Historically, baseball and booze have gone together like bat and ball. There is no shortage of anecdotes about legends like Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle who, despite having head pounding and eye blurring hangovers, still managed to hit massive home runs much to the awe of their teammates.
Even as little as 30 years ago, beer was dispensed freely to the players in the locker room, and team management considered it a good morale-boosting exercise if the players hung out after the games and drank. The team that drinks hard together plays hard together.
All that is distant trivia, and today’s modern baseball player is without question healthier, better conditioned, and a great deal more likely to be sober than his forefathers in the game. Even so, alcohol abuse will still occasionally rear its head, with CC Sabathia being the latest case.
Sabathia, for those who don’t know, is a pitcher for the New York Yankees, and he excels at this craft. How good you might ask? To date he has earned over $192 million playing baseball, and with 214 wins he is tied for third most among active pitchers. Father time and a string of injuries have slowed CC down the last few seasons, but it still was huge news when he announced he would be skipping the baseball playoffs to enter a rehab center to battle his drinking problem saying, “It hurts me deeply to do this now, but I owe it to myself and to my family to get myself right. I want to take control of my disease, and I want to be a better man, father and player.”
What drew my attention was the reaction to this news in the baseball community and press. His boss General Manager, Brian Cashman used the word ‘courage’ to describe CC’s announcement, and this was seconded by teammate Alex Rodriguez who called him ‘courageous.’ In due course, baseball journalists and players, past and present doled out accolades like ‘hero,’ ‘brave,’ and ‘role model’ when referring to his statement that he was checking into rehab. If you didn’t know the nature of his situation and just heard the adjectives used to describe the reactions to Sabathia’s announcement, you would have thought he had proclaimed he had donated his kidney to a stranger in need.
What you won’t readily find is any criticism of CC or any hint that he was personally responsible for the situation in which he found himself. Showing exceptional deference, questions that one thought logical, not only weren’t asked, they weren’t even hinted at. Should he refund some of the $23 million he accepted as salary from the Yankees this season? Will he still be collecting a playoff share? If monitored by the proper medical professionals could rehab have been postponed till after the playoffs? Is shuffling off to rehab heroic, or is it more likely something you do when it’s the best option you have?
Modern America seems to reside in some alternate universe, full of endless praise and positive platitudes no matter the reality. Not only is it taboo, heaven forbid, to hurt someone’s feelings, but we take it several steps further, going out of our way to try to make others feel good about themselves, even if feeling good about themselves got them into trouble in the first place. Count me in the minority. Although I’m glad he is getting help, you won’t find me standing in line to congratulate him.
One of the many things I love about working in professional sports is that the hippy dippy rules of our new age universe of unrelenting always-a-sunny-day mentality doesn’t apply. Unlike youth leagues, professional ballplayers do not receive participation trophies for just showing up, and we do keep score. Each and every day we have clear winners and, gasp, losers. You learn a lot about life watching sports, and what is plainly obvious is even the great players fail and struggle from time to time. CC Sabathia didn’t reach the pinnacle of his profession by goodwill but rather from hard work, resiliency, and making adjustments when things didn’t go well. My guess is the lessons Sabathia learned from previous failures will serve him better in this next chapter of his life, than all the well-meaning mindless platitudes now showered upon him.
Let us hope for a warm summer day in the near future, where a healthy and sober Sabathia is once again toeing the rubber at Yankee Stadium, giving us something real to cheer for.
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