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MLB Pitcher C.C. Sabathia Shares Stories From The Mound — And Of Sobriety

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross.

You might remember our guest today, CC Sabathia, as the dominating left-handed pitcher for the Cleveland Indians and the New York Yankees. He was a towering figure on the mound, often with his cap tilted over his right eye. Sabathia was a six-time All-Star, a winner of the Cy Young Award and a starter for the Yankees team that won the 2009 World Series. He's one of only a handful of players to win 250 games and notch 3,000 strikeouts, numbers that will probably land him in the Hall of Fame someday.

But Sabathia fought some demons in his 19 seasons in the big leagues. He was an alcoholic for 15 of those years, somehow managing to be sober when he took the mound and drinking himself into oblivion - and often fisticuffs - much of the rest of the time. Sabathia tells the story of his youth, his baseball career and his turn to sobriety in a new memoir written with Chris Smith. It's called "Till The End." CC Sabathia retired from baseball after the 2019 season. He co-hosts the "R2C2" podcast with sportscaster Ryan Ruocco. And you can see a documentary about his life called "Under The Grapefruit Tree" on HBO.

CC Sabathia, welcome to FRESH AIR.

C C SABATHIA: Thank you.

DAVIES: You grew up in Vallejo, Calif., in a neighborhood called The Crest. And you write that when - you know, later in your career, when big leaguers would come with you to visit the old neighborhood, they would say, man, this is a rough neighborhood. Did it feel that way to you as a kid?

SABATHIA: No, it wasn't, you know, that way to me. You know, I didn't feel that way. It was always, you know, home. You know, it was always a safe place for me. I mean, outside looking in, it could be - you know, you could feel like it's a rough place. But, you know, when that's your home and, you know, all the people, you know, there are, you know, even related to you or know somebody that knows your family, you feel safe in those communities.

DAVIES: Your dad left when you were, I think, 12, right? You were an only child.

SABATHIA: My parents split up when I was 12, yeah.

DAVIES: You were 12. And your grandmother's house was kind of a center of gravity for you. Your mom worked an awful lot. Grandma was a big force in your life. And she and both your parents, as you tell it, saw you early on as somebody destined to be a pro ballplayer. How did that shape your experience growing up?

SABATHIA: It just - you know, that just made me believe. You know, my grandmother and my dad, you know, just from the - from jump, you know, believed in my dream and, you know, would only let me, you know, do things that would fuel, you know, being an athlete. So, you know, that just gave me the belief right away that I could go out there and, you know, pull this off or, you know, be able to make it, you know, from Vallejo to the big leagues. So, you know, they were convinced that this was going to be my life, you know? So it made me, you know, really think that, you know, this is where I would end up.

DAVIES: Did they coach you?

SABATHIA: My dad coached me. My dad coached me a couple years. You know, he spent a lot of time with me out in the yard, obviously, you know, working on skills and different things like that. My grandmother was supporting in a different way. She came to every game. She didn't miss a game up until she passed away my senior year, whether it was football, basketball, baseball - everything. I mean, and - you know, she was literally at every event that I had; she was there to support.

DAVIES: One little detail I love is that your dad, when you were in Little League, would intervene with managers who wanted you to pitch too much every game. This kind of matters, doesn't it, for a young arm?

SABATHIA: Yeah, I mean, I think so. You know, he would never let me, you know, get overpitched or, you know, overused, especially as a youngster. And I think that's what definitely, you know, saved my arm and was - been able to pitch as long as I did. And, you know, I think everybody realized that I could, you know, throw hard and I could throw strikes, you know, right away, you know, from the time I started playing baseball. So normally, those kids tend to be pitchers only. And my dad was - you know, he was adamant about me, not, you know, throwing my arm out.

DAVIES: In high school, you were a multisport athlete. You played football, you played basketball, and you played baseball. And you had scouts showing up, I mean, well before your senior year - I mean, baseball scouts and college scouts from big programs. And so you had a lot of options as you were finishing high school. I mean, you could have been drafted as a position player. You were a great hitter. What made you choose pitching?

