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"I need help."
The ability to utter that simple phrase can sometimes be the difference between life and death. It most certainly is the most important first step on the road to recovery for someone struggling with a problem with alcohol or drugs.
According to New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi, those are the first words Yankee pitcher C.C. Sabathia said when he walked into Girardi's office on Oct. 6 during the team's lost weekend in Baltimore.
"I was shocked," Girardi said.
Maybe he was; maybe he wasn't. It certainly wasn't the kind of news Girardi needed to hear after watching his team play listlessly in losing three games to the Baltimore Orioles. The Yankees were supposed to be getting ready for the playoffs, but looked more like they were getting ready to take the rest of the year off. Now, here was one of the pitchers who Girardi was counting on to pitch in the playoffs telling him he was entering an alcohol rehab immediately and would not be available to the team for the rest of the year.
The timing could not have been worse ... for the Yankees. For Sabathia, it was apparently perfect. Indeed, for an alcoholic looking for help, timing is everything.
Girardi's response -- the entire Yankee organization's response -- to the news was also, from all appearances, perfect. Do what you have to do, C.C. Take care of yourself. Get help. We'll soldier on without you and see you next year.
That didn't stop some fans and commentators on sports radio shows from wondering, even complaining, about the timing of Sabathia's decision. In essence, the complaints boiled down to: How could he do this on the eve of a playoff game? Doesn't he have any loyalty to the team? How about that big paycheck he's getting? If he's had a drinking problem for a while, why couldn't he wait a little longer and go to rehab when the Yankees weren't playing baseball anymore?
Except that Sabathia couldn't wait and the Yankees knew it. With addiction, there is no "if." There is only "now." "If I could just hang on until the playoffs are over and then go to rehab" could easily dissolve into "if only we had insisted he go to rehab when he asked for help." The nature of the disease is to deny and to rationalize. It's not so bad. I'll cut down. No one will notice. The team needs me. I can handle it.
Until he can't. The hope might be that no serious damage occurs to the alcoholic or anyone else during any period of waiting until it's "more convenient" to get help. Unfortunately, that's not always the case. Too often, in fact, that cry for help turns into a sigh of futility. What the heck, the alcoholic says; this is who I am. Why fight it? Who needs rehab? My life's a mess anyway. I'll just drink until I die.
That's why, when that moment of clarity comes, via some painful self-realization of the alcoholic or with the perhaps not-so-gentle prodding of loved ones, the time to act is at hand.
Brian Cashman, the Yankees general manager who signed Sabathia to a $161 million, seven-year contract in 2009, heard the news in a conference call that included Sabathia, Girardi and, significantly, Sabathia's wife, Amber. "What CC is dealing with is a life issue," Cashman said later at a press conference. "It is bigger than the game. All that matters now is what's happening now, which is obviously he's going to get the help necessary in a structured environment."
Sabathia, who has had problems this year on and off the playing field, seemed to grasp the significance of his decision. He released a statement saying:
"I love baseball and I love my teammates like brothers, and I am also fully aware that I am leaving at a time when we should all be coming together for one last push toward the World Series. It hurts me deeply to do this now, but I owe it to myself and to my family to get myself right. I want to take control of my disease, and I want to be a better man, father and player."
At 300 pounds, Sabathia has been a bigger-than-life man, a proud man, a team leader, an all-star pitcher and World Series champion. He is also a husband and father. In humbling himself and publicly admitting he needs help to deal with alcoholism, he has at least suggested that he sees life in a different way today, that he has had a moment of clarity. If it is genuine, as his family, friends, fans and teammates hope, he will have taken the first step towards a life of recovery. For an alcoholic, there's no time like the present for that.