accI was 16 years old during the summer of 2008.
I was still somewhat of a fledgling baseball fan, first really getting into the game in 2005 while spending most of the break between seventh and eighth grade playing MVP Baseball at my friend’s house on his Playstation 2. But whether we start at the outset of my fandom, or go back even further to the beginning of my life, I had never seen the Milwaukee Brewers make the postseason.
Fans even older than I was at the time were faced with the same truth. The Cream City had gone an entire generation without a playoff berth and our local nine had taken us through some dark times. The Brewers went fifteen years without a winning season. Even as a new stadium was built, austerity permeated throughout the organization under the Wendy Selig-Prieb regime. Performance tumbled along with payroll and support from the public. The bottom came in 2002 with a franchise-worst 106 losses.
But by 2007, things were looking up. The team had been sold to Mark Attanasio and General Manager Doug Melvin had assembled a young, exciting core of offensive talent with Prince Fielder, JJ Hardy, Corey Hart, Rickie Weeks, and rookie sensation Ryan Braun. The Brewers finished with their first winning season since 1992 by posting an 83-79 record, though the season finished on a sour note as the club choked away a possible playoff spot during the dog days of summer. Still, optimism reigned supreme and expectations were high heading into the 2008 season.
On the morning of July 7th, Milwaukee stood at 49-39, second place in the division and 3.5 games back of the Cubs. Things were going well on offense but it had become clear that the Brewers needed another difference-maker for the pitching staff after Yovani Gallardo went down with a torn ACL in April. And on that day, help arrived in the mammoth form of Carsten Charles Sabathia, former Cleveland ace and the first reigning Cy Young award winner to be traded in a decade. After several days of intense negotiations, Milwaukee agreed to send four prospects to the Indians, convincing Mark Shapiro to spurn more a half-dozen other suitors and consummate the deal to make CC a Brewer.
“I’d say we’re going for it. That’s the way I look at it,” Melvin said after completing perhaps the most important trade in franchise history.
Sabathia debuted on the mound in Milwaukee the following day, July 8th against the Colorado Rockies. Fans present in the sellout crowd have described it as the most electric atmosphere they’ve ever experienced. CC earned the win by allowing two earned runs over 6.0 innings as the Brewers emerged victorious, 7-3.
In a level of performance that seems almost unfathomable now in today’s age of bullpenning, Sabathia would throw complete 9-inning games in his next three starts, all victories for the Brewers. He unfurled between 106 and 122 pitches each time out, allowing a total of 15 hits and three earned runs across the 27.0 innings. He struck out 26 batters while walking three. The streak ended with CC’s first loss as a Brewer on July 28th as he allowed four runs across 6.2 innings to the Cubs, but as the calendar turned to August, his dominant form quickly returned.
Sabathia made six starts that month for the Brewers, and his team won each and every one of them. He pitched at least 7.0 innings in five of those six outings, worked into the ninth four times, and completed three more games. The performance was punctuated by one of the most dominant starts in the organization’s history, at Pittsburgh on August 31st. CC went the distance that day against the Pirates, fanning 11 batters while issuing three free passes. He was robbed of the franchise’s second-ever no-hitter when PNC Park’s official scorer made what is surely one of the most egregious hit-versus-error decisions of all-time, ruling Andy LaRoche safe on an infield single in the fifth inning even though Sabathia had bungled his attempt to throw him out. With a one-hit shutout in the books, CC finished the month with a 5-0 record and 1.12 ERA across 48.1 frames.
Milwaukee won only three of their first 10 games in September and Sabathia was on the mound for two of them, though he received no-decisions in both games despite working 7.0 innings each time. But after CC’s start and team win on September 10th, things continued to unravel. The Brewers were swept in a doubleheader on the 14th in Philadelphia, and Ned Yost was fired the following day while the team was off. Dale Sveum debuted as manager on the 16th and Sabathia was charged with a loss while giving up four runs in 7.0 innings on the road at Wrigley Field to extend the losing streak to five. Milwaukee had fallen nine games out of the division lead and had only the Wild Card left as their path to the playoffs. The sense of urgency was rising, and it was CC’s time to stand tall and throw the team on his back.
Sveum tabbed Sabathia on just three days rest for each of his final three starts. That lined him up to toe the rubber against the Cubs on the final day of the season. The Brewers entered play tied with the Mets for the lone Wild Card spot with matching records of 89-72. Sabathia spun a gem against the Cubs, allowing only four hits and one run while going the distance. Ryan Braun’s two-run homer in the eighth proved to be difference in a 3-1 victory that pushed the Brewers to 90 wins. Thousands among the sellout crowd waited in the stands after Sabathia’s masterpiece and watched on the center field scoreboard as the Marlins closed out a 4-2 triumph over New York.
For the first time in 26 years, the Milwaukee Brewers were headed to the playoffs.
