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Saving Himself – 'Under the Grapefruit Tree: The CC Sabithia Story'
December 22, 2020  | By David Hinckley

A new documentary on long-time Major League Baseball pitcher CC Sabathia is so low-key and matter-of-fact that you can almost miss the strength of the story.

Under the Grapefruit Tree: The CC Sabathia Story, which runs a little more than an hour, premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET in the HBO sports documentary series.

The title, in case it sounds cryptic, refers to Sabathia doing his first pitching in his grandmother's California backyard, using fallen fruit from her grapefruit tree.

Baseball fans know Sabathia better from a 19-year career with Cleveland, Milwaukee, and the Yankees. He won 251 games and struck out more than 3,000 batters, only the third Black pitcher in Major League history to reach both those milestones.

The first two who did it, Bob Gibson and Ferguson Jenkins, are both in the Hall of Fame, and while Under the Grapefruit Tree writer Aaron Cohen isn't a registered lobbyist, he clearly believes that in a few years Sabathia should be joining them.

The documentary's treatment of Sabathia's baseball career is pretty straightforward since no hyperbole is required to show how effectively he pitched.

He was the ace of the Cleveland staff almost from the moment he joined, and his half-season in Milwaukee, when Cleveland traded him because he was about to become a free agent and out of the Indians' price range, was dominant.

In his first season with the Yankees, he led them to a World Series title, and in his first three seasons there, he was among the top four vote-getters for the Cy Young Award, the highest honor for a pitcher in baseball.

Sabathia recounts how throwing grapefruits at a folding chair eventually led to Yankee Stadium, and the clips of him mowing down opposition batters confirm how imposing he became from a pitcher's mound.

Around his fifth season with the Yankees, though, clouds rolled in – clouds that had been slowly gathering for a while.

Sabathia had always enjoyed a drink, but now he was drinking more heavily, and by the 2014 and 2015 seasons, it was reflected in his performance. His earned run average shot up, his winning percentage cratered.

Drinking wasn't the only problem, but in retrospect, Sabathia says, it was at the center.

As for why he drank when he seemed to have the world at his feet – great job, great salary, loving family – he ties some of it to his own father.

That complicated drama quietly becomes the costar of Under the Grapefruit Tree.

For the first 12 years of his life or so, Sabathia says, his Dad was always there. Funny, caring, reliable, never too tired to have a catch.

Then his father left. No explanation. Just gone, and when he resurfaced years later, Sabathia says he was just happy to have him back. What Sabathia only gradually learned was that his Dad had become a junkie and had HIV, which would debilitate and eventually kill him.

The connection, says Sabathia in retrospect, is that he was afraid he was going to become his father. He had a weakness, almost a craving, for alcohol. He saw his own son and imagined him being similarly abandoned.

By 2013, he says, he just plain liked drinking. It drove the bad thoughts away.

Therapists would probably have something to say about all this. Whatever the genesis of the problem, Sabathia eventually recognized it and ended up leaving the Yankees just before the 2015 playoffs to check himself into rehab.

Yankee General Manager Brian Cashman, interviewed here, says the team supported Sabathia's decisions and adds that he had "no idea" there was any kind of alcohol issue before Sabathia went to rehab.

Sabathia now says he hasn't had a drink since 2015. In 2017 he became a top-line pitcher again, and he retired after the 2019 season, finally just aging out of the game.

He's happy now doing other things, he says. He's involved in community projects and causes. He gives baseball advice to his ballplaying son.

Under the Grapefruit Tree tracks an impressive baseball career. It touches on the pride Sabathia says he felt as a Black player. It also examines family legacy, the way behavior of one generation can have an impact, sometimes delayed, on the behavior of the next.

That's a good amount of turf to cover in an hour, and Under the Grapefruit Tree does it without ever raising its voice. That alone makes it a nice watch.

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