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Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Updated: March 26, 3:32 PM ET

By Buster Olney

C.C. Sabathia is caught between the present and the immediate future, but could hold the key to the entire AL in the process.
She heard her son cry but she was afraid to touch him, this eight-pound boy with the 22-letter name and 21-inch body. Carsten Charles Sabathia II stared up at her with the biggest eyes she had ever seen, eyes that she sensed were loaded with expectations. Of her.

It was fear that she felt, fear that she would hold him the wrong way, fear of what she did not know how to do. What if she made a mistake? What if she hurt him? What if she couldn't help this baby man with the glaze of dark hair and a tiny shaking fist and pudgy thighs and demanding screams? Lord only knows how deep that fear might have cut if she'd had any sense of the journey she would steer the boy through, sometimes alone, sometimes by standing aside and allowing him to take the full force of life, head-on.

On July 21, 1980, she didn't know any of that. There was nobody else in Room 24 of the maternity ward at Broadway Hospital in the North Bay city of Vallejo, not far from Oaklandjust a 20-year-old first-time mom and her baby, crying in his tiny rolling bed. Finally a nurse walked in. Margie Sabathia asked her what was wrong with the child.

"He's probably hungry," the nurse said.

And so Margie reached out for him.

That little fist is enormous now, that palm huge and hearty in a handshake. Everybody knows the baby man as C.C., a nickname bestowed by Margie's mom, who couldn't pronounce his given name.

He is 27 years old, stands 6'7" and weighs around 300 pounds. He is the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner, coming off a dominant season. He is gigantic in stature and in standing; as one of the longest-tenured players in the Indians organization, he has become a leader. When the players stretch, Sabathia is in the first row, his hat cockeyed, the bill twisted slightly to his right, the same way he began wearing it as a teenager.

Somehow, despite his size, there is nothing overbearing about him. There is no stream of look-at-me yelling across the clubhouse, no deep verbal incisions of teammates, no serious hazing. One morning in early March, Sabathia reminds bearded third baseman Casey Blake how old he looks, then teases burly slugger Travis Hafner about owning one of the world's smallest dogs. The big lefthander explains how much he hates sleepy Winter Haven, Fla., where the Indians trained for the final time this spring. "On the last day, I'm going to come through here and take a bat to this place," he says, and the reporters around him burst into laughter.

"If you walked into our clubhouse and you didn't know what he looked like, you wouldn't be able to pick out the Cy Young Award winner," says Indians general manager Mark Shapiro. "C.C. is a superstar without a superstar's makeup."

Margie made sure of that. She and C.C.'s father, Corky, split when the boy was 13, but they both preached respect and responsibility. Those nurtured qualities are ingrained now, mixed with a competitive streak that only nature could create, as Sabathia nears a crossroads in his life and career. He tried and failed to pitch the Indians into the World Series last fall, but they are loaded again, and their ace is in the final year of his contract.

SHE CARRIED her son's birth certificate in her backpack, because rival coaches doubted his age. Margie Sabathia is six feet tall, and her father was almost 6'9", so she knew, even in those first hours when the baby man was crying to be fed, that he was going to be big. Sure enough, by second grade he was a head taller than the other kids. "No way he's 8," a rival coach snapped, so Margie made copies of C.C.'s birth certificate and started bringing them to his youth league games, just in case.

As it turned out, she was more likely than any coach to pull him off the field. C.C. was 10 the first time: He gave up a home run and started crying on the mound, and as he returned to the dugout, there was Margie, waiting, giving him The Look. Carsten, she called him when she was angry. Right then, right in the middle of the game, she took him home. This was behavior she would not tolerate.

No whining, no crying about an umpire's calls, no conducting yourself as if you're above anybody else. And if you can't be accountable to yourself, well & you're not going to play. Parenting wasn't just a responsibility for Margie; she discovered she had a talent for it. She once admonished her son through a locked bathroom door after he lost his temper: Who do you think you are? Is nobody ever supposed to get a hit off C.C. Sabathia? Honey, it doesn't work like that. When he was 14, she sent him home in the middle of a playoff game for complaining to the ump. "It was humiliating," Sabathia recalls, "but it taught me a lesson about keeping my emotions under control."

Margie scrutinized his academic work in the same way. Their understanding was simple: C.C. could play baseball, basketball and football as long as he got A's and B's. When he was a sophomore at Vallejo Senior High, his mom held his report card in front of him: He'd gotten a C in Spanish. "We won't be playing basketball," she said. He begged her to reconsider, promised to make up for the work he hadn't done. The judgment stood. Margie and C.C. were best friends, very close, but this was the right thing to do.
This batter has no idea what the heck is about to roar by him.

He was so overpowering on the mound that he was projected as a first-round pick in 1998, and Paul Cogan, the Indians scout who followed him, passionately made the case to his Cleveland bosses in the days leading up to the draft. Cogan reported that Sabathia was a good kid, that Margie, while balancing her job as a telephone operator with the time necessary to stiff-arm trouble, had raised her son to be a warm, respectful, accountable young man. Years later, C.C. would drive teammate David Riske around his old neighborhood, showing him the small house in which he had lived and the ball fields where he had played; Riske, who grew up near Seattle, was struck by the harshness of the place.

SHE DESPERATELY missed her only child after he left for pro ball, and he was desperately homesick. C.C. thought about quitting after his first day in Burlington, N.C., asking his agent how much of his $1.3 million signing bonus he'd have to return. He would call Margie every day at 3 p.m., and there were usually calls before and after that as well. When C.C. was a teen, his father wasn't around much, so a distance had set in, something familiar to many children of divorced parents. This wasn't Margie's fault; she'd made up her mind to separate her issues with Corky from C.C.'s relationship with him. "She never bad-mouthed him," C.C. recalls. "Which was good for me. You tend to go with what your parents say, and if she had bad-mouthed him, we probably never would've reconnected. But she always made sure I called him, or he called me, and that kept our relationship going."

