WINTER HAVEN, Fla. - No baseball coach or manager ever taught C.C. Sabathia how to pitch with a heavy heart.
He had to learn that on his own last year.
No one could have prepared Cleveland’s ace for all he would experience in 2003 — 12 months of triumph and tragedy that made him appreciate life’s fragility.
“It was the toughest thing I’ve ever had to go through,” Sabathia said Wednesday. “It was a lot.”
Sabathia went through a decade’s worth of highs and lows last season.
In the span of a few months, Sabathia got married, he and his wife, Amber, had their first child, C.C. Sabathia III, and he also made the AL All-Star team.
And then, Sabathia learned that his father, Carsten Charles Sabathia I, was dying of cancer.
It would be tough for any person to handle, never mind a young man also burdened with being the No. 1 pitcher and only identifiable star on a team in the midst of rebuilding.
Sabathia coped as well as he could. While he and his teammates trudged their way through a 94-loss season, Sabathia often flew back to Vallejo, Calif., to be with his father.
There were plenty good times for them to remember, too. The Little League games they enjoyed together as player and coach. C.C.’s selection in the first round of the 1998 draft, and the left-hander’s first game at Jacobs Field.
Baseball became a refuge for Sabathia.
Upon returning to the Indians, he found comfort on the mound and pitching in games. And despite the personal strain, he held up well professionally, going 13-9 with a 3.60 ERA in 30 starts.
In December, the man whose name and love for the game he inherited, died. He was just 47.
“I got to spend a lot of time with him at the hospital and it probably made us even tighter than we already were,” Sabathia said. “He left me pretty young, but he left a man, so I can go on.”
Sabathia got another jolt earlier this month when his uncle, Aaron Berhel, suffered a massive heart attack at his home and died. His father’s brother was only 53.
“I just buried my dad, and was finally dealing with that better, and then my uncle dies,” Sabathia said. “He and my dad coached me in Little League. That was hard.”
The passing of two men so close to him has made Sabathia ponder his future, but not to change who he is.
Since the likable, 6-foot-7, 290-pound Sabathia burst upon the scene by winning 17 games as a rookie in 2001, there have been those who questioned whether he was too heavy to last — or fulfill his potential.
The Indians wondered and worried, too, when Sabathia came to training camp two years ago weighing over 300 pounds. But although he hasn’t slimmed down significantly, he has changed his eating habits and now has a personal chef during the regular season. His lifestyle has been positively altered by family life.
Sabathia says he doesn’t pay any attention to those who pound on the weight issue.
“The people who seem to care so much about my weight aren’t the important ones,” he said. “I don’t have any complaints about my weight, and I don’t hear anybody with the Indians complaining about my weight. I feel great. I feel like I’m in good shape.”
It would be hard to criticize the way his career is shaping up.
In his first three major league seasons, Sabathia has 43 career victories and he has already established himself as one of the AL’s top pitchers.
He has work to do, for sure. But Sabathia isn’t worried about pleasing anyone but himself — and the Indians, who think he can be their first 20-game winner since Gaylord Perry won 21 in 1974.
“My goal this year is to pitch 200 to 250 innings,” he said. “That’s it, that’s only goal. If I can stay healthy and make all my starts, then the stats will take care of themselves.”
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