HIS PARENTS SPLIT WHEN HE WAS 13. IT DIDN'T FEEL so bad. Corky moved in with Margie's mother, Ethel, and since CC had been going to his grandmother's every morning his whole life, things seemed nearly normal. CC even moved in with Ethel and Corky for a while in high school, at Margie's urging. But Corky had a new job at the nearby Concord Naval Weapons Station, and something—no one could figure out what—made him start to disengage. The days playing hooky at the batting cage stopped. Corky moved out of Ethel's house. He showed up at fewer and fewer of CC's games, didn't drop by for the double sessions of football practice like the other fathers. "They would tell my dad what I was doing," CC says, "but he wouldn't come see me. I didn't understand that." (He would learn years later that his father stopped coming by because he had contracted HIV.)
Still, Margie never bad-mouthed Corky to CC, and his high school days spun out in a rare example of adolescent harmony. By his junior year CC was Vallejo's three-sport force. The Apache basketball team depended on his bruising presence at power forward, and he was a good enough tight end for Cal and Hawaii to sniff him out. He was 6' 6" and 245 pounds now, but never a bully, always ready to work hard when it was time. People were drawn to him by his sports exploits but stayed near because of his expansive vibe, his humility. That junior year he met a sophomore cheerleader, Amber Carter, and she came home and told her brother, Joe, a basketball player, "CC's going to be your brother-in-law."
It might've stung that CC went on to take Joe's starting job, but CC was hard to hate. He was any group's voice of reason, its glue. He tried to skip basketball his senior year, but Margie wouldn't hear of it; in 1998 Vallejo had the most talent in its long history—three future Division I players—but CC made it cohere. The afternoon before playing the final of a Christmas tournament in Lodi, Vic Wallace, the Vallejo coach, took the team to a mall to kill time. The Apaches, wandering in their red warmups, were surrounded by gangbangers in blue, Crips who couldn't abide anyone flashing Bloods colors. Expletives flew, and Wallace could see others rushing over from all points. He told his players they needed to leave, now, but their backs were up; they didn't hear a word. Then Sabathia caught the panicked look in his coach's face and said, "We didn't come up here for this! We need to get up on out of here if we want to play this game tonight."
With that, Wallace says, "all the guys get together, and we leave. He calmed them down. People listen to him."
That team went 32-2 but lost in the state semifinals. Players wept openly, their high school careers done. Ethel—CC's second mother, really—had died in February, and he spent most of the season mired in sadness. But he didn't cry after that game. CC sat in a corner, smiling, and said, "Come on, guys, we had a great year. We did our best. This is the most fun I've ever had."
Of course, he still had baseball. He went 6-0 that spring with an 0.77 ERA, struck out 82 batters in 46 innings, threw a 95-mph fastball. He also played first base and hit .586. His team trailed by three late in a playoff game against Merced when CC readied to hit with the bases loaded. He saw the new relief pitcher—the same Merced player whom, earlier in the game, CC had warned not to throw him fastballs. His cousin Nathan was pouring sunflower seeds into CC's hand through the fence when CC grinned. He knew the reliever would throw him a curve. "Watch this," CC said. "I'm about to go deep."
He smiled all the way to the plate, laughed as he took two warmup swings, looked at Margie in the stands. First pitch: curveball. And, lord, did it go deep.
On June 2, 1998, the Cleveland Indians made Sabathia, 17, the 20th pick in the first round. Margie and CC had hired two relatively raw agents, and negotiations bogged down on the signing bonus. The agents told CC to be patient. With nearly a month gone and her son desperate to play, Margie walked into the house one morning to find CC standing in the hallway, glove on, ball in hand. "Dude?" she said.
"Mom, I'm ready to go," he said.
They sat on her bed. Margie dialed the Indians. She figured it would make the agents angry; in fact, it would make them livid. But when then Cleveland general manager John Hart came to the phone and asked what it would take to get the deal done, Margie said $1.5 million. Hart responded with $1.3 million. Margie said, "We'll take it."