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Boardroom Q&A: CC Sabathia

We spoke to CC Sabathia about his new role with Major League Baseball, how MLB can be more like the NBA, and why he doesn’t like Opening Day.

It was a festive, albeit stormy, Thursday morning at Major League Baseball‘s headquarters in Midtown Manhattan, where a DJ spun tunes, hired vendors made ballpark staples, and Mr. and Mrs. Met walked around with springtime pep and optimism, all to celebrate Opening Day. CC Sabathia, MLB’s newest employee, was also on hand to talk to media and begin his role as a special assistant to commissioner Rob Manfred.

A 19-year veteran with Cleveland and the New York Yankees, Sabathia won a World Series title, a Cy Young award and made six All-Star appearances. Now, Sabathia will try and help baseball deal with player relations, improve diversity, equity and inclusion, social responsibility, youth participation, and broadcasting. The 41-year-old is also a special assistant to the general manager of the New York Yankees, an MLB Network contributor, and the co-host of the R2C2 podcast with Ryan Ruocco.

Sabathia spoke to Boardroom about his new role at MLB, how baseball can be more like the NBA, his family and some surprising thoughts on Opening Day.

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Shlomo Sprung: What made you want to take on this new role at the commissioner’s office?

CC Sabathia: Just having a chance to make a difference in the game. I’ve always loved the game. I’ve been playing since I was four years old, and to have a chance to be here and come to the commissioner’s office is a huge opportunity for me and hopefully for the players.

SS: Did they come to you, or did you come to them?

CC: It was mutual. Having conversations with Rob [Manfred] and me being an advocate for wanting our league to kind of run like the NBA in the way Adam Silver’s involved in player relations and the players having a voice in what goes on with the league. It was a mutual decision.

SS: How do you think baseball can be more like the NBA?

CC: If the players had more input. It felt more like them coming up with ideas [in the NBA] instead of them being told what to do, and more collaborative. You wouldn’t have a lot of pushback on some of these things.

SS: Why do you think baseball has a diversity problem?

CC: I think in the last couple of years, we’ve really been doing a good job of addressing the diversity problem. But I think it starts at the grassroots with getting these kids opportunities. There are so many different sports out there to play and so many different challenges with baseball, whether it’s equipment to get for kids because it’s expensive, or even at the high school level where you can’t get a full scholarship to play college baseball where you can get a full scholarship to play college basketball or football. These little different things that kind of exclude us, we need to try and make a change.

SS: Is that where the equity and inclusion part comes in?

CC: Yeah, absolutely. All those different things. I’m the vice president of the Players Alliance. I would love to see more inclusion with vendors and different things in our neighborhoods to get more people excited about going to the ballpark. 

SS: What can you do to improve baseball at the grassroots level?

CC: Really just take an interest in it and make sure that we’re getting kids all the opportunities available to be able to get to the next level. A lot of kids play baseball early, and we lose them from 12 to 15, high school age. So if we have a league in between there where kids can play for free and get them free equipment and different things like that, I think we’ll have a chance of getting these kids in high school playing baseball. 

SS: Is that part of Major League Baseball’s social responsibility?

CC: I think it’s part of us as players and former players. And I think this generation of current players takes that very seriously, whether it’s Dominic Smith with his BaseballGenerations organization or the stuff that Dee Gordon does and Jemile Weeks. There’s a bunch of different guys throughout the league that have a real interest in baseball at the grassroots. And forming the Players Alliance and us being able to come together, we’ll be able to push our agenda forward with me being in the commissioner’s office.

SS: You obviously have the R2C2 podcast with Ryan Ruocco, MLB Network hits. What makes you so interested in the media game?

CC: What makes me enjoy it so much is I don’t feel like it’s media to me. Sitting down and doing the podcast, it’s just me and Ryan having a conversation. We would have these conversations through text if we were on the podcast or not. So being able to bring people on the podcast and letting fans get different insight into some of these players is awesome, and it doesn’t feel like I’m really doing media work. Same thing with the Clubhouse editions that we do with MLB Network. It’s just sitting around talking baseball, and it’s something we would be doing if we were sitting in our living rooms watching the game. So all these different things that are called media are just a lot of fun to me and easy to do.

SS: What’s been keeping you occupied and motivated outside baseball?

CC: What’s been keeping me occupied is my kids. I have four kids. I have an 18-year-old [Carsten] that’s a senior in high school now. He goes to Bergen Catholic [in New Jersey] and he’s on his way to Georgia Tech next year [to play baseball]. So he’s busy. We have a 16-year-old that plays basketball and softball, a 13-year-old that’s a huge dancer and an 11-year-old that plays baseball. So outside of the game, my family’s my biggest aspect. 

SS: How hands on or hands off are you with your son in baseball?

CC: I’m kinda hands off. He goes to different instructors and things like that. We have a lot of baseball conversations, especially after his games or after his at-bats we go through and talk about what he saw, how people are pitching him. But I keep it more of a friendly relationship and just that father and son relationship more than a player and a coach. 

SS: Obviously you started your career in Cleveland and the franchise just changed its name to the Guardians. Did you have an issue with the team name when you were a player, and what do you think about it now?

CC: I don’t think we really ever had an issue with the team name while we were playing. We would always see people out there protesting, especially on Opening Day. I’m glad they just had a chance to change it, and it means something to Cleveland. The name is reflective of the city and the statues that they have around. So I’m just excited for them to start a new era, and hopefully they can start it by playing good baseball.

SS: I’ve gotta ask you about the Yankees. What do you think about their chances this season?

CC: I think the Yankees can be good. I mean if they stay healthy, they have a chance to be the best team in the American League. 

SS: Do you still feel the energy of Opening Day even though you’re no longer playing?

CC: Haha, no. I’ve never liked Opening Day, whether I was playing or pitching. It’s just the first game, you know what I’m saying? It’s just so much emphasis on the first game of 162. I’d much rather be starting the first game of a playoff series. For me, Opening Day was always just I don’t want to say annoying, but it was just so much going on. Because if I was pitching here in New York for Opening Day, then I would have 50 people from my family coming out from California, trying to figure out different things to do. And it’s just the beginning of the season. So you’re just trying to ease into the season and Opening Day was just always a distraction for me.

SS: So you just wanted to get into your rhythm and the first game was a distraction?

CC: The first game was a huge distraction. You’ve got all these people in town. People expect you to act like it’s a playoff atmosphere, but it’s really game one. 

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