How Ex-Yankees Ace CC Sabathia Found Sobriety
Not everyone was happy when CC Sabathia entered rehab back in 2015; not one single person is doubting his decision now. How could they? That move most likely saved Sabathia’s life.
That’s some of the reveal in HBO’s Under the Grapefruit Tree. But it’s far from the doc’s only takeaway. Sabathia’s career would go on strong for another four years. No, he never quite equalled his 2005-2012 peak (who could?). But he did return. Better still, he returned with a sort of vengeance. In fact, he pitched one more game in ’16 than he had the year before. And in ’17 he became the all-time American League leader in strikeouts by a left-handed pitcher.
Would the New York Yankees have gone beyond a Wild Card bow-out against the Houston Astros in 2015? Who knows? (Remember, that was also the team’s first year without Derek Jeter.) Besides the question is basically moot. Sabathia did go to rehab. He did get sober. And he did live to pitch another day. He also lived to give himself and his family the rest of his life.
And the Yankees? Well, they went on to win the Eastern Division the very year Sabathia finally retired. It’s highly unlikely the winningest team in baseball won’t be all right in the future either.
CC Sabathia Finds Sobriety
So just what happened to CC Sabathia after his 2019 retirement? Peace and tranquility? Love and comfort? Family and friend? All of the above and then some?
Well, according to Under the Grapefruit Tree, it’s all of the above and then some. The doc also makes clear that it very nearly wasn’t any of the above, let alone the fabled then some.
“To this day,” says Sabathia, “I don’t think people realize how close I came to losing everything.”
Indeed. But why? How?
Binge drinking. That’s why. And that’s how. Binge drinking that dated back to his 14th year on this planet. That’s when Sabathia found the almost otherworldly warmth alcohol provides. And that was the year he basically never looked back. That warmth would follow him throughout the minor leagues when older players would sneak him drinks in the bathroom. And it would stick by his side almost to the end of his career. Or almost till it ended his career.
Oddly enough, Sabathia didn’t even really dig the blanket.
“I never enjoyed the taste of alcohol,” Sabathia says. “Whether it was wine or whatever, I was always drinking to get f—ed up. I was never drinking to enjoy alcohol. I don’t even know who does that. Alcohol is so nasty to me. I don’t even understand it.”
Alcoholics understand Sabathia though. So do addicts. Apparently the Yankees also understood Sabathia. His decision to enter rehab was widely supported by both his teammates and the organization. The public at large? Well, not so much. Not all of ’em anyway.
“Dock Ellis can throw no-nos tripping balls back in the day yet CC Sabathia can’t pitch in the playoffs hungover?,” one Barstool Sports contributor Tweeted. “Remember when men were men?”
Sabathia didn’t let it deter him. He went to rehab anyway. And good for him too. Because it just may have saved his life. “You’ll feel bad now,” his friend, fellow pitcher Chris Young, told him. “But you’ll come out of rehab a hero.”
And how. In fact, Sabathia’s personal heroics continue to echo, years after leaving the playing field. So does his humility. Both much to his very own surprise.
“I never thought I could go five days without a drink,” Sabathia says. “And yet, here I am.”
Under the Grapefruit Tree: The CC Sabathia Story
Sabathia’s life is pretty tailor-made for storybooks. It even begins like a storybook, in the grandmother’s California backyard where Under the Grapefruit Tree gets its name. See, that’s where Sabathia learned how to pitch. Grandma’s backyard. He didn’t use baseballs though. He used grapefruits. And a folding aluminum chair served as catcher and backstop.
It continues apace from there. The right-handed kid switching to lefty at the behest of a doting father. The Minor then Major leagues. Concluding in 2019, after 19 years of “workhorse” pitching. Not to mention all the well-earned rewards that go with. A Cy Young, a World Series championship and six All-Star nods.
And while Grapefruit Tree does largely concentrate on Sabathia’s film-crew-accompanied last year, it’s the whole of his life that the doc gets right. That includes the crash and burn, as well as the resurrection.
Sabathia himself couldn’t be more pleased. Or more on message.