SABATHIA: The Indians did, you know? And when I got drafted, when I was on the phone, I was talking - I think I was talking to Mark Shapiro or maybe Dan O'Dowd, and I didn't know if they had drafted me as a hitter or pitcher. So it was honestly just what the Indians so that they could turn me into. So that's - you know, I thank them for seeing that vision. And honestly, really, getting drafted by them, you know, I think, shaped my career because I think if I get drafted as a positional player, you know, maybe it doesn't work out. Then I try to go back to pitching. It's just a different path. So I'm glad that Paul Cogan and, like I said, Mark Shapiro, Dan O'Dowd saw me as a pitcher and was able to, you know, develop me into a starter.

DAVIES: Yeah, those were people in the Indians organization. So you were picked in the amateur draft in - what year are we talking about - 2000, is it?

SABATHIA: 1998.

DAVIES: 1998, which doesn't mean you're going to the big leagues right away, right? I mean, that's what's interesting about baseball. And you have this kind of weird thing, where you are a marquee recruit - you got a signing bonus of $1.3 million. But your life, once you start - they send you to the minor leagues, and you're not exactly living in luxury, are you?

SABATHIA: No. I mean, you know, and I think that's the thing that, you know, people don't really understand. You know, you get drafted in baseball, you know, you're going to the minor leagues. You're going to, you know, some of these smaller towns and, you know, where there's no publicity, and, you know, you've got to fight your way back to, you know, just even get to Double-A or, you know, to - you know, let alone make it to the big leagues. So, yeah, I mean, I think that's - you know, that's a big shock for high school kids that don't really realize, you know, once you get drafted, then that's when it becomes a - you know, a job. And, you know, you really have to - you know, it becomes, you know, literally, you know, a tough time to try to fight your way through, you know, the lower minor leagues.

So, yeah, I mean, it was a shell shock, you know, going from Vallejo to, you know, getting dropped off Burlington, N.C., and trying to figure out how I was going to make it, you know, to Cleveland, Ohio, to be in the big leagues.

DAVIES: Yeah, your first time away from home, small salary, crappy hotels, long bus rides, and you're playing against guys who - they don't care if you're a highly touted recruit. They're all scrapping to get to the big leagues. Not easy, is it? (Laughter).

SABATHIA: Yeah. No, I mean, the lower minor leagues is - it really is a dogfight because everybody's just trying to get to the next level. And, you know, even guys on your team, it's not - you know, it's a competition. You know, you're playing with guys that - you know there's only a few spots to get to the next level, and then there's even less spots to get to the next level. So, yeah, I mean, you're competing with the guys that you're playing against and the guys that are in your organization.

DAVIES: It was interesting to me that when you got to the Indians organization, that the pitching coaches were kind of struck by how little you knew about a lot of the mechanics of pitching, right? They said, give me - show me a four-seam fastball. You said, what? (Laughter).

SABATHIA: Yeah. So my very first bullpen, you know, was with Carl Willis. He was my pitching coach. He's the pitching coach for the Indians now. And, you know, we get to the bullpen, and he, you know, starts asking me, you know, to see my pitches and - you know, four-seam and two-seam and different things. And, you know, I didn't know none of that. You know, I was like, hey, this is how I grip the ball. You know, I didn't have my fingers on the seams. And, you know, this is how I throw my slider. I drop down a little bit when I want to throw a slider. And, you know - but, you know, Carl was like, you know, we really, literally, have to start from the ground up.

And, you know, it really started - me in the mirror, you know, just learning my delivery and just trying to repeat it and trying to repeat it. And, you know, Carl taught me how to throw a four-seamer. And I went from throwing, you know, 93 - 92 to 93 to 95 to 97 in a couple of weeks just with his - you know, just talking to him and getting in the bullpen with him and learning. So, you know, as tough as it was to make the adjustment off the field, on the field, you know, things were happening pretty quick.

