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ON JULY 7, the day he was traded from the Indians to the Brewers, lefthander C.C. Sabathia told the media in his new professional hometown that his first name (the letters are the initials for Carsten Charles) would henceforth be spelled CC—no periods. He said the rechristening was no big deal; he made the change at the request of his marketing rep. But the abbreviation cc—as in cubic centimeters, the measurement of a motorcycle's engine size—was already held in high esteem in Milwaukee, the home of the 107-year-old Harley-Davidson company and a town that generally prizes longevity in its local icons. A talented pitcher he may have been, but this CC fellow was giving himself a lot to live up to. But a funny thing happened over the last two months: Sabathia, 28, became the biggest thing in Brewtown, and not only because, at 6'7" and 290 pounds, he displaces more ccs than the Harley Fat Bob that delivers game balls to home plate at Miller Park. Nine Ws, zero losses, six complete games, a near no-hitter and a 1.42 ERA in a dozen starts go a long way toward winning the hearts and minds of the hometown crowd, especially when that performance has helped a team 26 years removed from its last playoff appearance build a four-game lead in the National League wild-card race. Brewers general manager Doug Melvin, who packaged four prospects, including Double A slugger Matt LaPorta, to get Sabathia from Cleveland, says Sabathia is such a major part of the team's playoff push that "it feels like he's been here all along."
Permanence is usually a prerequisite for veneration on the Wisconsin sports scene. The alltime most beloved Brewer, Robin Yount—a two-time American League MVP and Harley enthusiast—went from Rockin' Robin to the rocking chair in Milwaukee, spending his entire 20-year career there. The ultimate Packer, Brett Favre, started so many consecutive games (253) that most high school underclassmen in the state had not—until Sunday—lived a day in their lives without Favre being the quarterback for the Green and Gold. Wisconsinites love their athletes for winning, of course, but also for their willingness to resist the lure of the Coasts and stay awhile. What makes Sabathia unique is that everyone knows CC's days in Milwaukee are numbered. A free agent after this season, Sabathia will likely command the most lucrative contract ever given a pitcher, perhaps as much as $150 million for six or seven years. The Yankees have already indicated they will pursue him this off-season, and Sabathia, a native of Vallejo, Calif., has recently been house-hunting in Southern California. With the Brewers' pockets set at small-market depth, it's all but certain that watching Sabathia throw his hard, sweeping slider on their behalf isn't a pleasure Milwaukee fans will have next year.
Sabathia, though, jumped from the shores of Lake Erie to those of Lake Michigan at a time of emotional vulnerability for Wisconsin sports fans, who spent most of the summer mired in the painful Breakup with Brett. That months-long melodrama left fans with conflicting allegiances—Pack or Jets? Favre or Packers G.M. Ted Thompson?—and injured feelings. Sabathia has been embraced as the ultimate distraction therapy. Last Friday, with Favre two days away from his first start for the Jets, Sabathiamania raged in the parking lots outside Miller Park before the big lefty faced the Padres. "CC brought something to the Brewers that they were missing," said Wes Reinke, a 24-year-old student from Fond du Lac who, it must be noted, was wearing a brett the jet T-shirt. "He's kind of a—I don't want to say 'god,' but a superhero that they never had."
The psychological boost from the acquisition of Sabathia was immediate for the team (the Brewers have gone 33--22 since the trade, after starting 49--39) and for a fan base that has been conditioned to believe players of Sabathia's ilk are unattainable, even for half a season. "That's what baseball's economic system has told us for the past 20 years," said third baseman Craig Counsell, whose father was director of community relations for the Brewers while Counsell was growing up. Sabathia received several standing ovations during his first start, a win over the Rockies on July 8. Fans have flocked to Miller Park ever since, selling out 22 straight home games leading up to Labor Day. "We placed impossible expectations on [CC], and he's surpassed them," says Counsell. "That's really hard to do nowadays, when people expect the world from their star athletes." Now there's even potential for Milwaukee to produce the NL MVP (in leftfielder Ryan Braun) and the Cy Young winner. In the Brewers' clubhouse on Saturday, whoops erupted from a group watching TV when one of CC's prime Cy competitors, Brandon Webb, was being shelled by the Dodgers. Reliever Carlos Villanueva began to shout, "Earned runs, earned runs!"
There is a refreshing lack of delusion among Brewers fans about the odds of CC's staying in Milwaukee beyond 2008. Not that they aren't trying to persuade him to stick around. While he was eating at Brookfield's Original Pancake House last week with his old high school catcher from Vallejo, David Bernstine, a fan jokingly told CC he'd take a pay cut from his job to keep the ace in town. Sabathia says he sees the same traits in Milwaukee and Cleveland faithful—"they're die-hard, they love their teams"—except for one thing: "The Brewers fans are definitely more starved [for success]."
A playoff drought of more than a quarter century will do that to you, and Sabathia will be deified if he takes the Brewers on a deep postseason run. As Shaun McGuire, a 46-year-old electrical company manager wearing a favre '08 pro bowl jersey to Miller Park last Saturday, says, "He's a stopgap, but this is a business, and we've learned to appreciate what we have now. Who'd have thought that Favre would ever leave?" The faithful know that CC probably will. But this is the moment of the half-season hero in Wisconsin. In exchange for the ride, all future slights have already been forgiven.
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