CLEVELAND — There was the mandatory stop at CC Sabathia’s favorite sandwich shop for an Italian sub before swinging by his old house to visit neighbors — and their grown kids — he hadn’t seen in years.
Back in his old neighborhood in suburban Westlake, Sabathia was thrilled to see the outdoor basketball court his late father installed.
“He worked on that so hard, and it was a big deal that he was able to do that,” Sabathia said. “The fact that it’s still there, that was pretty cool to see that.”
New York is where Sabathia will finish playing. Cleveland will always mean more.
“It’s like home,” he said.
The 38-year-old Yankees left-hander, who began with the Indians in 2001, allowed himself a few moments of nostalgia Friday, a day before he’ll take the mound at Progressive Field for likely the final time in a career he never imagined would last this long. Sabathia is retiring after this season, his 19th in the majors, and today he’ll attempt to become just the 14th pitcher to record 250 wins and 3,000 strikeouts.
Never caught up on numbers, Sabathia said the chance to make history in a place he cherishes would be special.
“Three of my four kids were born here so they consider this home, and they’ll be able to come here for that last time and enjoy it,” he said. “So it will be fun.”
Sabathia did all he could to soak in the experience in his last visit as a player to Cleveland, his baseball home until 2008 when the Indians traded him to Milwaukee before he could walk away as a free agent.
He greeted many familiar faces as he walked down the indoor corridors inside the ballpark, and then spoke to a group of kids from an area Boys & Girls club before the Yankees took pregame batting practice.
“It was a great time, a great time for me,” Sabathia said of his days in Cleveland. “I was out here early today and just walking around and it’s weird, man. I don’t have like memories good or bad either way. It’s just memories. It’s a weird thing and it just feels so comfortable to be in this park.”
It all felt so sentimental, but as he nears the end of his playing days, Sabathia said he’s not being overwhelmed with emotion.
He’s not getting misty.
“I wish,” he said with a laugh. “We’re trying to win every day. So there’s really no room for none of that mushy stuff. It’s about going out and trying to win a game every day. It’s not really about me. It’s fun to be in these moments now where I’m here when it’s Cleveland and it’s a place I played. It’ll be fun to deal with this weekend. I wish I was more sentimental in that way, but no, it is what it is.”
Yankees manager Aaron Boone wasn’t surprised to hear that Sabathia isn’t getting caught up on any personal accomplishments.
“As we in the sport celebrate his great career, his Hall of Fame career, those things don’t become a distraction because you know who he is,” Boone said. “This is about winning for him. He still loves the game and loves being around these guys. He’s here for them. He doesn’t let this become a swan song for CC. That’s who he is and why he’s beloved by all his teammates and anyone who’s come across him or has-played with him over the years.”
Sabathia feels blessed to still be performing at a high level. The big left-hander, who joined the 3,000-strikeout club earlier this season, recently returned from the injured list after his surgically repaired right knee began acting up. As his velocity dropped in recent years, Sabathia has had to reinvent himself, and he’s still adjusting as his starts dwindle.
Back in those early days in Cleveland, Sabathia never considered his career — or its conclusion.
“When I was young I was fighting every day not to get sent down,” he said. “That was my main focus every day for the first three to four years I was in the big leagues, just trying to not get sent down. Trying to think about 3,000 strikeouts or however many wins, that was so far away. But having a chance to be around guys like Mudcat Grant and Bob Feller.
“They taught me what it was to try to be a great pitcher — Mudcat to be an African-American pitcher, what it meant. What it represented to be a black ace. So I carried that the whole time and I knew what I wanted to be.”