CC Sabathia Talks Sobriety, Playing Softball, and MLB’s Sticky Substance Controversy

The retired Yankee talked to us about the use of foreign substances in baseball, why he's embraced softball, and his struggle against alcohol dependence.

CC Sabathia Knicks Jazz 2020

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 4: Former MLB Player, CC Sabathia, attends a game between the Utah Jazz and the New York Knicks on March 4, 2020 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York. (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

CC Sabathia Knicks Jazz 2020

CC Sabathia hasn’t pitched in a major league game since 2019, but if you want to see him playing ball these days make sure you check out the softball fields of Manhattan.

That’s where you can find the former Yankees ace—looking way different than he did during his 11 seasons in pinstripes—crushing slow-pitch softball and having an awesome time being a regular New Yorker.

Videos have circulated on Twitter of Sabathia mashing in Central Park’s North Meadow and it’s all the evidence you need that retirement’s been very good to the 2007 AL Cy Young Award winner who helped the Bronx Bombers capture their 27th World Series title in 2009. But if not for some serious reflection during his days with the Yankees, when Sabathia publicly acknowledged he had a problem with alcohol, life wouldn’t be so good for the affable future Hall of Famer whose smile beams through Zoom when he’s asked about softball.

“I definitely don’t think,” says Sabathia, “I could’ve done that without getting sober, rethinking my relationship with alcohol dependency and being able to live these last six years of my life, enjoying my family, enjoying life, and enjoying playing softball with my buddies. The softball in Central Park is a culmination of all that.”

We caught up with the Oakland native and podcast host Tuesday for a quick conversation and besides asking him about softball, Sabathia was peppered with a bunch of baseball and sports questions, like how disappointed he was over the Nets getting bounced early since he’s been spotted at Barclays Center plenty of times in retirement. But most importantly, we asked him about his participation in the My Relationship with Alcohol campaign, an educational endeavor that Sabathia hopes will foster a dialogue, remove the stigma around seeking treatment, and encourage people to ask serious questions about dependence. 

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

There’s plenty of things to talk about in baseball since the game has a million things going on, both good and bad. But we have to talk about sticky substances. What’s your opinion on baseball mandating pitchers can’t use foreign substances and how funny was it seeing pitchers getting searched, TSA style, on the field by umpires?
I was watching [Jacob] deGrom and he basically got undressed. I don’t know what to do, though. I know guys want…it’s not sticky stuff, it’s not pine star, it’s not rosin—it’s the extra stuff that guys are using that are helping them get more RPMs on their curveball, and different stuff like that. It’s not about getting a grip on the ball; it’s the actual cheating side of it that guys want out. And I think if you have to do random checks to make sure that guys aren’t out there with some foreign substance, that other guys can’t get their hands on, it’s worth it.

Aaron Judge had that quote a few weeks ago that 95 percent of pitchers are using something. Do you think the number was that high?
I do. But I don’t think 95 percent were using the stuff that helps you cheat. The typical stuff, I think everybody uses. But the SpiderTack, the stuff that this small group of guys are using, there [should be] no access to that. But Judgey’s right—95 percent of guys use something to get a grip on the ball because it’s so slick.

Did baseball have to do something?
I think so. If you look at the way the numbers are and the action in the game, the way guys have been dominating hitters, yeah, I think this is the right move. Should they have probably waited until after the season? It’s a tough call, but you want it out of the game and you want more action in the game. You want an even playing field.

I’ll ask you step in MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s shoes for a second. What’s the first thing you’re doing to change the game for the better?
I like the seven-inning doubleheaders thing. I like a lot of these rules changes—I want to do the universal DH. I don’t want to see deGrom swinging, I don’t want to see Jack Flaherty getting hurt running the bases. These things shouldn’t happen to these All-Star pitchers from hitting. It would be seven-inning doubleheaders—I would mandate that—and a mandatory universal DH for sure.

Should Yankees fans calm the fuck down or should they remain worried?
[Laughs.] I think there’s definitely cause for concern. We go for stretches where we can’t score runs, but I do think they need to calm down a little bit and cut these guys some slack. It is a marathon. We have to wait and see who we are going to add. Obviously, we’re a team that always adds and gets better at the trade deadline. I’m sure Cash [Yankees GM Brian Cashman] is on that line again so we’ll just have to wait and see. I do think they have to calm down a little bit, but there is cause for concern. I get stressed out a little bit.