“I couldn’t be more grateful for the chance to give viewers an inside look into my career and to share my unfiltered story,” Sabathia said. “I struggled for a long time with alcohol addiction and anxiety, which I pretty much hid from everyone I knew. It’s my hope we can inspire athletes and non-athletes alike to open up and let their friends, family and teammates know that there is a path through this. You are not alone.”
ESPN’s Ryan Hockensmith
If you read one (other) story today, please make it “CC Sabathia and the painful but all-too-relatable path to sobriety” by ESPN’s Ryan Hockensmith. It’s a helluva deep dive — not just into Sabathia’s sobriety and the HBO doc, but into sobriety itself. And in the most personal way to boot. See Hockensmith also hit the addict’s proverbial rock bottom. He survived to fight another day too. Equally important, the journey left him with invaluable perspective. Yes, it’s a perspective shared by any addict with courage enough to truly look honestly at their life. Yet it’s nonetheless worth sharing every chance we can.
What distinguishes Hockensmith’s perspective is his capacity to parallel, as well as his compunction to spell it out. That he does so with a deliberate deftness helps tremendously of course. But it’s really his candor that makes this take worth the read. That, and the universality of the story.
It’s a universality Hockensmith addresses from the very get.
There have been many thousands of words used to describe what life feels like for an addict at the very bottom, he writes. But perhaps none captures the last days of active addiction quite like one particular phrase from recovery literature: pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization.
No checklist exists for what that entails, he continues. There are no minimums or maximums on DUIs, or divorces, or overdoses. It can be three of each, or none of the above. It just has to be the most broken a person has ever felt.
And how. To paraphrase U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s infamous definition of pornography, we know it when we live it. And unless (and until) you’ve actually lived it, you won’t know. You can’t. Because even those thousands of words Hockensmith mentions can’t fully express just what “pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization” truly feels like.
Fortunately there are wordslingers out there who come damn close to revealing the feel of it all. Wordslingers just like Hockensmith. There are also documentaries such as Under the Grapefruit Tree that aren’t afraid to screen the reveal. Most importantly, there are folks like Sabathia and Hockensmith who are ready, willing and eager to share their stories, regardless of the consequences.
We shan’t share anymore of Hockensmith’s own story, nor how he aligns with Sabathia. His take really is best read in its entirety. Why? Well, because it’s written with the alacrity of someone who’s spent his entire career at ESPN for one. Secondly, because it contains the courage of his convictions — and his decisions.
Need we say more?
The Mirror Never Lies
“I always tell people, if you think you might have a problem, you probably have a problem.”
That’s how Sabathia answers those who come to him with questions about getting sober. And that’s the answer Hockensmith cites. It’s perhaps the simplest and most succinct answer an addict can provide to that seeking someone. It’s also the most sensible. You’ll know when need help. Whether you choose to admit it or not. All you’ve gotta do is listen to yourself.
And yes, look at yourself in the proverbial mirror. Actually, make it a literal mirror. Stare yourself down and see what you find out. Then see what you can come up with to address what you’ve found. Chances are you’ve got issues. Heck, just the fact that you’re standing there staring at yourself can tell you that. And issues are always best addressed soonest.
Addicts of course like to put off till tomorrow anything that might inconvenience today. Even if it’s of the most minor variety. And the true sign of someone in recovery is the capacity to handle what come up, as soon as it comes up. Whatever it is. Get it over with and move on. Because that’s the only way to make it really go away.
If you’d like help becoming the Sabathia and Hockensmith type; you know, the type who handles his business, please give us a call. We’d like nothing better that to provide an assist. Why? Because that’s why Healing Properties was established. And that’s what we’ve been doing for nearly two decades. In fact, we opened our doors the year after both Sabathia and Hockensmith began their respective careers. And like them, we’ve learned a thing or two about addiction. Number one on our list? That recovery wins out all the way!
BTW: CC and Amber Sabathia run a keen, cool children’s charity called the PitCCh In Foundation. You can find out all about it here.
(Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons — with great gratitude.)