LAS VEGAS -- First LeBron James, and now this. Indians fans, already riled up when Cavaliers superstar James donned a Yankees hat and openly rooted for the Bronx Bombers during an American League Division Series game in Cleveland last year, might have choked on their Cheerios on Wednesday morning, as word spread of CC Sabathia's deal with the hated Yanks.
Actually, it was Sabathia who struck first in the area of cap-wearing controversy. Several years back, he was spotted wearing a Yankees hat at an NBA game, causing a stir he could only erase with his heroic efforts on the mound. But now the 28-year-old Sabathia will make those efforts in the Yankee pinstripes. And file this one in the "money talks" bin. The Yankees are reportedly going to pay Sabathia $161 million over seven years to become the ace of their rotation. It would be a record deal for a pitcher and the fourth-largest contract in Major League history. While fans might be riled up about the development, members of the Indians organization were happy for their old friend, even if this means they'll have to face him. "I'm thrilled for CC," said general manager Mark Shapiro, who received a text message from Sabathia with the news late Tuesday night. "I'm thinking about him as an 18-year-old and where he comes from, and I can't help but feel happy for him and his mom and his family. It's a great thing for him, and anyone who cares for him has got to be thrilled." Shapiro wasn't as thrilled when his efforts to lock Sabathia up with a contract extension last winter went for naught. The Indians offered Sabathia a four-year extension, through 2012, that would have paid him about $18 million a year. It was no half-hearted offer. The Indians desperately wanted to retain Sabathia, not just for the dazzling numbers he brought the club on the field -- his 106 wins with the Indians were the second-most by a left-hander in club history, and, in 2007, he became the organization's first Cy Young Award winner in 35 years -- but also for the leadership he brought off it. Regardless, at the time, it was believed the Indians' offer wasn't in the ballpark for Sabathia's continued services. Turns out, it wasn't even on the same planet.
You know how the story went from there. Sabathia broke off contract negotiations at the start of Spring Training, all but cementing the notion that 2008 would be his last year in a Tribe uniform. The Indians and Sabathia both stumbled out the gate in '08, and, with the club out of contention by the All-Star break, Sabathia was dealt to the Brewers for a package of four prospects. "We dealt with the reality of the situation and where we were," Shapiro said. "There was no question that the trade was highly preferable, rather than letting him walk as a free agent, considering where we were as a team." That's where Indians fans can take solace in this story, because Sabathia was not simply another in a long line of the "ones who got away," joining Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez. He got away, all right, but his departure reaped the Indians some anticipated rewards. Outfielders Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantley, both targeted for Triple-A Columbus in '09, have instantly become two of the Tribe's most prized prospects, while left-hander Zach Jackson, who made nine starts down the stretch, and hard-throwing right-handed reliever Rob Bryson were also included in the deal. Still, it will no doubt be tough for Indians fans to deal with seeing Sabathia go to the "Dark Side," as it were. But even reliever Jensen Lewis, who grew up an Indians fan and thereby grew up hating the Yankees, was understanding. "I think when you look at the Yankees and the history and the tradition, it seems as though all the great players, the really elite players, have played for the Yankees," Lewis said. "So it doesn't surprise me that he is a part of that organization. He is an elite player, one of the best of our time." The question has been raised as to how Sabathia will perform under the pressure of the New York spotlight. But his former manager doesn't think it will be an issue. "You know, nobody puts more pressure on CC than CC," Eric Wedge said. "I know some people scoff at that, because New York is different. ... [But] because of everything that CC has been through and because of the adjustments he's made -- mentally, physically, fundamentally -- and just the leadership ability he has and the strength he has as a human being, he's going to be fine." Fans are encouraged to get used to the idea of Sabathia in pinstripes in a hurry. Because when the Indians go to the Bronx as the visiting team in the first official game at the new Yankee Stadium on April 16, Sabathia will most assuredly get the starting nod. And once again, he'll be wearing that blasted Yankees cap.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.