CC Sabathia signed up for the charcoal. Volunteered for the pressure cooker. Jumped from the fruit bowls of Cleveland and Milwaukee into the frying pan of Yankee Stadium.
Sabathia, baseball’s best left-hander two years running, went for the money five days before Christmas 2008. Signed with the Yankees for $161 million over seven years.
Lot of money. But it comes at a cost. Peace of mind. Serenity. Enjoyment of the job.
Pitching for the Yankees, especially after signing one of those Bronx Brinks contracts, will age a guy quicker than the Oval Office. Pitching for the Yankees will grill a guy.
But Sabathia didn’t merely survive his first year in pinstripes. He thrived. Sabathia was in Oklahoma City on Tuesday night to pick up his third straight Warren Spahn Award as baseball’s best southpaw.
The Yankee cauldron didn’t skewer Sabathia. It freed him.
"It was the opposite,” Sabathia said. "I felt no pressure at all. Just keep my team in the game and I’d win nine times out of 10.”
Sabathia would look around his Yankee infield. Alex Rodriguez. Derek Jeter. Robinson Cano. Mark Teixeira. He figured not, I better win, but, how can I lose?
"People made a big deal out of the pressure, but I almost felt like I put more pressure on myself,” Sabathia said.
Sabathia, who every year in OKC comes across as a big (6-foot-7), lovable teddy bear, went 19-8 for the Yankees with a 3.37 earned run average, then went 3-1 in the post-season with a 1.98 ERA as the Bombers won the World Series for the first time since 2000.
"Playing with great players, it just calms you,” Sabathia said. "Live in the moment. I was able to do that, having those guys. It takes a lot of pressure off.
"Do your job, you’re going to be in every game. I didn’t feel like I had to throw a shutout every game this year.”
Baseball’s free-agent history is littered with the collapsed careers of pitchers who failed to live up to the big money tossed their way. Kevin Brown, Mike Hampton, even Catfish Hunter, the original free agent back in 1975, who had a big year his first season with the Yankees but then went 40-39 over the remaining four years of his contract and retired.
But the truly special pitchers — Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Nolan Ryan, Greg Maddux — the Cooperstown crowd, flourished when handed a fat paycheck and the hopes of a franchise.