The pitcher doesn't look up. He keeps at it: drawing up his right leg, windmilling his left arm, opening his hand. The baseball shoots forward, a white missile turning, dropping. Pock! It hits the catcher's mitt. The pitcher grips another ball. Pock! Again. Pock! Twenty men in Yankees uniforms surround him, prospects and coaches, young and old, sitting, squatting, leaning, slouching. At first glance it's a group study in nonchalance. That's a lie. The pitcher represents, for them all, this spring's hope. Their eyes follow as his body tightens and unfolds, over and over.
"All RIGHT, CC!"
Another voice drifting down from the sky. He can feel the bodies 20 feet above him, milling. Ticket holders stop cold when they realize what—no, who—is happening below; they peer over the railing into the home bullpen at Tampa's George M. Steinbrenner Field, and before the guards can chase them off, they blurt out less a greeting than a stunned acknowledgment: Hey, CC Sabathia!
Ten pitches in, the sweat begins to bubble and break; it's early March, still jacket weather, but the pitcher's cheeks shine under the lights. He waves his glove—90-mph fastball coming, not even near his top speed—with the urgency of a drowsy man shooing a fly. Pock! Again, to the other side of the plate. Then a changeup, a curve, a cutter.
The crowd hum rises: game time soon. It's about to begin, his career as New York's ace, as the highest-paid pitcher in history, as the latest move by baseball's big-money franchise to regain its primacy. An announcer reads off the visiting team's lineup, but it's almost beside the point. Tonight is about fingering the goods. About seeing what, exactly, $161 million buys.
CRYING? RIGHT there on the mound? Because he can't strike out every kid he faces? Because he gave up a hit or a run? No, Margie Sabathia wasn't going to put up with that. "Dude, please," she'd say to her son at inning's end. "You got to be s------- me." She wouldn't embarrass CC—11 years old and already so big that she packed his birth certificate for every game—on the Little League field in north Vallejo, Calif. But he knew what was coming. She'd steam silently on the ride home, six kids sardined into a two-door Ford Escort, and he would almost hear her thinking, Who do you think you are? You're that good? That untouchable?
The time he cried after surrendering a home run, his grandparents came by. Margie didn't care. She marched CC into the bathroom, pinned him against the wall and waded in. The thin walls couldn't contain the thumping, the yelps. His grandmother Ethel edged to the closed door and asked, "What are you doing in there?" But Margie didn't let up. She didn't care if he got shelled for six runs, so long as he didn't act as if he couldn't take the bad with the good. Dude, she'd say, there's always someone out there as good as you. You're going to get hit. Crying? Please!
You didn't mess with Margie. Yes, her husband, Carsten Charles Sabathia Sr.—Corky to all—taught their only child how to play ball, got him to shift from righty to lefty, coached his teams and took him to sporting events in the Bay Area: the Raiders, A's, Warriors, Giants. Corky was the softer touch; every month or so he skipped work at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard or the trucking company and pulled CC from school so they could hit in a batting cage, just the two of them. But CC's principals, teachers and friends all knew: Margie was the law. She worked the night shift as a telephone operator at Travis Air Force Base so she could attend her son's every game, and if he yelled "Damn!" or so much as banged his helmet on the ground after popping up, she got to him quicker than any coach, chiding him over the fence. CC got a D in history his sophomore year, and she yanked him off the basketball team for the season.
"What Margie says, goes," says Robert Rigsby, who grew up going to the same church that she did. "I love her to death, and I will never cross her in a million years." When reached by SI, Rigsby, a District of Columbia Superior Court judge, was getting ready, as a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, to deploy to Iraq for a six-month stint as a military judge overseeing trials for murder, rape and robbery. His wife, Anna Blackburne-Rigsby, is a judge on the D.C. Court of Appeals. "I'm afraid of two people on this planet," Rigsby said. "My wife, who can put me in jail, followed by Margie Sabathia."
Still, Margie calls her son Dude, which tells you something about their relationship. A former fast-pitch softball player, Margie strapped on gear to catch CC in the backyard, quitting only when, at 12, he nearly broke her hand with a fastball and she pulled off the mask and said, "Get someone else. You're past me." Hers was the opinion on girls and life that mattered most to CC; she was the best friend he could trust with any secret, the one he turned to even when it wasn't wise to do so. "So, Mom," CC once asked, "do you get in trouble for throwing eggs at people's cars?"