I hate the New York Yankees more than I hate cheap whiskey. It’s not something I grew into. It was bred into my 617-born bones, the same as my taste for Dunkin’ Donuts and the way I still put a trash barrel in my parking space after I’ve shoveled it out, so nobody will take it. I’ve lived in the New York City area almost my entire adult life, and have learned to cheer for the Rangers (except when they play the Bs) and the Giants (except when they play the Pats). But I can’t—won’t—bring myself to hope for anything but losses to befall the Yankees.
But as deep as my hatred for the Yankees is, I have to admit my respect for the way the team has handled the problem’s facing their pitcher CC Sabathia, who said publicly Monday that he was leaving the team to enter a 30-day alcoholism treatment program in Connecticut. An athlete admitting that he has a substance abuse problem isn’t exactly a revelation any more, but Sabathia’s statement came the day before the Yankees are to face the Houston Astros in the American League Wild Card playoff game. Sabathia was not slated to start the single-game elimination match up, but if the Yanks win tonight, they’ll find themselves in a best-of-five series against the Kansas City Royals starting Thursday, a series in which Sabathia would almost certainly have started a game. Losing a stalwart of your starting rotation at this point is a kick in the ass.
The Yankees and Sabathia could have handled this in a much different, more craven way. Nothing in MLB’s collective bargaining agreement requires either the player or the team to say why a player has left the team, giving them the ability to hide behind the “personal reasons” excuse. Sabathia was on the disabled list earlier this season with knee problems, which could have provided a handy explanation. And the Yankees could have leaned on Sabathia to wait until after the playoffs to seek treatment, or at least until after tonight’s game, thus sparing the team a huge distraction.
And maybe they did, and maybe Sabathia told them no, he had to get help now. But regardless of the way the whole thing went down, the fact remains that a Yankees ace, one of the leaders of the team and one of the organization’s fiercest competitors, realized that some things are more important than baseball and admitted for all the world to hear that he had a problem and needs help and is man enough to seek it out. And the Yankees, at least publicly, are standing behind their guy.
There’s a neat historical symmetry to the story, too. It was 50 years ago today that Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax decided to observe Yom Kippor, the most solemn holiday in Judaism, and opted out of a start in the 1965 World Series, despite tremendous pressure to pitch. He was Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year that year, not only for his stand, but for the fact that he eventually pitched in three games of that series, which the Dodgers won in seven games.
Cynics might say that Sabathia’s absence is in fact a blessing, his 6-10 record in the regular season being proof that his knee problems have robbed him of his stuff, and that his drinking could make him an unreliable variable. But such a cynic would be betraying an ignorance of the game—any manager in his right mind who needs to win one game wants to be able to call on someone like the hard-throwing Sabathia to handle long, or even short, relief work.
There have been times over the years when I thought to myself, well, maybe the Yankees don’t suck. One such time was in 1998, when they won 125 games en route to dominating the World Series and were a thing of terrible beauty to watch. Another time was in 2001, when New York City, still reeling from the 9/11 attacks, desperately needed the Yankees to win the World Series and give it something else to think about, if at least for a night (they lost to the Diamondbacks). And another was the way Derke Jeter handled himself during his long career, being smart enough to play well and keep his mouth shut about anything but baseball in a town whose media is ready to pounce on the slightest bit of off-field news.
I’m adding the way the team has dealt with Sabathia to that list. I even think the hashtag #weplayforCC is worth sharing.
Even if it was created by that punk A-Rod.