CC Sabathia made his MLB debut in 2001, the same year that I first started paying close attention to baseball. Until 2020, I had never truly known a season without CC making his impact known somewhere in the game, whether it was winning a Cy Young in Cleveland, putting the Brewers on his back down the stretch in 2008, or living through both the delirious highs and arduous lows of his long Yankees career. Watching him lead them to the World Series title was a moment that as a fan, I’ll never forget. I felt for him deeply as he checked himself into rehab in 2015 with the Yankees on the brink of the playoffs. We didn’t know much of what was going on in CC’s life from afar, but we knew it was serious.
Sabathia persevered and underwent a career renaissance from 2016-19 that was just a joy to behold. At his career’s end, the pitcher’s mound was just as inextricably linked in my mind as it was all those years ago in Cleveland with the big guy staring down the poor sap who had to face him. Sabathia is extremely well-respected all around baseball, and he struck out 3,093 batters lifetime, more than all but two lefties in MLB history. He’s almost certainly destined for a Hall of Fame plaque Cooperstown.
I thought that I knew CC fairly well — as much as one can really know someone they’ve never met, anyway. However, CC’s public success is only half the story.
On Tuesday, a new documentary about Sabathia will be released on HBO Max: “Under the Grapefruit Tree.” Named in honor of the tree where Sabathia first grew to love pitching in his grandmother’s backyard, the film obviously tells the tale of his career, but to say it just does that would be an injustice. Sabathia gave HBO exclusive access to his travels during his final season in 2019. That meant plenty of interviews with CC and his family at home, footage of CC’s off-the-field endeavors community, and even time in the hospital as he recovered from a heart scare in December 2018. The Sabathia home video collection comes in handy, too, as we get to see great old footage of CC growing up as a Little Leaguer and dominating in high school and the minors.
Good documentaries involve more than mere access, though. I love documentaries, and the best ones have a story to tell and a smart way to do it. Having been lucky enough to be allowed to watch it in advance, I can assure you that “Under the Grapefruit Tree” does exactly that.
“Under the Grapefruit Tree” details a common theme of CC’s life: bad news often clashing with good news, and how CC had to fight his demons to come to terms with reality. For so long, he felt that he could only turn to the bottle to handle his pressures and anxieties. He had his first drink at 14, just a couple years after his parents divorced and during a time in which he barely saw his namesake.
CC’s dad, Corky, also battled addiction, but was an attentive father and as his Little League coach, was devoted to CC’s development as a youngster. They reconnected while CC rose through the minors and Corky faced more ailments on top of addiction: HIV and later, stomach cancer. (CC learned about the latter shortly after being named an All-Star for the first time.) Corky’s final years were difficult, but he was ultimately able to power through to meet his grandson, Little C: Carsten Charles Sabathia III.
As someone who has lost a parent, I’m a particular mark for this kind of story, but I challenge anyone to not get moved watching CC bring his family to Corky’s graveside. He talks in great detail about his father’s impact on his life, and it’s evident how much his passing still affects him.
Sabathia’s struggles with alcoholism are laid bare. He wanted everyone to understand his addiction, warts and all. He described himself as “always a binge drinker,” and how drinking worked around his pitching routine (never on game days or the couple days before, but he’d have a drink in his hand moments after his outing ended; many more would follow). Sabathia’s dependence on drinking worsened in the 2010s, especially after the sudden death in 2012 of the cousin he idolized, Demetrius. His family, especially his wife Amber, urged him to get help in the subsequent years, but he would only go through the motions. Rock bottom hit in 2015: an embarrassing incident outside a Toronto nightclub in August, and a lengthy early-October binge in Baltimore that led to him being too drunk to throw a bullpen and Amber admitting that she felt absolutely powerless to control him.
Everything had caught up to CC, and with the support of his family and teammates, he checked himself into rehab even though the Yankees were about to enter the postseason. As CC tells, it was difficult and heartbreaking, but absolutely the right thing to do to save the relationships with the people closest to him. One exercise in rehab affirmed this choice. Tasked with writing a letter to himself from the point of view of his son, CC realized that it could very well be him writing the letter to his own father. There was a connection in the alcohol abuse and what he’d been missing from his family’s lives, and once that link was made, CC said that he knew he’d never drink again.
By the time they reach adulthood (if not sooner), most people know someone who has battled addiction, and it’s a nice feeling to see CC bring his whole story public. It’s not an instantaneous process, and CC’s honesty and perspective about everything he faced is a breath of fresh air. I know that I just detailed some parts of the documentary, but my text does not fully grant CC’s story the justice it deserves. There’s so much more that I didn’t even mention, and the entire Sabathia family’s pure charisma throughout it all despite the occasionally difficult subject matter makes it a pretty easy watch. They’re wonderful people.
I had a decent mental sketch of Sabathia’s life before watching “Under the Grapefruit Tree,” but now, I feel like I have a more complete picture. If you get a chance to watch it, I highly recommend it. If it’s a bonus perk, I can promise that you get to see teenage CC crushin’ dingers in high school. Who wouldn’t love that?