DAVIES: Another little detail that just - I loved, you know, you said when you were younger, your mom would actually catch for you when you were a pitcher. And then you got to where it just - you were throwing too hard, and she didn't want to do it anymore. But she lived with you a time - for a time when you were pitching at Cleveland. And you would stay up after a performance and go over specific pitches with her, she would give you advice?

CC SABATHIA: Yeah. Yep. She lived with us a lot of the time in Cleveland. And, yeah, I mean, that was - her thing that she really liked to do was, you know, go over games and, you know, try to figure out, you know, what pitch I was throwing and why and different things like that, you know? So, you know, that was always a lot of fun because, you know, she loves baseball. She's got a baseball mind. And, you know, to be able to talk the game with her and even my dad, too - you know, the first couple of years when, you know, he came back to Cleveland, you know, we would sit out there in the garage and just talk about the game.

DAVIES: Another thing you mention is that, you know - I mean, you were always a big guy. And you loved to eat even when you were a kid. And, you know, your weight could - I guess could range from - what? - 250, 260 to over 300. When you managed to lose weight, what did it do to your pitching?

SABATHIA: When I lost weight during my career, yeah, I wasn't really effective, you know? I didn't - couldn't throw hard, didn't have anything behind my pitches. So that's why, you know, I was able to - I think I - you know, I think we all figured out, you know, as far as being a Yankee, that I pitched better when I was, you know, anywhere from 290 to 310. You know, anywhere in that range is where I could, you know, figure out the pitch well. And - but as I got older, you know, and it got tough to - you know, to be able to pitch with all that weight and, you know, obviously having, you know, knee issues and different things, you know, it just kind of, you know, had me limping towards the end. But, yeah, I mean, when I did try to lose weight, it didn't go well.

DAVIES: Yeah. Mass equals gas was the expression (laughter).

SABATHIA: For sure. For sure.

DAVIES: I remember there was a relief pitcher, Al Holland, for the Phillies years - this is before your time. But I remember he was a big guy. And one year, he came into spring training thin, athletic, felt great and said his fastball had nothing. It's kind of puzzling, isn't it? I mean, you're not throwing with your body core, are you? Well, I guess you are, in a way.

SABATHIA: Yeah, you are. You do throw with your core. You throw with your body. And then your arm just kind of lags behind. So the bigger and stronger you can be in your body - that's why you see the bigger pitchers always pitch well and pitch longer and, you know, have the long career because, you know, they have the bigger body and the bigger frame to be able to handle, you know, 200 innings a year.

DAVIES: You know, when you got to the Indians, this was new to you, of course. And you write in the book a lot about clubhouse atmosphere and how important it is to have a team that works together. How were you treated as the rookie coming on the bench - and, you know, obviously, a highly performing rookie, as it turned out. But how - what was it like for you?

SABATHIA: Yeah. It was a tough time, you know? It was a different time in the big leagues. You know, coming up, for younger players, there was a lot of hazing, a lot of different things going on. You know, I found, you know, my way with, you know, different players and, you know, a few veterans that, you know, will help you out. But, yeah, it was a tough time for young baseball players back then to be able to try to break in and fit into the - I guess, the culture of the clubhouse. So, you know, I had to take my lumps.

And, you know - but, you know, while I was going through that, you know, I always, you know, wanted to make sure that if, you know, if I ever got in the position to be a veteran or, you know, be, you know, one of the guys that's running the clubhouse, I never wanted to make, you know, my young players feel like that. So as I got older and was able to, you know, be in charge of a few clubhouses and, you know, be a leader on a couple of teams, you know, we made sure that, you know, the rookies came up and felt like they had been there for, you know, 12, 15 years.

