TAMPA, Fla. -- Alex Rodriguez embodied the reason CC Sabathia almost did not sign with the New York Yankees in 2008, and who could be too surprised by that? The gulf separating Rodriguez and Derek Jeter was greater than the distance between Sabathia's California home and the Bronx, which is alarming to a free agent who wanted a peaceful work environment as much as he wanted to win.
Brian Cashman confirmed this years ago. Sabathia? Not so much. Although he wasn't naming names Tuesday -- he's a bridge-builder after all, not a divider -- Sabathia did confirm he wasn't half as afraid of the big city as he was of the chemistry, or lack thereof, in the big-city ballpark -- until Cashman showed up at his door and delivered his best John Calipari pitch.
The GM recalled Tuesday that he had to recruit the blue-chip lefty past his concerns about pinstriped in-fighting, and he had to sell Sabathia on the notion that his neighborly disposition could fix a broken team. "It was a big issue," Cashman said.
"It really wasn't a thing about the market," Sabathia said. "It was more, you hear stuff about their clubhouse and the culture of the clubhouse. Coming from Cleveland and Milwaukee, where I had great relationships in the clubhouse, that was my biggest concern. [Cashman] assured me everything was fine."
All these years later, everything is a million miles from fine in Yankeedom. The bogeyman taking cuts at the minor league complex across the way, Rodriguez, is inching his way back to varsity, and all that's certain about A-Rod's return from his season-long suspension is this: A certain shortstop will be counting his lucky stars he won't be around to address it.
"No one can replace the Captain," Rodriguez said after his second consecutive day of workouts.
A-Rod did tell reporters on the minor league side of Tampa that he will serve as a sounding board to less experienced Yanks, that the guy listed ahead of him on the third-base depth chart, Chase Headley, is a joy to have around and that "only time will tell" if he can succeed without the help of performance-enhancing drugs. A day after conceding he still cringes when reviewing his many misdeeds, Rodriguez wanted it entered into the record that, contrary to public perception, he's established "a lot of strong relationships in all the clubhouses that I played in."
This much is true: Rodriguez has a history of mentoring younger players and of displaying a pregame work ethic that a) set a good example for the kids and b) suggested he might have been a pretty decent ballplayer without all the illegal garbage he pumped into his system over the years.
Meanwhile, on the major league side of Tampa, a star making an entirely different comeback, Sabathia, said he doesn't believe there will be any re-entry problems for Rodriguez when he reports to camp Wednesday.
"I know he's done his time," Sabathia said. "He's served his suspension, and I think guys are just happy to have him back. Once the games start and we dwindle down to 25 guys, I think he'll be fine. I would just tell him, 'Let's go. Let's get ready. It's baseball time.' The best way to fit back in with the fans is to go out and perform."
Despite the fact he has physically broken down recently (like A-Rod), that he once scored a record contract as a Yankee (like A-Rod) and that he once used an opt-out clause to his financial benefit as a Yankee (like A-Rod), Sabathia has never needed to "fit back in with the fans." Of course, the man whose $161 million score in 2008 was the biggest deal ever given to a pitcher has never been busted for PEDs, has never been caught in a series of staggering lies and has never sued his own union and team doctor.
But more than anything, Sabathia has proven an athlete isn't always measured by the size of his paycheck. Coming off a disappointing close to his 2011 season, Sabathia was right where Rodriguez was in the fall of 2007 -- holding that opt-out anvil over the Yankees' heads. The 31-year-old ace, who had failed to come through in the Division Series loss to Detroit, figured the remaining $92 million owed him wasn't cutting it, and he took Cashman to the brink of free agency before the GM guaranteed him another $30 million to stay.
Sabathia has gone 32-23 ever since, with one strong playoff series (Baltimore in 2012) and back-to-back ERAs of 4.78 and 5.28. He's dealt with a continuing weight issue and one knee surgery that could derail him this season and next. Yet Sabathia remains among the more popular and respected athletes in the market. Why?
"Hopefully, it's because I've just been myself since day one," he said. "I haven't tried to change anything since coming to New York. I've been honest."
Honest and accountable -- two things Rodriguez hasn't been for the longest time. The fans had moved past the $275 million Hank Steinbrenner handed him after A-Rod famously opted out in the middle of the 2007 World Series, and they'd even moved past his confession of PED use in the spring of 2009. Rodriguez helped his own cause that year by building a healthier relationship with Jeter (the shortstop made his own necessary concessions too), by temporarily retiring his drama-queen side and, of course, by finally hitting in the postseason like he had in so many regular seasons and capturing his long-awaited ring.
A-Rod was all set then. Even if he underperformed over the balance of his contract, Rodriguez would be remembered as a champion and redeemed soul. Someday, he might've been the second-to-last Yankee introduced on Old Timers' Day, right before Jeter.
All he had to do was work hard, play ball and stay away from the likes of Anthony Bosch. In A-Rod's case, two out of three was bad.
He ruined his good name, along with what had become a workable relationship with the fans. "I definitely feel bad for him," Sabathia said of that nuked connection to the masses. "Obviously, you want people to have a good experience in places they're playing, but sometimes circumstances don't allow it."
Sometimes they do. Armed with what Cashman once described as a Santa Claus demeanor, Sabathia moves about the city and the northern Jersey 'burbs with enough uncommon ease to make it seem he's simultaneously running for mayor of New York and his borough of residence, Alpine, New Jersey. People don't just take to him because of his smile, his considerable charity work and what Cashman called "a personality that didn't change, despite the injuries and adversity he's faced."
Fans also remember Sabathia admitting his team bailed him out in bygone postseason starts gone south. They remember his refusing to blame the plate ump's strike zone (as Joe Girardi did) in a Game 3 loss to Detroit the following year; Sabathia said Justin Verlander merely outpitched him.
Those things add up and provide an athlete the benefit of the doubt when needed. As he settled into the corner of his clubhouse Tuesday, preparing to throw a bullpen session in a light drizzle, Sabathia surveyed the younger pitchers who were bustling about. "They're bringing the kind of energy I used to bring," he said. "Now I get to sit back and be an elder statesman."
With his 40th birthday in sight, Rodriguez could have assumed a similar role. Instead, he is the Yankees' approaching bogeyman, a more unsettling figure than the one who nearly scared CC Sabathia off in a different life.