Vallejo’s CC Sabathia, former Yankees great, says he ‘almost blew it all’

Vallejo native CC Sabathia crafted a 19-year major league baseball career that, from a distance, appeared to be a magical joyride.
A dominant left-handed pitcher, he was a six-time All-Star, captured a Cy Young Award with the Cleveland Indians and won a World Series ring with the New York Yankees. By the time he retired in 2019, the numbers were eye-popping: 251 wins, a 3.74 ERA, 3,093 strikeouts.
But for much of his life in the majors, Sabathia harbored a dark secret: An alcoholic who often got angrily drunk, he “almost blew it all.”
Sabathia, now 40, makes that startling admission in an emotionally powerful new documentary, “Under the Grapefruit Tree: The CC Sabathia Story” (premieres 9 p.m. Dec. 22, HBO). Peppered with behind-the-scenes footage from his final season with the Yankees, the film has Sabathia narrating his own story, which began in Vallejo with a starry-eyed boy honing his skills by throwing grapefruits from a huge tree in his grandmother’s backyard at a folding chair.
CC Sabathia during the 2017 postseason. (Getty Images) 
“The grapefruit was my baseball. The folding chair was my strike zone,” he says. “The backyard was where I could dream abut everything in the world I could ever want.”
For Sabathia, a three-sport star at Vallejo High School, those dreams began coming true in 1998, when he was drafted by Cleveland. Three years later, at the age of 20, he made his big-league debut. In 2008, he signed a seven-year, $161 million contract with the Yankees. At the time, it was the richest contract ever for a pitcher.
But there were challenges along the way, the biggest of which was a battle with addiction that came to a head in 2015. That year, he got into a brawl outside a Toronto nightclub. During a road trip in Baltimore, he showed up at the ballpark too drunk to do his job. The “rock bottom” moment came when he was forced to watch the Yankees face the Houston Astros in a playoff game on TV in a rehab center.
“I wasn’t there for my teammates,” he recalls.
Sabathia, who grew up in the Vallejo neighborhood known as the Crest, says in the film that he took his first drink at the age of 14 and always went at it hard, guzzling “as much as I could get down.”
Usually the drinking didn’t get in the way of his pitching. If he pitched on a Saturday, for example, he wouldn’t even touch booze on the two days leading into his start. But when his mound stint was over, Sabathia had a Crown Royal-and-Sprite in hand the moment he reached the clubhouse. Over the ensuing days he would get “blackout drunk.”
Sabathia’s wife, Amber, who appears in the documentary, refers to his addiction as a “coping mechanism.” Unfortunately, he tended be a mean drunk, making Hulk-like transformations, as she describes it.
“I’d want to fight and argue with everybody,” says Sabathia during a phone interview. “I was hard to be around. I’d ruin holidays. I’d go off on everybody.”
In the film, Sabathia recalls how his father, Corky — the man who “put the love of sports in me” — died in 2003 after his own battles with substance abuse. A few years later, a cousin he was extremely close to died of a heart attack at the age of 45.
Sabathia believes those heart-wrenching losses, along with the pressure to please friends and family he left behind in the Crest (“Everybody wanted something”), bolstered his addiction.
During the phone conversation, Sabathia says the most difficult part of his journey wasn’t the rehab process (“That was therapeutic, peaceful”), but finally making the admission that “I’m an alcoholic. That I messed up, and needed help.”
And even after finishing a 29-day rehab stint, he worried that he might not be a formidable pitcher again.
“I hadn’t pitched before without drinking — and without that daily routine,” he says. “I thought, maybe, that’s why I was so great. I thought it fueled me.”
With “Under the Grapefruit Tree” about to debut, Sabathia says he’s grateful for the opportunity to share his “unfiltered story.” And he hopes it will help people who are dealing with their own substance-abuse problems. But doing the film wasn’t easy.
“(The documentary) makes me miss my father even more,” he says. “… I’ve seen it four times and I still can’t get through it without crying.”
Sabathia has been sober for five years. These days, he co-hosts a podcast and serves as a special assistant with the Yankees. He lives in New Jersey with Amber and their four kids, including Carsten Charles III, a 17-year-old high school junior who, like his father, is big into baseball.
“I go to his games, so I’m back on the baseball trail again,” Sabathia says. “I’m out there with my wagon and cooler, and having fun being a real dad.”

Contact Chuck Barney at cbarney@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/chuckbarney and Facebook.com/bayareanewsgroup.chuckbarney.

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