DAVIES: We are speaking with CC Sabathia. He pitched 19 seasons in the big leagues. He has a new memoir called "Till The End." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAN AUERBACH'S "HEARTBROKEN, IN DISREPAIR")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And our guest today is CC Sabathia. He spent 19 years as a big league pitcher for the Indians, Brewers and Yankees. He has a new memoir called "Till The End."

You know, I think of Major League Baseball as having lots of Black players, not so many as I read your book. I mean, did you feel underappreciated, alienated from white players in the clubhouses you were at?

SABATHIA: I mean, that's a good question. Yeah. I mean, when I first came up, there were a lot of - you know, a lot of Black players in the league, I mean, even throughout organizations, you know? And as you get - as I got, you know, older in the big leagues, you know, there was a shift, you know? You know, there was a couple of years in Cleveland where I was, you know, the only guy on the roster. And that could be tough. You know, obviously, you know, you don't feel alienated. But there's just nobody in there for you, you know, to relate to and, you know, talk to about different things.

And, you know, I do - I mean, I have a lot of - you know, my best friend in the game is - his name is Dave Riske. He's literally my best friend in the game. But, you know, there are times when, you know, you would want to have somebody in there that you can relate to and talk to. And, you know, you're going through a whole, you know, eight, nine-month baseball season. You know, that's really hard. And, you know, it's based in failure. So, you know, to have somebody that you can hang out with and relate to makes a huge difference during the baseball season. And, yeah, I mean, it's - the numbers are down right now. Hopefully, we can get them back up to where they were when I was a kid watching the game, and even where they were when I was a, you know, young player in the big leagues. So, yeah, I mean, that's a goal of mine is to get more kids and to get more guys back into the big leagues playing baseball.

DAVIES: You write in the book that you had a group text of all 72 active Black Major League players. Did you build that? What was this used for?

SABATHIA: No, this was something that - you know, we had for a long time had been trying to, you know, put something together like we have right now with the Players Alliance. And even Tony Clark, while he was playing - he's the president of the Players Association. While he was playing, he was adamant on, you know, making sure that we was all connected and stayed connected. And, you know, he had made sure everybody got their email addresses out and put us all in a group chat. And this was email chat and text chat before, you know, we even thought about coming up with the players alliance in 2020. So, you know, in a way we've all been connected. But now, you know, having the Players Alliance and guys seeing the benefit of us really doing stuff collectively, it feels good.

SABATHIA: When you went to the Yankees, you were a free agent. And you got a contract, $161 million for seven years, at the time the largest guaranteed contract ever for a big league ballplayer, I think, right?

SABATHIA: No, for a pitcher.

DAVIES: For a pitcher.

SABATHIA: Yeah.

DAVIES: OK. A lot of money. And, you know, you were very connected to a large extended family and had social relationships who had needs. How did that kind of wealth or the perception of that wealth affect those relationships?

SABATHIA: Yeah, it made it hard. You know, I think when people see, you know, you get a big contract, they think you have that amount of money on you right then. And, you know, everybody wants, you know, something or see what they can get or trying to figure out if they can get something from you. So that made it difficult, you know, trying to navigate that. But, you know, having my mom around to try to figure out everything, my wife was huge in that, you know, helping us, you know, kind of navigate that field. And really, being in New York, I think, you know, how we landed on the West Coast, it would have been harder, you know, but being in New York, kind of being so far away, it kind of helps you to detach a little bit.

DAVIES: Yeah. You mentioned your wife, Amber. Just tell us a little bit about her and your relationship. You go way back.

SABATHIA: Yeah. We met - I think she was in the 10th grade. I was in 11th grade at a house party at the beginning of the school year. And, you know, really just hit it off right away. You know, me and her brother played high school basketball together. And, you know, like I said, I mean, we just - I mean, me and Amber just became - we became friends before anything. And I think that's the most important thing for us now is that we are, you know, really close friends. And I think that's what has allowed us to go through, you know, such the ups and downs that we have in our relationship and in our lives together is that we have remained friends that whole time.

DAVIES: First year at the Yankees, the 2009 season, leads you to a World Series. Tell me about the pressure of pitching in the playoffs.

