove it down the opponents’ throats. They had to give the ball in the finale to the morose, brooding, and cranky Kevin Brown, who fell into a 2-0 hole and loaded the bases. Joe Torre then turned the game over to another poor choice, Javier Vazquez, who gave up a grand slam to Johnny Damon, to end the curse.

Clearly, the 2005 Yankees needed a pitcher of towering strength, track record, and force, who could anchor the starting rotation. Randy Johnson had just such a resumé, and the Diamondbacks were happy to send him to New York in a trade for the forgettable Dioner Navarro, the worthless Javier Vazquez, and the late Brad Halsey. He died in 2014 at age 33, when he fell or jumped off of a cliff in Texas, after bizarre public behavior that led to questions about his mental health.

And that, precisely, was the mistake by the Yankees. On paper, the trade was perfect: the Yankees shedded two players of questionable value and one of some value (Navarro is still playing), and gained one of the most titanic pitchers in the history of the game.

The problem is that while such trades look good on paper (or in a baseball card game like Strat-O-Matic or Statis-Pro), they can into awful problems in real life, for many reasons: financial, physical, or mental.

In this case, the problem was mental. When Johnson arrived in New York for his medical check the day before the signing ceremony, a TV sports crew led by Duke Castiglione lay in ambush for the “Big Unit” as he walked up to the doctor’s office. Castiglione was hoping for the usual “I’m just happy to be here” interview. What he got was instead national news and a mammoth embarrassment to the Yankees – before Johnson had even opened his welcome-aboard press conference.

The video says it all. A nervous, flustered, and awkward Johnson tries to put his hand over the camera lens and push Castiglione and his cameraman aside. The behavior made Johnson appear contemptuous, boorish, and nasty off the field. The term used today for these tableaux is “bad optics,” but I’d rather say that it was simply damaging to the Yankees’ reputation. The man they had just acquired to save the pitching staff had behaved arrogantly and in a threatening manner to a major news outlet that covered them.

I had some idea of what was going on, having been in the media scrum that covered both New York baseball teams in the 1980s. I had seen players arrive in New York, either in trade or up from the minors, who had immense difficulty coping with having a dozen microphones shoved in their face by reporters asking questions (fatuous and otherwise) that they were required to answer with greater thinking and analytical abilities than they possessed. Playing baseball is easy to these guys – not explaining it or anything else in life. Nor are they used to facing as the many cameras, notebooks, and microphones that New York imposes on its professional gladiators.

Johnson was clearly frightened by the situation. The Yankees were also mortified. They are more reputation-conscious than most baseball teams, given their immense history. They would like their players to be known for brilliance on the field, and humility and professionalism off the field.

The press conference that should have been a triumphal unveiling of a future Hall-of-Famer coming to New York became a chastened team and player apologizing profusely to the New York media and fans – including an amused Castiglione – for the previous day’s incident. Little else was covered.

It was a bad start for Randy Johnson, and the season only got worse. He was inconsistent for most of the year, serving up 32 home runs, pitching a 17-8 record, with a 3.79 ERA and 211 strikeouts. Next year, he was worse, with a 17-11 record, a 5.00 ERA, and 172 strikeouts. He looked uncomfortable on the mound, and showed only flashes of the brilliance of his earlier career, and suffered a herniated disk late in 2006.

After the season, Johnson’s brother died, and Randy sought a trade back to Arizona to be closer to his family and support them in their grief. The Yankees were happy to oblige, but I think the grief was an excuse – Johnson wasn’t happy in New York, ineffective, and needed to go. In January 2007, Johnson went back to Arizona for Luis Vizcaino, Alberto González, Steven Jackson, and Ross Ohlendorf. Vizcaino gained the wins in both ends of a doubleheader for the Yankees in 2007, but otherwise, none distinguished themselves. Meanwhile, Johnson recovered as a pitcher, and went on to rack up 303 wins, punching his ticket to Cooperstown.

At his Hall of Fame press conference, Johnson was more gracious. He apologized to Yankee fans that they could not see him at his best, because of his back and hernia injuries.

But as I watched Johnson all through his two years with the Yankees, I could sense his discomfort, and it was clear that it did not come from a creaky back. Johnson had been forced to cut his distinctive hair by the Yankee regulations. He did not look like himself. He was wearing No. 41 instead of his usual No. 51, because the latter number belonged to Bernie Williams, who had seniority and credentials over Johnson. Indeed, No. 51 would go up in Monument Park among the other retired numbers.

It was clear to me that Johnson was an alien on this team, a stranger in the town, and as he struggled, I could see that he was losing the loyalty of the fans, being tolerated and barely tolerated at that. A 5.00 ERA and 172 strikeout season is worse than pedestrian. Yankee fans saw Randy Johnson on the scorecard and an imposter on the pitcher’s mound.

I also sensed, but had no evidence for, that Johnson was uncomfortable in New York, one of the few actual “World Cities,” along with London and Tokyo. Johnson came from Walnut Creek, California, a suburb outside Oakland, and lived in Arizona, where today he is Assistant to the Diamondbacks’ General Manager and has a web page (rjphotos.com) of his photographs, which depict auto racing, rock concerts, and scenes from his international travel on USO tours and African photo-safaris.

While there are shots on his web page of London and Rome, I could see he was happier snapping photos of cheetahs, lions, Buddhist monks, elephants, and African sunsets, than trying to cross Madison Avenue at rush hour. But then, few people enjoy doing the latter.