Who is more jacked—you or Giancarlo Stanton these days?
Um, probably G. I don’t know. I haven’t seen him in a little while. It is getting close. This was my goal in retirement to look like these guys—Judge, Big G, [Aroldis] Chapman. They were all my inspirations. I’m getting close. I haven’t seen the guys in a little while so we’ll have to wait and see.

We’ve seen the videos of you an Action Bronson working out together. What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen him do in the gym?
Man, he does these swings with a water bag in the studio. He does crazy workouts. We go to the roof on Sunday mornings and do this torture chamber and we just make up shit like all morning for a couple of hours. It’s a fun workout, but he’s fun to workout with because he’s so motivating and he likes to have fun and if you get tired he’s going to keep you going. He’s a perfect, fun workout partner to have. We just have fun every day—Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sundays.

Are you a full-blown Nets fan now?
Um, I have to wait and see. I have to wait and see who we add, who leaves. Right now, I’m a Nets fan. But the offseason, things change, superteams get formed, and I might have to jump ship. But I normally stay wherever KD is. If KD is in Brooklyn, I’m probably going to be in Brooklyn.

So give me the level of disappointment after what we saw go down in Game 7?
You know what, I wasn’t really that disappointed because they weren’t healthy. If that team was healthy they win the championship hands down. They have three of the best players every to play basketball. KD, to me, is one of the best to ever play and he was this close to sending the Bucks home at the end of the fourth quarter. So even without Kyrie [Irving] and a limited James Harden they still took the Bucks to seven games. So I feel pretty good about if they stay healthy, stay focused next year they’ll have a good season and be able to win the championship.

Your podcast—“R2C2” with Ryan Ruocco—has been doing some awesome things. Who is your dream guest?
Will Smith.

He’s my hero. I grew up listening to his music, watching his movies, watching his TV show. I got a chance to do The Shop with him two years ago and that was just great. We had a great conversation. For me it would be Will Smith. For Ryan it would be Eminem. He’s a huge Eminem fan.

Gotta talk about you playing softball in Central Park. How fun has it been to be a regular New Yorker and doing things like this?
It’s so much fun to be a regular New Yorker in every sense—playing softball in the park, driving my car to dinner, just enjoying the city. I’ve never had a summer off since 1997. To be able to just enjoy my friends and go to the pool and hangout and do these different things and softball has been at the center of that. I had a game [Monday] in Chelsea at 28th and 10th, a lot of fun, and I really, really enjoy just being a regular dad, being a regular person. I definitely don’t think I could’ve done that without getting sober, rethinking my relationship with alcohol dependency and being able to live these last six years of my life, enjoying my family, enjoying life, and enjoying playing softball with my buddies. The softball in Central Park is a culmination of all that.

You’re participating in the My Relationship with Alcohol campaign, which seems like the next step in your process after revealing to the world about your struggle with alcohol dependence during your days with the Yankees. How are you going to elevate your story and the message you want to send through this campaign?
It was just a perfect partnership. And is just perfect to my story. It was something I had to rethink—my relationship with alcohol started when I was 14 years old and it was something I was dependent on for 21 years and I didn’t really realize that. To be able to tell my story, especially as a black man and a prominent black man in the community, to be able to speak out and talk about therapy and different things that I went through means a lot.

Out of curiosity, how much do you think alcohol dependency is an issue in pro sports? Obviously things have changed culturally since the 70s and 80s—we’ve all heard stories about how guys would have a shit ton of beers on the plane ride home.
I think it gets swept under a rug a lot. Me, making my story so public, hopefully helped a lot of people. I know Steve Sarkisian [head coach of the University of Texas football team] went into rehab right after. There have been other guys that have taken that step after I did. For me, I wasn’t the first. We know Darryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden have struggled and been able to comeback and play at a high level. Me being able to tell my story hopefully will help raise awareness and have people speak out and get some help.

I don’t know from a famous person or ballplayer perspective if you’ve had someone say your story helped them out, but have you had other people come up to you and say your story helped me make a change in their life.
Yeah, there have been. And that’s what keeps me going. Just hearing people say what I did was strong and they got strength what I’ve been able to do. Hearing those stories from all walks of life—people on the plane, baseball players, whoever it may be—it definitely keeps you going and it means a lot to hear those stories.

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