SABATHIA: You know what? To be honest, that 2009 playoffs, I didn't really feel any pressure just because, you know, I pitched in 2007 playoffs in Cleveland, in 2008 and Milwaukee and felt like, you know, I needed to be perfect. You know, I felt like I needed to be the reason why we won. And I ended up being the reason why we lost. When I went into the 2009 playoffs, you know, I had such a great team, you know, Robbie Cano, I had Mark Teixeira, you know, had A-Rod, you know, Derek Jeter, Posada behind the plate.

You know, I just went in and wanted to just do my little part. I felt like if I can just keep it simple, keep it small, keep my goal small and, you know, just, you know, win every inning, you know, do my part that these guys are going to take care of it. And, you know, that's what happened. You know, the very first game, you know, I come out. I think I gave up a run or two in the first inning. And, you know, Jeter - Derek Jeter asked me, you know, how I'm feeling. And I said, you know, I'm getting into the groove. And, you know, he goes up there and hits a two-run homer right away, you know, just to kind of ease my nerves. And, you know, right after he did that, you know, I just kind of settled into the playoffs and felt good about it.

DAVIES: Yeah, nice to have a teammate who could just hit a homer to ease your nerves, huh?

SABATHIA: Yeah, for sure. For sure.

DAVIES: Phillies fans certainly remember that series. Chase Utley had two home runs in the first game, but you pitched well. You were the MVP of the League Championship Series. You mentioned that when you when you were in Cleveland and Milwaukee, you pitched in playoff games. And you felt you had to carry the team, and it didn't go so well. You said you were the reason we lost.

SABATHIA: Yeah, I definitely feel like I was the reason why, you know, we didn't win. 2007, that team was - I feel like, you know, I think a lot of people felt like was ready to win the World Series. We were, you know, a young team that had been put together, you know, kind of built from the bottom-up.

DAVIES: That was the Indians, right? Yeah.

SABATHIA: Yeah, the Cleveland Indians - built from the bottom-up, you know, a bunch of guys that had played together. And, you know, in those, you know, mid-market teams, you know, if you don't win, then, you know, you have to break it up. And, you know, we knew that that was our only shot to win - and had a chance to win the World Series. And I feel like if I pitched better, you know, we probably capitalize on that. And, you know, we may all end up in Cleveland. We may all end up, you know, staying together. So, yeah, I mean, I took those experiences into, you know, with me into 2009.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with CC Sabathia, who spent 19 seasons pitching in the big leagues for the Indians, the Brewers and the Yankees. His memoir is called "Till The End." We'll be back to talk more about his life, career and battle with alcoholism after this break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, speaking with CC Sabathia, who was a dominating left-handed pitcher for much of his 19 seasons in Major League Baseball. His new book about his life, career and turn to sobriety 15 years into his career is called "Till The End."

So let's talk about alcohol. I mean, you were drinking heavily through most of your years in the big leagues. When did alcohol become a major part of your life?

SABATHIA: I think it was always a major part of my life. I think - you know, and I think that's a problem - I mean, you know, that's a problem for people that's alcohol dependent. You know, alcohol is at every celebration. It's at every, you know, somber event. And, you know, I think, you know, for me, I had to, you know, examine my relationship with alcohol. And that's - you know, I had to take a look at it and understand that, you know, yeah, alcohol is such a big part of our society, and it's, you know, a big part of what every - a lot of people do, but it just can't be a part of my life because I am dependent on it. And I can't just have, you know, a drink or two. You know, it turns into 20. So, you know, understanding that, you know, was something that took me a long time.

DAVIES: Right. I mean, people get into alcohol because it's fun for a party, and people also self-medicate to deal with tragedy or trauma. And you have some. I mean, you had - your cousin Nate was killed at the age of 25. You lost your grandmother. You subsequently lost your father and a very dear cousin, Demetrius Davis, who was a guy you looked up for a long time. Do you think that part of this was rooted in trauma?

