New York Yankees CC Sabathia
(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

CC Sabathia was an alcoholic for most of his career and he didn’t learn he was until near the end of his career.

CC Sabathia’s best-kept secret for a long time was that for most of his 19 years in MLB, he was an alcoholic.

Such is a key takeaway from HBO’s “Under the Grapefruit Tree: The CC Sabathia Story.” Sabathia, as most fans know, left the New York Yankees right before the 2015 postseason to enter a rehab facility to treat his alcoholism.

What fans, do not know, however, is that this was the last straw over the course of over a decade. Despite the infectious laugh, the teddy bear personality, and just coming off as a good guy, CC Sabathia doesn’t necessarily chase the spotlight. In fact, as is often mentioned on his podcast, R2C2, the big lefty is actually quite introverted.

Combine that with a slew of deaths in his family, getting famous overnight in Cleveland, and just general pressure to succeed, and Sabathia, “always a binge drinker,” as he says, turned to drink to cope. When he showed up to the stadium too drunk to pitch a simple bullpen session in 2015, that’s when he knew he had a problem.

Here are some more key takeaways from the film.

The documentary is excellent

“Under The Grapefruit Tree” speaks to me on many levels. Like CC Sabathia, I too struggle with anxiety and large crowds can sometimes be hard for me. There’s a pressure to work the room when, more often than not, you’d rather just take everything in and be social on your own terms. As a young 20-something athlete who got famous very fast, Sabathia felt this times 1,000.

The documentary, which is just over an hour long, also dives into Sabathia’s family life. Yes, his wife Amber and their four children are featured, but we now know more about his life growing up in Vallejo, California. The title of the film is taken from memories of his grandmother’s backyard, where a tall grapefruit tree stood and the young Sabathia would throw fruit at a chair.

On a deeper note, Sabathia dives into his relationship with his parents. His parents split when he was 12, after which he seldom saw his father, Corky, who struggled with addiction and died of HIV complications in 2003. This was one of the many contributing factors to his alcoholism, along with the death of an uncle and a beloved cousin some years later.

And through it all, CC Sabathia overcame his demons to continue pitching towards a Hall of Fame career.

The Sabathia legacy carries on

But even in retirement, Sabathia isn’t going anywhere. He still has his podcast. More recently, he joined YES Network for a Brooklyn Nets preseason broadcast.

But most important of all, CC Sabathia is focusing his retirement on another job: being a father. His son, Carsten Charles Sabathia III, or “Li’l C,” is a talented high school baseball player just beginning his own journey. Sabathia is also very hands-on with his PitCCh In charity, whose goal is giving back to inner-city youth.

And above all, CC Sabathia appreciates every single one of his accomplishments even more now. 251 wins. One of three Black pitchers to amass over 3,000 career strikeouts. A World Series ring. He nearly lost it all. However, being too drunk to throw a bullpen session wasn’t his rock bottom. It was being in rehab and watching his teammates play in October without him.

More importantly, Sabathia realizes just how low he had sunk then.

“As long as I could go out and pitch and be out on the field, I didn’t think there was a problem,” he said on the latest episode of R2C2. “When I was taking baseball away from myself, then that’s when I knew it was time for me to go get help.”

Josh Benjamin has been a staff writer at ESNY since 2018. He has had opinions about everything, especially the Yankees and Knicks. He co-hosts the “Bleacher Creatures” podcast and is always looking for new pieces of sports history to uncover, usually with a Yankee Tavern chicken parm sub in hand.