In 2000, after C.C.'s second full season in the minor leagues, he drove by his dad's place to take him to dinner, and that's when Corky told him the bad news. "I'm sick," Corky said. "I have HIV. I'm going to need you to take care of me now and be the strong one." C.C. was stunned, but he did as Corky asked. "I left it the way it was," he says, speaking publicly of his father's illness for the first time. "I didn't try to dig. I was just glad I had a chance to be with him those last few years."

In the summer of 2003, on the same day that C.C. learned he'd been named an All-Star for the first time, he also learned that Corky had terminal stomach cancer. On a team flight, Sabathia sat with Riske, talking about his dad and crying. C.C.'s wife, Amber, was six months' pregnant with their first child. "I just prayed that my dad would be able to see my son," Sabathia recalls. Corky moved in with C.C. and Amber in Cleveland. Margie was living with them too, but she returned to California for a while, leaving time for Corky and C.C. to be together."It felt like I was a kid again, having him around," C.C. says. "We had long talks. We laid everything on the line, because he didn't know how much longer he'd be around. He was fighting to stay alive. I think he was holding on to see my son."

Carsten Charles Sabathia III was born on Sept. 15, and immediately after he was wrapped in a blanket, C.C. carried the baby to Carsten Charles I and watched the new grandfather's face light up. C.C. would tell his father, in the hard weeks ahead, "I'm glad you were here for that, and glad we could get right with each other." Corky replied, "Take care of your mom and your family, and make sure you do things the right way."

SHE cooks for the team every summer, at C.C. and Amber's blowout holiday bashes. There are waterslides and moonwalks for kids, and there's lots and lots of Margie's home cooking: ribs, baked beans, potato salad, barbecued chicken, spicy sausage links. When teammates ask if they can bring anything, C.C. shakes his head and says, "My mom's got it." Even in smaller get-togethers of four or five, "C.C.'s mom puts out enough food for 35," Riske says. "If you know C.C., then you know his mom."

Margie still lives with her son much of the time, and she was at the banquet in January when he was honored for becoming the first Indian since Gaylord Perry to win the Cy Young. C.C. could barely find time to eat, as he gamely signed dozens of balls and napkins and sheets of paper, and stood for pictures with fans. When he came to the stage to receive the Greater Cleveland Sports Award, he got a standing ovation. "I just want to say thanks to the fans, and to the city," he said. "I got married here. I had both my kids here."

How long Sabathia will wear this Indians hat isn't known. But while he does, he may determine the AL pennant.
He became a man here. Even before his son's birth and his father's death, Sabathia had stopped going out after night games. He began working more diligently on his conditioning, on controlling his weight; he changed some of his eating habits, occasionally subbing salads for barbecue. "I don't want to eat myself out of the game," he says.

Like all of us, he's a work in progress. He had 76 career victories by the time he was 26, but he was still getting sidetracked by his competitive temper. An umpire's call, an infield hit, a flare or an error in a pivotal moment would enrage him, consume him, turn him into that 14-year-old kid who unthinkingly flung fastballs in frustration. On June 21, 2006, Sabathia got knocked out of a start in the third inning and watched miserably from the Indians' dugout as the Cubs finished off an eight-run rally. He realized that he had stopped competing, that he'd let his teammates down, and after the game he said so. "What was inexcusable tonight was for me to give up," he told reporters. "I'd like to apologize to my teammates, the fans, my family and whoever else was in the stands." His admission attracted a wave of talk-radio flack, but Blue Jays infielder John McDonald read the quotes from his former teammate and understood: Sabathia was being accountable. This was C.C., sending him-self home on a bike, in penance. Sabathia and pitching coach Carl Willis discussed mechanical changes, the importance of maintaining balance in the pitcher's delivery. But mostly they focused on emotional adjustmentsslowing down in his mind, casting each pitch with purpose. Sabathia has made 51 starts since that loss to the Cubs, going 2614 and pitching seven or more innings 38 times. He finished 197 last season, and when the Indians clinched the AL Central, Shapiro sought out his ace for a champagne-soaked hug. "One of the most fulfilling experiences of my time as general manager," Shapiro told Sabathia, "has been watching you mature as a player and as a man."

She smoked cigarettes at the time C.C. bought his home in Cleveland, so with her first grandchild on the way in the summer of 2003, Margie made a place for herself to sit in the garage. After C.C. pitched, he'd join her. Margie has since quit smoking, but she and her son still sit in the garage for a while after his starts, maybe 20 or 30 minutes of decompression and review. "She's very into it," he says. "She'll ask me what pitch I threw in a certain situation. She's opinionated. She'll say, 'You should've stayed with the fastball.' That's her thing, the fastball. I should've thrown the fastball in every situation."

Margie's son relishes his responsibilities. He threw 241 innings last year, the most in the majors. Three times he faced Johan Santana, and three times he won. Sabathia wins, and he smiles. He gets a no-decision in an Indians win, and he smiles. He loses, and the next day he smiles for the benefit of his teammates.

Last fall, Sabathia took the ball twice in the AL championship series against the Red Sox, and twice he pitched poorly, struggling with his control. Some people in the organization believe he was worn down from the workload, but Sabathia wasn't making excuses. "Did you try your best?" Margie asked him when he got home, and C.C. told her he had. "Well, that's all you can do."

Their understanding is that when C.C. walks out of the garage, he's leaving that day's game behind him. They finish their conversation and stand for the traditional punctuation.

"Love you, Mom," C.C. says.

"Love you, dude," Margie says back, and she reaches out for her son.