SABATHIA: Oh, yeah. I definitely think, you know - 'cause even at the time when I took my first drink, I was 14 years old, and, you know, my parents had just split up, my cousin was just murdered and my grandfather had just passed away. So, you know, yeah. I mean, I think even, you know, my very first drink I took was, you know, to get away from, you know, all the trauma that you - that I was experiencing.

DAVIES: You know, it's kind of amazing to think that an elite athlete can do this and still perform. Tell us what your routine was for drinking and getting sober over the course of a season.

SABATHIA: Yeah. You know, I would pitch. I would drink, you know, that night, the next day and the day after that, and then I would take two days off, pitch and then do it all over again. So it was, you know, kind of a cycle where, you know, it was three days on, two days off. And, you know, I did that for the longest time and, you know, thought it was normal, so, you know - even so much where, when I went to rehab, you know, I didn't know if I was going to be able to pitch without it. So yeah. I mean, it's one of those things where, you know, it just had just become so much a part of my routine that, you know, I just, you know, just - it just became a part - it literally did just become a part of my routine.

DAVIES: Yeah. It's kind of amazing 'cause, you know, we're not talking about a little bit of drinking. You would drink heavily. Like, the minute you'd go off the mound - right? - you'd have Sprite and Royal Crown (ph) in the locker.

SABATHIA: Absolutely. Right away.

DAVIES: Yeah. And then - so you'd drink heavily for a couple of days, and then you'd detox. I mean, gosh - can't have been easy. That's painful, isn't it?

SABATHIA: I mean, no. I - you know, it wasn't, you know? It was just one of those things where it was - like I said, I mean, I had normalized and got used to it and, you know, would go in and do my cardio and sweat everything out and, you know, and be fine. You know, I thought the more that I sweat, the better I was - you know, I was getting it out of me. So yeah. I mean, it was just all a part of the work. It was all a part of the routine, and, like I said, I had normalized all of it.

DAVIES: Do you think your teammates knew - your coaches, your managers?

SABATHIA: Oh, I don't know if anybody knows what anybody's doing behind closed doors, you know? So that's - I mean, even the closest person to you, you don't know - unless you - unless it's your wife and you live with them, you don't know what they're doing behind closed doors. I mean, like I said earlier, I think that people, you know, whether it was, you know, the guys that were really close to me - Derek, Andy, Brett Gardner...

DAVIES: This was Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, the guys on the Yankees. Yeah.

SABATHIA: Yeah, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Brett Gardner, Chris Young. There's Dellin Betances. Guys that I hung out with a lot, you know, I think they understood that I was, you know, struggling with alcohol dependency but not to the level of going to rehab.

DAVIES: The bottom for you, the big turnaround, came right before the Yankees were going to go into the playoffs. And this was - you know, this is well into your career, when you weren't the, I guess, the overpowering fastball pitcher you were. You'd become - you were using more pitches, and, you know, it was a different point in your career. Tell us about that, the bottom. That - it was on a trip to Baltimore, wasn't it?

SABATHIA: Yeah. You know, we were on a trip to Baltimore. It was the end of the season, and we had got rained out a couple of days. And, you know, we - I think we had just clinched to go to the playoffs that Thursday night. I pitched a pretty good game. We played against Boston. And I didn't drink during the celebration. We had the big celebration, and I think we had clinched a wild-card spot. And I didn't drink at all. And, you know, we got on the bus to go to Baltimore, somebody handed me a bottle of Hennessy, and I drank that before we even got into the plane. And, you know, it just set me on a course that weekend where I didn't really stop drinking from Thursday to Sunday.

Sunday I had a bullpen that I was supposed to throw to get ready for the playoffs. And, you know, I go in, and right away, as soon as I get to the stadium, I just grabbed a drink and, you know, couldn't even, like, really walk around and, you know, was just feeling like, you know, I couldn't stop myself from drinking.

