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CC leaves as one of Tribe's best

CC leaves as one of Tribe's best

CLEVELAND -- The headline in the next day's Plain Dealer would read, "Indians draft 17-year-old lefty."

It was a risk on all fronts when the Indians began their marriage with CC Sabathia by taking him with the 20th overall pick in the 1998 First-Year Player Draft. The Vallejo, Calif., native was young, he was big and he was unpolished.

"He's clay we'll be able to mold," team scouting director Lee MacPhail told the Plain Dealer on June 2, 1998. "He's an exciting project. ... We have a lot to work with."

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Did they ever.

Sabathia already weighed 235 pounds at the time he was drafted and 260 pounds the summer before. The Indians did not take that matter -- ahem -- lightly.

Strength and conditioning coach Fernando Montes and team psychologist Dr. Charles Maher were both sent to watch Sabathia pitch in the weeks leading up to the Draft. Montes, who compared the young Sabathia's body to that of an offensive lineman, felt Sabathia's weight could be monitored.

Not that it mattered much to an American League club such as the Indians, but in one game MacPhail watched, Sabathia, who had signed a letter of intent to play baseball and football at the University of Hawaii, hit a 400-foot home run.

Big, yes. But a heck of an athlete.

And so he signed his name on the dotted line on June 29, cashed in his $1.3 million signing bonus and headed off to rookie ball at Burlington. It was there where he began working with current Indians pitching coach Carl Willis.

Tribe general manager Mark Shapiro was, at the time, the club's farm director. The earliest report on CC was not entirely encouraging.

"I remember talking to Carl Willis after he picked him up at the airport," Shapiro recalled with a smile. "He didn't know how to grip the baseball or stand on the rubber."

But man, could he throw. The upper-90s fastball came effortlessly. What needed to be refined, of course, were his secondary pitches and his command.

Still, give a big, strong left-hander a 98-mph fastball, and he's not going to take long to ascend to the Major League level. Such was the case with Sabathia, who, at the urging of manager Charlie Manuel, was made a member of the big league club at the outset of the 2001 season.

He made his debut April 8 against the Orioles, drawing a standing ovation as he walked from the bullpen to the dugout before the game. His first pitch to Orioles leadoff hitter Brady Anderson was a 95-mph strike. His next eight pitches, in succession, were 96, 98, 97, 95, 98, 99, 98 and 97 mph.

Manuel had advised Sabathia to open the outing by establishing his fastball. Obviously, CC stuck to the plan.

What didn't go to plan was the outcome of some of those pitches. Sabathia gave up a three-run homer to Jeff Conine in that first inning, so it appeared his first appearance might just be a brief one. But Sabathia quickly calmed down to retire the next 10 hitters in order. He faced 18 batters after the homer, allowing nothing more than a hit and a walk.

"Straight stud," teammate Paul Shuey said when the 4-3 victory, in which Sabathia took a no-decision, was complete.

Over in the visitors' clubhouse, O's second baseman Jerry Hairston was equally impressed with Sabathia.

"When you're 6-foot-10," Hairston said, "you're really tough to hit."

C.C. Sabathia

Sabathia is really 6-foot-7, but the point was taken. This kid had a presence on the mound that belied his age.

But Sabathia did show his age quite often in those early years. On the field, he was often temperamental, screaming at umpires when calls didn't go his way and letting his emotions get the best of him in tight situations.

And off the field, he was no stranger to having a good time.

An incident in May 2002 went a long way toward making Sabathia the man he is today. After a night of partying at a downtown Cleveland nightclub, Sabathia and his cousin Jomar Connors were robbed at gunpoint at a hotel. The two robbers -- former Cleveland State University basketball players Damon Stringer and Jamaal Harris -- took $44,000 worth of jewelry and cash and left Sabathia feeling helpless and shaken.

"It was totally my fault," Sabathia told reporters afterward. "I put myself in that situation. There is nobody else to blame but me. But I don't know how to feel right now."

Years later, Sabathia would point to that incident as the day he stopped focusing on outside distractions and turned his attention to the things that matter most to him -- his family and his profession.

Though he certainly showed signs of promise in racking up 17 wins in that rookie season of 2001, Sabathia took some time to develop into one of the game's elite arms.

The official transition from good to great came after a particularly brutal start in Oakland -- where Sabathia often struggled under the glare of pitching in front of his hometown friends and family -- on July 25, 2005. He allowed eight runs in just 2 1/3 innings that day, then went into hibernation in the video room with Willis and pinpointed problems with his delivery.

From Aug. 5 through the end of that '05 season, Sabathia was one of the most dominant pitchers in the game. He went 9-1 with a 2.24 ERA, as the Indians made a desperate -- but ill-fated -- late-season playoff push.

No longer was he that guy who tossed nothing but upper-90s heat and hoped for the best. Now, his slider and cutter were considered just as dangerous as his fastball.

"To tell you the truth," Sabathia said in 2006, "I was worried about making the adjustments and not being able to throw my fastball like I usually do. I was worried it would take a few miles per hour off to gain control."

No worries there. Sabathia's fastball remained intact. And after an '06 season in which run support was scarce, affecting his win total, he turned in his most masterful season to date in '07. With a 19-7 record and 3.21 ERA in 34 starts, he became the first Indians pitcher to win the Cy Young Award since Gaylord Perry in 1972.

The award didn't help Sabathia much in the postseason, as he struggled mightily against the Red Sox in two starts in the AL Championship Series, which the Indians lost in seven games.

"It's tough," Sabathia said after the series. "I take all the blame for it."

That type of accountability is what made Sabathia a leader in the Indians' clubhouse.

"One of the most fulfilling parts of this game is watching guys like CC develop as people, go from really a teenage guy to a young man and now turn into a man," Shapiro said last offseason. "I say that as the ultimate compliment, because it means he's a good father, a good husband, a good friend, great teammate. He kind of meets all those qualifications of what it means to be a good man. To watch that progression and know that's directly influenced his on-field performance as well and his maturation there is extremely fulfilling."

Unfortunately for the Indians and their fans, the day Sabathia accepted that Cy Young Award was, essentially, the day his ticket out of Cleveland was punched. With such an accolade in tow and another impressive season in the works, the 27-year-old Sabathia can -- and likely will -- command a free-agent contract with length of at least five years and a value in excess of $100 million.

Years, not dollars, are believed to be the major sticking point that held up negotiations between the Indians and Sabathia. And the unproductive talks helped lead to the decision to trade him to the Brewers on Monday for a package of prospects.

If and when Sabathia officially plunges into the free-agent waters in the offseason, the Tribe will make an attempt to reconcile the marriage and bring their prodigal son back to his adopted home, but the odds are heavily stacked against them.

This, then, is farewell -- a long-time-coming goodbye to a man-child pitcher the Indians plucked out of high school, taught to grip a baseball and helped mold into one of their all-time greats.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Senior writer Justice B. Hill contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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