On July 7, 2008, the Cleveland Indians traded Sabathia to a Brewers franchise that hadn’t made the playoffs in 26 years. Sabathia, a free agent after the season, had sensed his time in Cleveland was ending. But when the deal became official, he went home to his wife and cried. Cleveland was the team that drafted him, the city that embraced him. Change felt awkward.
Then he entered the Milwaukee clubhouse.
“I just fit in,” Sabathia said later. There was so much reason for comfort. Catcher Jason Kendall and infielder Craig Counsell were quality leaders. Reliever David Riske was a good friend and a former Cleveland teammate. But for Sabathia, the best part was the team’s core of Black players. Prince Fielder started at first base, Rickie Weeks at second, Bill Hall at third. Mike Cameron, another respected leader, was the center fielder. The roster also included Ray Durham and Tony Gwynn Jr.
After home games, they would linger in the clubhouse and talk well into the night. On Sundays, Cameron would blast Michael Jackson songs. For the first time in his major league career, Sabathia didn’t have to shrink to have chemistry with his teammates. It’s hard for a 6-foot-6, 300-pound man to keep shrinking.
For those three months, he pitched better than he ever had, delivering one of the most remarkable stretches in baseball history. He took the ball on short rest and dominated National League teams unfamiliar with him. He showed power and athleticism as a hitter. The Brewers needed every ounce of his excellence to win 90 games and edge the New York Mets for a wild-card spot.
Sabathia wasn’t worried about free agency or the risk of injury. He was just competing, fighting for his new brothers. So often, he felt isolated playing a sport with diminishing appeal to the Black community. But not that summer. He could be loose, but he also felt a connection.
“I didn’t want the season to end,” Sabathia later told reporters. “We were having so much fun.”
The year before, in spring training, Sabathia had expressed frustration with baseball. He had been the lone Black player on Cleveland’s 25-man roster the year prior and was entering a season in which he and Dontrelle Willis were the game’s only significant Black starting pitchers. Baseball was deep into the era of the vanishing Black star.
“It’s not just a problem,” Sabathia said that spring. “It’s a crisis.”
He caused a stir. Some dismissed his comments as dramatic, but the problem of Black representation continues today. His generation signifies a period in which the bridge collapsed.
Sabathia, 41, fell in love with the game while shadowing his father, which meant he grew up idolizing stars who looked like him. As a boy from Vallejo, Calif., Sabathia worshiped Oakland’s Dave Stewart and Dave Parker. During his childhood, he related to many of the MVPs: George Bell, Rickey Henderson, Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey Jr., Mo Vaughn, Andre Dawson, Kevin Mitchell, Barry Bonds, Terry Pendleton, Barry Larkin. He saw Dwight Gooden and Stewart win 20 games and dreamed of doing the same.
But by the time Sabathia had established himself in the big leagues, the days of abundant Black talent were over. He had too much personality to be a loner. Still, he didn’t feel he could be himself.
“Even when I was an established veteran, I always put being a good teammate over my personal feelings,” Sabathia wrote in his autobiography, “Till The End,” which he co-authored with Chris Smith. “So if we were sitting around the food table after a game and someone said some racist s--- that made me livid, I would just walk out.”
Black players learned to appreciate just getting to see each other. When they played against each other, they went to dinner after the game. They stay connected on text message threads. They knew not to take their existence for granted.
“When I first came up, there were so many Black players in the league you had the luxury of not liking some of them,” Sabathia wrote. “But right now,” he went on, “this sport is not for us, and we know that.”
The 2008 Brewers weren’t a refuge. They were an example of why diversifying the game matters. When Sabathia arrived, they became a force, and though they lost to Philadelphia in the playoffs, that Milwaukee team created a winning foundation that propelled the Brewers to a 96-win season in 2011. Before 2008, Milwaukee had made the postseason just twice. Since then, it has made five appearances in 13 years, and the Brewers have a comfortable lead in the NL Central this season.
“We had a sense of comfort that you don’t get a chance to experience as much in the game,” Cameron said. “In baseball, the people become your life. If you’re going to be any good, their values become your values. On that team, it was in our DNA. It was natural. It wasn’t forced. It elevates your game. Milwaukee, it revived me. I think it revived all of us.”
Dave Sims, a play-by-play announcer for the Seattle Mariners, greets every Black person around baseball in a similar manner.
“Glad to see you,” he will say. “Glad to see somebody that looks like me.”
Two years after the 2008 season, the Mariners and Brewers played an interleague series. Sabathia was gone; as expected, he left Milwaukee after that memorable run and signed a $161 million contract to join the New York Yankees. But the 2010 Brewers still had a reputation for valuing Black talent. So when Sims greeted the Brewers’ Weeks, Weeks let him in on the secret.
“Man, it’s the place to be,” he told Sims.
Sabathia will always have a special piece of that legacy. In his three months, he started 17 games and posted an 11-2 record with a 1.65 ERA. He threw seven complete games for Milwaukee, including three shutouts. He pitched on three days’ rest. He averaged about 7⅔ innings per start. His teammates marveled at how — with so much money at stake, money he was almost guaranteed regardless of how he performed — Sabathia refused to play it safe.
“We all understood he had life-changing money on the line,” Cameron said. “But this guy, he felt like he had a responsibility to us, and he couldn’t stop because of the joy we were having. This guy put everything on his back and took care of us.”
Weeks called the performance “the best I’ve ever seen.” Sabathia went on to win a championship with the Yankees the next season, and in 2010, he won 21 games to join the Black Aces — the name Mudcat Grant gave to the group of Black pitchers who have won 20 games in a season — whom Sabathia grew up admiring. He was in the prime of his career, but amid all the highs, Milwaukee still has a special place.
As he has detailed in recent years, he battled alcoholism for much of his career, an addiction that dates from losing his father and several other loved ones early in life. When Sabathia felt alone, he drank. The loneliness compelled him daily.
“I know the isolation that I have broadcasting while Black,” Sims said. “For these guys, that isolation has got to be murder. I can take my binoculars and count the number of African Americans in the ballpark for games. It’s just sad. The fabric of the game, the continuity of it, just gets lost in the Black community now.
“I was raised on baseball. I did a lot in my career, but I was 54 before I got this job. I’d be at football practices, saying: ‘There’s our first baseman. There’s our left fielder. There’s our center fielder.’ I’ve had some great gigs, but this is the best gig I’ve ever had. And I just want more of us to have that kind of feeling about baseball.”
Cameron was touched when he started reading Sabathia’s book, which came out this summer and includes admiration of Cameron’s leadership. It felt good to Cameron to be remembered in such a way. During his 17 seasons in the majors, he invested much of his energy in clubhouse cohesion.
“We talked a lot when he was in Milwaukee,” Cameron said. “For him to do that, he showed me the greatest respect. It reminded me that we had something special.”
In March 2019, Sabathia faced Detroit Tigers outfielder Daz Cameron, the son of his former teammate, during a spring training game. Sabathia threw a first-pitch fastball, and the young player, just 22 at the time, jumped on it, drilling a line drive into the gap in left-center field.
Cameron sprinted to second base and grinned upon arriving safely. Sabathia looked back at him, smiled and felt ancient as he rubbed the baseball, took off his cap and prepared to get through another tough inning.
Sabathia was 38. He was making his first start since undergoing a heart procedure three months earlier. He was at the beginning of his final season, and he had played just long enough to compete against the little Cameron boy who used to squeeze in batting cage sessions alongside his father’s teammates.
For Sabathia, his last year was partly about passing the game on, one pitch at a time. And when Daz saw that fastball, he knew exactly what to do with it.