And, you know, I grabbed Chris Young, Dellin Betances and, you know, basically told them I felt like I needed to go get help. And, you know, I was going to go tell Joe. And both of them to a man (ph) said, you know, if you feel like you needed to do this - and, like I said, they had known I'd been struggling with it all year - then, you know, you need to make this step. And if you can do this and pull this off, then you're going to help a lot of people. So once they both told me that, it just made sense for me to go in and get help, and that's what I did. Joe right away, you know, he was like, let's figure this out. You know, had that conversation gone differently or, you know, had he said, you know, let's try to wait until, you know, the end of the season or till the playoffs is over, you know, maybe, you know, it sets me on a different course. But Joe right away, you know, realized I needed to make this decision for my family, and he was all for it.

DAVIES: Yeah. You mentioned going and telling Joe. You were referring to Joe Girardi, who was the Yankees' manager. You know, you anticipated a future in baseball, you know, hopefully as a sober athlete down the line. And, you know, baseballs - or players are often kind of superstitious. They're creatures of habit. They have routines before games and after games - you know, what they eat, you know, what they wear, all that kind of stuff. Was drinking such a part of your routine that you worried you might not be able to pitch effectively without it?

SABATHIA: Yeah, it was. It was a big part of it, so much a part of it that I didn't know if I was going to be able to pitch without it. And, you know - but, you know, having a chance to go into rehab and, you know, really figure out, you know, why I was drinking or, you know, the reasons why and sitting down and taking that time, I think it helped me realize that I didn't need to drink, you know, to pitch. And to be honest, you know, as I got into my late 30s, you know, I don't think I could've drank the way I did and pitched anyway, you know, with my knee the way it was and my body trying to recover, my shoulder. You know, it would have set me up in bad places to not be able to to perform the way I did at the end of my career.

DAVIES: You know, you went back to the game. You know, you're aging as an athlete. You had problems with your knee and your shoulder. I tell you, some of the pain that you describe experiencing on the mound, I'm amazed that you could get through it. Do you think you were a better, a smarter pitcher without alcohol?

SABATHIA: I think I was just better at that time and smarter just as a pitcher, you know, being 15, 16 years in, you know, and having the chance to sit with Andy Pettitte and learn from Andy Pettitte. But, yeah, I mean, for sure, you know, being sober and having a clear mind, it let me be able to repeat my delivery and be able to get out there. I - like I said, I mean, the amount of drinking that I did - to try to do that in my late 30s, there's no way I would have been able to pitch a baseball season. So, yeah, I mean, being able to get sober and have my body back, you know, for '17, '18 and '19, you know, it helped me get through those last four years.

DAVIES: People who want to can look at the documentary "Under The Grapefruit Tree" and see your last game. You want to tell us about the circumstances under which you left that game?

SABATHIA: Yeah. Very last pitch that I threw, you know, I come into the game against the Astros in the playoffs in 2019. And, you know, very last question that I threw, I ripped my caps on my shoulder, my labrum, my rotator cuff, my bicep, everything. And I had been in some pain pretty much that whole year. And then that last pitch, you know, it ripped up everything. And, you know, I was on the mound of Yankee Stadium.

And, you know, it's the first time that I really kind of heard the crowd and, you know, got a standing ovation. And, you know, it worked out. But it was - I feel like for me, it worked out the best way it could have because, you know, I'm such a competitor now, and I love to play the game, that I would have still trying to been - playing after I announced my retirement. So the fact that I did get hurt and, you know, not able to pitch no more, I think, helped me out.

DAVIES: CC Sabathia, thank you so much for speaking with us.

SABATHIA: Oh, no problem. Thank you for having me.

DAVIES: CC Sabathia spent 19 seasons pitching in the big leagues with the Indians, Brewers and Yankees. His memoir, written with Chris Smith, is called "Till The End." Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead remembers two remarkable electric guitarists born a hundred years ago on the same day. This is FRESH AIR.

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