Like much of Milwaukee, I was swept up in baseball fever. Before heading into work at the Culver’s in New Berlin that night (where I was employed through all four years of high school), I called ahead to ask if I could wear a Brewers shirt, then spread the word to other team members who were scheduled to join me. Thousands met the team at the Summerfest grounds for the Wild Card tailgate party the day after clinching, myself included. The crowd erupted when the players appeared on the stage at the Miller Lite Oasis. It was baseball euphoria like this town hadn’t seen since 1982.
The Brewers didn’t make it out of the NLDS, losing to eventual World Series champion Philadelphia three games to one. But that hardly seemed to matter at the time. The team had finally, truly “gone for it,” and they sated their playoff-starved fanbase with the town’s first successful pennant race in more than a quarter century. And it was largely on the broad shoulders of CC Sabathia, who in three months became the gold standard for what every team hopes for when they make a midseason trade for an ace.
Sabathia knew what was at stake for his future when the Brewers traded for him. A pending free agent, he had already turned down a four-year, $72 mil extension offer from Cleveland earlier that spring. But his impending riches took a backseat to propelling Milwaukee to the postseason, no matter what it took and regardless of the toll on his body. “I’ll focus on that when it comes,” Sabathia said upon being acquired. “Right now, I’m worried about pitching tomorrow.” He dutifully took the ball whenever called upon, making starts on short rest, averaging seven and two-thirds inning per game, firing fewer than 100 pitches just three times in 17 starts (the other three were 96, 97, and 99).
Within a town and a locker room that had become so accustomed to losing, Sabathia’s arrival was the catalyst for change. For the first time in the lives of a generation of baseball fans in the city and the state, we felt like our team could really be something. In today’s game, where efficient roster-building and farm system rankings and owner profits are often fetishized ahead of actual on-field wins, it is easy to forget that baseball is a game made up of moments played out on the diamond. But not in Milwaukee, not in 2008. Melvin burned four top prospects to rent a star pitcher for half of a season. Attanasio pushed payroll to the point where even he admitted that the team would likely lose money that year. And CC Sabathia made 17 appearances, pitching each game like it was his last. Every one of his starts was a must-see event. He forever changed the culture and expectations around Milwaukee baseball.
When the dust settled, the numbers read 17 starts, 130.2 innings pitched, 11 wins versus three losses, and a 1.65 ERA that translated to a 255 ERA+. He completed seven games, including three shutouts. Despite spending only half the year on the Senior Circuit with the Crew, he finished fifth in the NL Cy Young balloting and sixth in the MVP race. The 5.8 RA9-WAR that he generated in just 17 starts ranks as the 6th-best full season total of any pitcher in franchise history.
When CC retires, baseball will have new active leaders in wins, innings pitched, starts, strikeouts, complete games, home runs allowed, walks, hits allowed, losses, earned runs allowed, hit by pitches and batters faced. Heckuva legacy.— Tim Brown (@TBrownYahoo) October 18, 2019
Obviously, Sabathia’s legend extends far beyond what he accomplished in three months in Milwaukee and what he meant to the Brewers. He finishes with 251 wins. He accumulated over 3,500 innings, and punched out more than 3,000 batters. Sabathia made six All-Star games, won a Cy Young award, and captured a World Series ring in 2009 with the Yankees, the team with which he spent the final 11 seasons of his 19-year career.
A future Hall of Famer and one of the few “Black Aces” in the game’s history, he always stayed humble, never forgot where he came from, and has made significant contributions towards helping re-grow baseball in inner cities like the one he grew up in. The way he handled his public battle with alcoholism showed that no matter how bright the spotlight shines on you, that it’s okay not to be okay, and that no one should be afraid to recognize when they take a step away and ask for help. He threw for years through injury, literally pitching until his body gave out with a left shoulder subluxation in the ALCS. And though he made a princely sum during his time at the game’s highest level, winning and being a good teammate were always the top priorities for Sabathia.
“He’s a gentle giant, but he just brought this confidence every start. He brought this energy, this ferociousness. He connected the dots for everyone, like that piece we were missing in order to bring unity to the team and make us excel.” - Mike Cameron
“When he came into the clubhouse in 2008, it changed our room. He connects people. When you first meet him, you feel the humility come off him, and I think that’s what gets people drawn to him. Then when you start competing with him, you realize he will do absolutely anything for his teammates. It’s just a gift that not many people have, being able to connect with a lot of different people. Sometimes we don’t associate ultra-competitive guys and successful people with humility, but that’s the rare trait that CC possesses.” - Craig Counsell
“He just carried everybody on his shoulders. And this was a man who was getting ready to get paid. He pitched on three days’ rest three times knowing what was out there (financially). He didn’t care about a possible injury. He cared about getting the Milwaukee Brewers to the playoffs. He was a god in Milwaukee for those three months.” - Jason Kendall
Kendall didn’t have it exactly right, though. 11 years later, CC Sabathia is still revered in Milwaukee. His legacy here took only three months to build, but for a generation of disciples of America’s pastime here in the dairy state, it will never be forgotten.
Thank you, CC.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference