By Sweeny Murti
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TAMPA, Fla. (WFAN) — When Aaron Boone rehabbed and resurfaced in uniform, 18 months after his famous home run, and 15 months after his infamous basketball injury, it was with the 2005 Cleveland Indians. One of the players he quickly bonded with was the ace of the pitching staff, 24-year-old CC Sabathia.
“I think we just kind of hit it off right away,” said Sabathia, now 37 and entering his 10th season with the Yankees.
Boone, who played two seasons in Cleveland and is now the Yankees manager, flashes a smile that emotes friendship and respect when Sabathia’s name is mentioned.
“Over the course of a career you play with a lot of superstar players,” Boone said. “Obviously, I’d throw CC in that category. He’s as grounded, as down to earth, as regular a dude … but he has those intangible things that allow somebody to be great.”
Friends say Boone always knew how to be loose and fit into any corner of a clubhouse. He would entertain Sabathia and others on the bench during games by doing play-by-play in a phony announcer’s voice, mispronouncing names (like “CC Sab-a-THEE-uh”) and making goofy mistakes for a laugh.
But while he did that, Boone also played the announcer who was managing along with the game, and in that role he wasn’t goofing around.
“He was serious with it,” Sabathia said. “He’s really good at it. He’s always (had) that manager’s mind. I knew he’d be good on Sunday Night Baseball just because of that. He was funny, but it went right along with the game. I’m excited for people just to know him how I know him and get a chance to see his personality.”
Sabathia’s personality and clubhouse presence are what Boone is counting on as he tries to win over a group of players who don’t know him or his managing ability.
“His impact in our room is enormous,” Boone said. “He touches a lot of guys in there just with his professionalism and his willingness to be a mentor to a lot of guys.
“Messages don’t always have to come from me or my coaching staff. Things that come up, fires that may come up, a lot of times when you have a great group in there and quality men that are some of your veteran and best players, they can handle a lot of situations before they become situations. I would put CC in that category.”
And Boone has told Sabathia more than once that he is free to police the clubhouse as he sees fit.
“I’ve had a number of conversations with (CC) over the winter, but one of the messages to him was ‘I know you’re great at it already, but I want you to feel the freedom to just pour into guys, breathe into guys as much as you feel like you need to.'” Boone said. “‘You have that presence about you, you have that clout about you.’”
Josh Bard spent four years as a catcher with the Indians from 2002-05 when Sabathia was one of the more overpowering and dominant pitchers in the league.
“There were just times when (Sabathia) would turn it on and just refuse to get beat,” Bard said. “He had that special ability to do that.”
Bard is now the new Yankees bench coach. Having a clubhouse leader like Sabathia in place is something Bard believes has at least some value for the first-year manager.
“Trust is something that’s earned,” Bard said. “When you have someone (inside the clubhouse) say ‘this guy’s trustworthy,’ it expedites the process, but I think still it’s going to take time.”
But leadership means little if it can’t be backed up on the field. When I said to Bard that Sabathia had a “pretty good” year last year, he corrected me.
“He had a phenomenal year last year,” he said.
Bard also pointed to Sabathia’s personal struggles that led him to alcohol rehab in 2015 and the way he bounced back with two very good seasons since.
Sabathia also came through for the Yankees in October, starting the Game 5 AL Division Series clincher in Cleveland and then throwing six scoreless innings in Game 3 of the ALCS against Houston. Bard said he admired what he saw that night in his old teammate.
“Obviously, I care about him a lot,” Bard said. “He’s a special dude. In this market, playing in the hottest spots, character shines through in those moments. That was one of those times where all the things that CC had fought through, kind of changing himself as a pitcher and the way that he attacked … at the end of the day when you’ve got a competitor like that it shines through in those type of moments.”
After some discussion with the Angels and Blue Jays last December, Sabathia came back to the Yankees on a one-year, $10 million deal. If this team wants to be a championship contender, Sabathia needs to be a part of it — and not just as an extra coach in the clubhouse.
“CC’s a feel good story, and everybody knows that the Yankees respect him and admire him,” Bard said. “But they didn’t pay him $10 million just to be a good teammate.”
Please follow Sweeny on Twitter at @YankeesWFAN