Flash forward to late 2008. Having been denied the post-season for the first time since the 1994 (and that by the baseball strike, so 1993 is more appropriate), the Yankees moved to strengthen a pitching rotation that had been defined by Carl Pavano’s non-appearances and wasted money. They did so impressive fashion, signing two sets of free agent initials, A.J. Burnett and C.C. Sabathia.

This time, there were no problems. Both pitchers got their medical checks done quietly, and showed up for their joint press conference without drama. They tried on their uniforms, smiled broadly, and said the right words. Then Sabathia added something interesting.

Unlike other ballplayers, he planned to live fulltime in the New York area, selecting a home in Alpine, New Jersey, in which to house his wife, Amber, and their three children – they added a fourth in 2010. I was impressed by that. He was starting off, trying to connect to the region.

After the press conference, CC, trailing the pack of reporters, took a tour of the unfinished new Yankee Stadium, visiting the Yankee clubhouse with Burnett and choosing the site of his locker. The two posed for photos in the clubhouse.

But CC wasn’t done yet. He walked around the stadium, where construction workers were laboring at their tasks, trying to meet that deadline. On camera, CC chatted with the workers, signing autographs and posing for pictures. I was impressed. He was casual about it.

The YES Network put this all on video and their segment on CC’s signing ended with him giving a plug for Yankee season tickets. That impressed me the most – he had neatly threaded several important social needles on the first day…a proper press conference…moving to the region…connecting with the men who were doing the hard work in putting the new Yankee Stadium together…assuming his duties to advertise and support the Yankee team. All in about two hours.

“He’s figured it out,” I said to everyone I discussed Sabathia with. “He’ll do fine.”

I later learned some of the reasons behind Sabathia’s demeanor. He had overcome much in his life. Sabathia’s father Corky was a drug addict who abandoned the family, contracted HIV, and died of stomach cancer in 2002. CC himself was robbed at gunpoint in Cleveland by two former Cleveland State basketball players in the city’s downtown. Right after that incident, CC called his girlfriend Amber and said, “If you were here, this wouldn’t have happened. Let’s get married.” They did so in 2003. By then, CC and Corky had reunited, and one of the pitcher’s tattoos honors Corky.

In 2008, the Indians traded Sabathia to the Brewers in the usual “the-team-stinks-so-let’s-dump-free-agents-before-we-can’t-sign-them” deal. Amber suggested that CC take out a major ad in The Plain Dealer, the city’s newspaper, thanking the fans for 10 years of support and loyalty, which they did.

Amber Sabathia herself has her own website, ambersabathia.com, where she writes on successful parenting. Both have their own foundation, PitCChIn, which supports three useful causes: teaching kids age 5 to 12 baseball; providing kids in need in The Bronx and CC’s native Vallejo, California, with school supplies; and renovating baseball fields for kids to play on.

In 2014, Amber ran the New York City marathon as a fund-raiser for the foundation.

I read all that (then and now), and said, “Oh, he gets it. He’ll be fine. He’ll have no problem.”

Sure enough, the only problem CC Sabathia had for his 10 years in pinstripes has been injuries (inevitable for players) and a struggle with liquor late in the 2015 season.

I did wonder how his family fit in, though, and part of it was answered by their charity. In 2009, I got a call from them, asking if my Mayor was going to attend an event Amber Sabathia was doing at the Newark Boys and Girls Club.

I used the chance to chat with the woman from the foundation, and I asked her if Amber had taken the smaller Sabathias to New York attractions as planned. She said they’d been to the Bronx Zoo a lot.

Well, that’s fine for kids, I admitted, but New York had a lot more. I told her to grab her pen, and rattled off the Brooklyn Children’s Museum (the nation’s oldest); the Queens Museum (the Panorama of New York); the Museum of Mathematics (the only one in the nation, which offers interactive games to teach math to kids, including bicycles with square wheels); and my favorite, the New York Transit Museum, with its Saturday morning art programs for kids. The assistant was duly impressed. She promised to pass that on to Amber.

Then I pleaded with my bosses to support the event in some way. I was eager to go – I would provide Amber herself with fliers on these museums and my guest pass to the Transit Museum. As a family member, I get one every year, good for free admission for two adults and two kids.

But they didn’t respond. We had galactic crises to deal with. I was very upset, as one may imagine. I didn’t want to grill the pitcher about facing hitters or cadge autographs – being a father and a family man, I was more interested in helping a new family to the New York area get settled in. And I like kids. I often took my daughter and her entire crew to the Transit Museum and other museums for special programs, and they had a great time.

Once Sabathia took the mound, it was even more clear that he knew how to fit in. He wore a baggy uniform, his hat tipped slightly, his face unshaven. He looked for all the world like a casual working man, pitching for a pick-up team on a Saturday night. No tension. No worry. Just out there, pitching.

Now it appears that CC Sabathia is going to hang it up at season’s end. We hope he’ll add a second ring to his finger, to go with his 2009 ALCS MVP and 2007 Cy Young Award. I hope it will add up to a plaque at Cooperstown, preferably with the “NY” on the cap. It’s what he should get – he has been a tremendous pitcher.

It won’t be far from another former Yankee who’s up at the Hall, but does not have the “NY” on the cap, Randy Johnson. Johnson’s plaque shows the “A” of the Arizona Diamondbacks, and his Yankee tenure is a line-item on the plaque.

Johnson was a line-item for the Yankees, something more than a footnote, but less than a glittering star. But Sabathia was and is a star for the Yankees, a major power for the team on the field, a leader in the clubhouse, and a community activist off the field.

And the reason was very simple. Randy Johnson didn’t “get it.” CC Sabathia “got it.”

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