Under the Grapefruit Tree- The CC Sabathia Story Review
by Owen Hetherington
December 27, 2020
If you haven’t had the chance to watch the CC Sabathia documentary that is on HBO Max, you’re missing out. This excellent documentary takes you through the career of the future Hall of Famer and brings you back to where it all began, by a grapefruit tree in CC’s grandmother’s backyard in Vallejo, CA.
It was there where Sabathia practiced his windup and perfected the location of his pitches by using a folding chair as a strike zone and grapefruits instead of baseballs. It was a place where Sabathia dreamed about playing in the big leagues.
Those dreams from under that grapefruit tree would turn into a reality that would surpass any imagination a child could have. CC Sabathia spent 19 seasons in the big leagues, where he put together a Hall of Fame resume with 251 wins, over 3,500 innings pitched, and 3,093 strikeouts. Sabathia also had six All-Star selections, a 2007 Cy Young Award, and was a World Series Champion in 2009. He is one of only 17 pitchers in history with at least 3,000 strikeouts and is one of only 14 pitchers to have 250 wins to go along with his 3,000(+) strikeouts. Of those 14 pitchers, all reached the Hall of Fame, except Roger Clemens. Sabathia was beloved by his teammates and he played a huge role as a leader in the Yankees’ clubhouse.
As we get new access into Sabathia’s final year in the Bronx, he tells us just how close he was to losing it all from alcohol addiction in his documentary. As Sabathia said himself, “What happens in the dark, eventually comes to light”.
From afar, we saw Sabathia dominate during his early days in the Bronx, beginning in 2009 as he helped the Yankees win their 27th World Series in just his first season in pinstripes. In 2010, he won 21 games for the Yankees, etching his spot in baseball history as a member of the “Black Aces” – one of 14 African American pitchers who have won at least 20 games in a single season.
In the documentary, Sabathia reflected on the contrasts in his life, between being an extremely successful pitcher and human being who struggled with dependency on alcohol saying, “You don’t expect someone like CC to be battling demons off the field in addition to hitters on the field.”
Away from the field, Sabathia struggled with alcohol addiction that impacted his performance between the lines. Coming up as a young, underage kid in Major League Baseball, he found himself partying at clubs where people brought him drinks in the bathroom, where he said he would consume as many drinks as possible, sometimes three to four at a time. Putting yourself in CC’s shoes, it’s easy to see how someone coming up that young in baseball with all the pressure he endured could lead to some bad habits and tendencies to take his mind off the pressures of game.
As he aged into Into his 20’s and 30’s, Sabathia’s alcohol consumption progressively got worse. The stakes were getting higher and so was the pressure for Sabathia. He coped with his anxiety through alcohol. There’s was a lot of pressure on Sabathia, especially after he came to the Yankees with a $121M contract. “I think everyone wanted something”, said Sabathia.
When you think about being a Major Leaguer when you’re a child, you never imagine the pressure of what it will be like when you actually “make it”. I imagine that everyone he knew growing up might have looked to Sabathia to help them with their own financial struggles. Alcohol was Sabathia’s solution to not facing everyone who wanted a piece of what he had.
For years, Sabathia created a detox method that allowed him to consume alcohol without it impacting his pitching ability. As Sabathia explained, if he pitched on Monday, then after his start until Wednesday night, he would “be hammered.” Then, the following two days, he wouldn’t consume any alcohol and would just stick to water and Gatorade to flush his system. He would then get the ball on Saturday and then repeat the cycle all over again. After each start, there would be a bottle of Crown Royal and Sprite sitting in his locker.
After watching the documentary, I can see how the snowball effect of Sabathia’s reliance on alcohol just kept growing and spiraling out of control. I could see how alcohol could have been the solution to dealing with the stresses of his life – although, as Sabathia would later find out, it wasn’t the right solution for many reasons including the fact that it impacted his family.
In the offseason of 2012, Sabathia’s struggles off the field made his addition worse, as one of his cousins, whom Sabathia was close to, passed away as his family was packing to go home to Vallejo.
By 2013, CC Sabathia started struggling on the mound as he lost effectiveness and was not the dominant pitcher he had been. Alcohol was his coping mechanism that he tried not to rely on.
During the playoff celebration in 2015, Sabathia said he didn’t consume a drink, while players around him in the locker enjoying the team’s return to the postseason. But, on the bus ride back to the airport, Sabathia said he was handed a bottle, which he consumed all of. That would set him up for a bad weekend of drinking before playing the Orioles in Baltimore in the first round of the playoffs.
He was set to throw a bullpen session in Baltimore after getting rained out the prior day when Sabathia consumed another drink that morning to cure his hangover. Sabathia said it was the first time in his career where his addiction impacted his ability to perform, which he recognized was a major issue to not only him, but his teammates.
Behind the important meeting that led @Yankees pitcher @CC_Sabathia to check into rehab. https://t.co/svCZGGwgYm pic.twitter.com/QK3nOqrSTo — The Players’ Tribune (@PlayersTribune) March 8, 2016
It was at this moment that he realized he needed to go to rehab to finally face his addiction. I remember hearing the news on ESPN that Sabathia had made it public that he was going to leave the Yankees during the playoffs to go to rehab. I remember thinking, “Why is he doing this now?” Through this documentary, it now became perfectly clear. In that moment, Sabathia had to face the issue directly by going to alcohol rehabilitation. It puts into perspective the thought that although everything might look good from afar for someone, behind the curtain you never know what another person is dealing with.
Sabathia went through the rehab process and was at “rock bottom.” Sabathia’s “A-ha moment” came when he was tasked with writing a letter to himself as his son. He realized halfway through the letter, that in reality, he was writing a letter that he would have written to his own father who also struggled with addiction. From that moment on, Sabathia knew he wouldn’t have another drink for the rest of his life.
CC Sabathia left rehab as a better person and he seems to have overcome his addiction to alcohol. As a result of the rehab, Sabathia was able to finish up his career on a positive note. He called pitching after rehab “the biggest accomplishment of his career.” He left the game with his head high. He gave his all on the mound until his shoulder gave out on his final pitch.
If you think about it, Sabathia threw until he couldn’t throw anymore. He then walked into the dugout to a standing ovation from the Yankee Stadium crowd. What better way to go out? None, in my opinion. That’s the way Sabathia wanted it.
“When I released the ball, my shoulder went with it.” – CC Sabathia pic.twitter.com/MFzxEvkJb1 — Bryan Hoch (@BryanHoch) October 18, 2019
My greatest takeaway from the Sabathia story was how he was able to overcome addiction and finish his career on a positive note. Sabathia will always be remembered as someone who competed until the final out. That is a quality that I truly admire about him. I look up to Sabathia – a man who put his reputation aside by leaving the Yankees during the playoffs in 2015 to take care of something more important than baseball.
If you didn’t get the chance to watch the documentary, you can still stream it on HBO Max. I highly recommend this program. It was a story for everyone whether you are a Yankees fan or not, as it is a true sports comeback story.