But today, Sabathia, 40, says he’s in the best mental and physical shape of his life — better than he ever was as a professional athlete.
“Getting sober six years ago, definitely gave me some clarity,” Sabathia tells CNBC Make It.
For the majority of his playing career, Sabathia battled alcoholism, even as he soared to the top of his game.
I was just born to throw a baseball,” Sabathia says. “And I knew that. So at times in my career, I didn’t have to work as hard as other people did.”
According to Sabathia, he was a “disciplined drunk”: For 15 years, he was “so good at timing my benders that I’d won a Cy Young award and a championship ring and been paid $260 million,” he says in his memoir, “Till the End,” out Tuesday.
“Say I pitched on Monday. That night, Tuesday night, Wednesday night, I was hammered. Thursday, Friday–detox, nothing but water and Gatorade. Saturday, when I came out of the game, I needed a Crown and Sprite at my locker,” he writes.
Asking for help was “the hardest thing,” he tells CNBC Make It, but the decision changed his life.
“The past six years of my life have been great but leading up to that it was miserable,” he says. “There was a lot of anxiety.”
“Being a Black man in the Black community, we don’t really talk about these things,” Sabathia says. “It’s important for me to be visible and let people know that if you are out there silently suffering from alcohol dependency, there is help out there for you and you can turn things around.”
“It isn’t taboo and we need to erase that stigma in our community.”
Here, Sabathia talks to CNBC Make It about finding his passion, his routine and mindset during his Yankee days and how he reinvented himself in retirement.
What do you think contributed to your success?
I was just born to throw a baseball. That was something that I knew I could do at a really young age. And if you read [my upcoming] memoir, it talks about me at 7 years old, in my grandma’s backyard grabbing grapefruits. She wouldn’t let me get the good ones, I had to get the ones off the ground. And I would set up this folding chair in our backyard and I could always throw the ball through the back of the folding chair. I would start close and I would throw it soft and [then I would] throw it harder and harder and I would back up as far as I could. It was a baseball to me.
What was your mindset before a game?
Most starting pitchers the day of the game you don’t talk to him. They got the headphones on. I’m the exact opposite. Most of the time I’m throwing a football, kicking a soccer ball, like doing something to keep my mind off of the game because I am so intense. But once I get out on the mound and cross the lines, I’m a completely different guy. For me, it was just flipping the switch as soon as I got out there.
I remember Game 1 of the World Series. I was running up and down the hallway and like doing crazy stuff. And [Derek] Jeter came [up to me] and he was like, ‘Bro, are you pitching tonight?’… ‘I think you need to like put headphones on and get ready like it’s Game 1 of the World Series.’ I was like, ‘man at eight o’clock, I’ll be ready, bro.’ I hated practice. I was like just get me to the game and I’ll be ready to go.
What was your routine like when you are were playing?
When I got into the big leagues, I was 20 years old. So at 20, you’re invincible. I would eat Wendy’s before games back then. If I ate a Wendy’s burger and tried to do anything right now, I couldn’t move.
By the end of my career. I was working out every day. I had a chef, I had the personal trainer and I had the masseuse. But baseball was a different culture in the late ’90s, early 2000s. We didn’t work out in the offseason, we came to spring training to get ready.
I grew up with Chuck Finley, Dave Burba, and all these older pitchers that came up in the ’80s and ’90s and they didn’t work out in the offseason. When the season was over, you go home and you hang out.
I wish I would have known not to eat Wendy’s before games. I wish I would have known how to take care of myself and work out. Nobody ever taught me that stuff.
In June, you said you had lost 50 pounds. What helped you get into shape?
One of my close friends is actually Action Bronson. He’s a rapper, chef and he’s lost over 160 pounds. We’ve been doing this together. At the end of 2018, I had a stent put in my heart. So I just wanted to try to get as healthy as possible.
I wish there was [a secret] to losing weight. It was just the change of diet. I started on the ketogenic diet and now I’m doing just no soy and gluten. I lift literally every day. I’m able to do squats and split squats that I couldn’t do as a player because I was worried about getting hurt. So now I’m just working out like a maniac.
What helps you on a daily basis fight your addiction?
It’s really understanding where I was six years ago and not forgetting how bad things were. My family and life are good. My wife and I have been married for 18 years. It’s just waking up and battling [my addiction] daily and knowing that hopefully today is the day that I won’t have a drink.
What’s the best career advice you ever received?
The best career advice I ever received was to own my body. When I was younger, I weighed 310, 315 pounds [and 6-foot-6] and people would always try to get me to lose weight. I had a strength coach, that was like, ‘Bro, I’ve seen pictures of you. When you were a kid and you’ve always been big. Just be big. That’s who you are.’
I was 22 and I was like, “You know what, I’m just this is me.” I am different, so this is what you are going to get.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
Don’t miss more Top of the Game: