CC Sabathia returns to Miller Park with Yankees
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
MILWAUKEE--Long before the phrase became popular in modern vernacular, Doug Melvin decided to go big or go home.
As the Independence Day holiday approached in 2008, the Milwaukee Brewers general manager decided his team needed a dynamic starting pitcher to get over the hump and make the playoffs for the first time in 26 years. Upon hearing the Cleveland Indians were making ace CC Sabathia available, Melvin quickly engaged fellow GM Mark Shapiro in serious trade discussions.
When word leaked that the Brewers were in big on Sabathia, the reaction throughout the baseball world was general disbelief. The small-town, long-suffering Milwaukee club was going after the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner?
“It caught a lot of people off-guard,” said Melvin, who will get to see Sabathia again this weekend when the New York Yankees come to town for an interleague series against the Brewers.
After a couple of days of discussions, Melvin realized Shapiro would not complete the deal unless the Brewers included first baseman Matt LaPorta, a first-round pick in the 2007 draft. So, Melvin gave Shapiro an ultimatum: If you want LaPorta, you have to do the deal today.
It was Sunday, July 6, and Melvin figured if a trade was consummated that day, he could get two starts out of Sabathia before the all-star break.
“I was upfront with Mark Shapiro and clear from the start,” said Melvin. “I told him we’d put LaPorta in the deal and we can go from there. I understood it would be costly.
“I said, ‘I will give you more now as opposed to waiting until the (July 31 trade) deadline. If we wait until then, I’m not going to be able to give as much.’ Mark was OK with that.”
Once the deal was done, and three players plus one to be named later were sent to Cleveland, Melvin placed a telephone call to Sabathia and told him he’d like him to start that Tuesday night at home against Colorado.
“Sometimes, after a trade, the player says, ‘I need to go home and get my stuff,’ or whatever,” said Melvin. “He wanted to get here right away.”
With a huge walkup leading to a sellout crowd of buzzing fans, Sabathia pitched the Brewers to a 3-1 victory over the Rockies. Five days later, he went nine innings in a 3-2 squeaker over Cincinnati, socking a home run to make the difference in the final game of the first half.
Melvin had the two victories he wanted out of Sabathia before the all-star break. It would become evident in the final days of the season just how important those two games would be.
What happened afterward is the stuff of legends. The man mountain lifted the team on his broad shoulders and carried them to the National League wild-card berth. In 17 starts, Sabathia went 11-2 with a 1.65 earned run average, with 25 walks and 128 strikeouts in 1302/3 innings.
Despite pitching only a half-season with the Brewers, Sabathia led the NL with seven compete games and three shutouts. As gaudy as those numbers were, they did not tell the entire story of what Sabathia did to snap the team’s long playoff drought.
With injuries thinning the pitching staff and the wild-card race going down to the wire with the New York Mets, Sabathia volunteered to make his final three starts on short rest. Never mind that he would be a free agent after the season and command a gigantic payday if he stayed healthy.
Sabathia’s agent made constant pleas to Melvin, asking him what he was trying to do to his client, but the big lefty insisted on doing it.
“I was always so impressed by that,” said Brewers special assistant Craig Counsell, an infielder on that ‘08 club. “He had a lot at stake, and he chose to do that.
“His decision to do that tells me there was no thought of himself. It was all about winning and what he could do for the team, his teammates and the city. That’s what it was all about.”
Sabathia’s third outing on short rest came on Sept. 28, the final day of the regular season. The Brewers and Mets were tied for the wild-card lead, and Sabathia assured it would at least stay that way by pitching a complete-game, 3-1 victory over the Chicago Cubs before an electrified Miller Park crowd.
When the Mets lost later that day at home to the Florida Marlins, the Brewers were in. And Sabathia was the unquestioned team MVP for what he did to get them there.
“I don’t think you could ever overstate what he did for that team,” said Counsell. “We all think it’s a team game, but he was the difference. And he just did everything. He was the best player and a leader and the guy everybody wanted to be around.
“He had a big personality. It was just a lot of fun when you find all of those qualities in one person. And he handled it all so well. I don’t want to slight other people but he was a true star when he was here.”
For the first time since that wild-card clinching game in ‘08, Sabathia will take the mound at Miller Park when he starts Saturday night for the Yankees. It’s New York’s first visit here since 2005, and Sabathia will do his best to break out of a pitching slump and beat the club he rescued six years ago.
Melvin knew when he traded for Sabathia that it likely would be a half-season rental. Sabathia only increased his stock with his brilliant showing in Milwaukee, making it even more unlikely the Brewers could afford to keep him.
“We had heard the Yankees were going to do everything they could to get him,” recalled Melvin.
And what the Yankees want, the Yankees usually get.
Still, the Brewers were obligated to make their best offer to try to keep Sabathia. During the winter meetings in Las Vegas, Melvin went down the street to the Wynn Hotel to meet with agent Greg Genske. Melvin indicated the Brewers could do $100 million for five years and the agent was blunt in his response.
“Greg politely framed it that we weren’t going to get him, no matter how much he liked Milwaukee, without actually saying, ‘Get out of the way,’” said Melvin.
A couple of days later, the Brewers learned exactly how short their offer was. The Yankees announced they had signed Sabathia to a seven-year, $161 million deal, at the time the biggest contract for a pitcher.
The megadeal paid immediate dividends for the Yankees, who went on to win the 2009 World Series with Sabathia going 19-8 with a 3.37 ERA and earning ALCS MVP honors. After the 2011 season, Sabathia’s deal was extended another year for $25 million with an additional $25 million vesting option.
The player to be named later in the Sabathia deal, centerfielder Michael Brantley, turned out to be the keeper of the four players the Brewers sent to Cleveland. LaPorta regressed and is now playing in Mexico.
Still, Melvin has no regrets for making that trade. In fact, it provides him with an easy answer whenever anyone asks him what’s the best trade he has made as a general manager in Texas and Milwaukee.
“That one had the most impact,” said Melvin. “He just took the club on his shoulders. And the fans responded so well.
“He did what we asked him to do. He took us to the playoffs. Without CC, we don’t make it.”