Long before CC Sabathia became a marquee name in the major leagues, he had to find his way.
As a 20-year-old rookie with the Cleveland Indians in 2001, Sabathia was a highly touted prospect whom the Indians hoped could bolster their starting rotation.
The Indians’ front office felt it was a good bet to have a veteran player show the 6-foot-7 left-hander what it meant to be a major leaguer. That player turned out to be Dave Burba, a fellow pitcher who had 11 years under his belt and a good handle on the mental side of the game.
“They asked me to take him under my wing, and I was honored to do that,” said Burba, now in his second season as the Tri-City Dust Devils’ pitching coach. “It was a little bit of everything — how to prepare every day and do the things you need to do as a major league pitcher.”
Now a six-time All-Star and former Cy Young Award winner at age 32, Sabathia wasn’t sure what to expect in his first season as a big leaguer, but he credits Burba for helping make things a lot smoother for him.
“I was scared to death. I was 20 years old in a clubhouse full of veterans, but he had my back the whole time,” Sabathia said while taking a break from his rehab schedule at Yankee Stadium in New York. “Off the field, whenever we got into a city, he’d call me and ask me to lunch or dinner. He’d ask me if I was getting things done, and we spent a lot of time talking about pitching.”
Sabathia, now in his fourth season with the Yankees, made the Indians’ starting rotation as a rookie and went 17-5 with a 4.39 ERA in 33 starts, more than enough to establish him as a mainstay.
Still, Burba kept a watchful eye on Sabathia throughout his first season, imparting advice and making sure the young star wasn’t losing his focus under the bright spotlight of the big-league stage.
After one particular start, Burba realized Sabathia was way ahead of the curve.
“He pitched one game and didn’t do very well, and I asked him what he thought about it. With the answer he gave me, he kind of taught me something,” Burba said. “He came out of the game, and I asked him what he thought about how he pitched. He told me, ‘I went out and tried my hardest, did everything I was supposed to do, and it just didn’t work out. I don’t have anything to be ashamed about. I did my best.’
“Most kids would be upset, saying, ‘I don’t believe how bad I pitched,’ but he brushed it off and said, ‘I’ll get them in my next start.’“I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got nothing else to teach you.’ ”
Sabathia won’t ever forget the example that Burba set for him and, to this day, the Yankees’ ace clings to many of the lessons that the 15-year veteran taught him.
“He always told me to bend and not break. If you give up a couple of runs, don’t panic. You can still minimize the damage,” he said. “Another thing he taught me was to break the game up into sections. You might give up some runs in the first three innings, but you can start over in the fourth.”
Burba, who last season guided the Dust Devils’ pitching staff to the lowest team ERA (3.03) in Colorado Rockies’ short-season history, still enjoys watching his former teammate mow down American League hitters with surprising regularity. For the last five seasons, Sabathia has been among the top four vote getters for the AL Cy Young Award — except in 2008, when he finished fifth in the National League voting as a Milwaukee Brewer. He won it with Cleveland in 2007 with a 19-7 record and a 3.21 ERA in 241 innings.
Sabathia is known by his major league peers as a “grinder”, a high-endurance pitcher who will eat up a lot of innings and keep bullpen arms fresh. Every season since 2007, the Vallejo, Calif., native has started at least 33 games and pitched no fewer than 230 innings.
That, too, according to Burba, is a result of Sabathia’s impressive mental mindset.
“That’s a conversation we did have. He asked me one day, ‘Burbs, what if I don’t have my best stuff. What do I do?’ ” Burba said. “I told him, ‘Act like it. They don’t know the difference. They can’t tell if you have your best stuff or not. But if you show your emotions, they’ll be able to pick up on that.’ ”
Asked if he was surprised that Burba was a pitching coach, Sabathia didn’t hesitate.
“I always knew he would be doing that. He loves the game, and he loved to play,” Sabathia said. “I think it would have been a lot tougher for me without his help. I owe him a lot.”