When C.C. Sabathia took the mound for the Burlington Indians in 1998, he was a long and lanky 17-year-old from California. Three years later — after minor league stops in Kinston, Columbus and Akron, the 6-foot, 6-inch tall lefthander was on a Major League roster, posting a 17-5 record for the Cleveland Indians, the team that drafted him as the 20th overall pick in the first round in 1998. He finished second in American League Rookie of the Year voting to Ichiro Suzuki.
He never looked back in a stellar pitching career that moved from Cleveland to Milwaukee to New York.
Two weeks ago, during the American League Championship Series, Sabathia pitched until he could pitch no more. He dislocated a joint in his pitching shoulder during the eighth inning of a game four loss by his last team, the New York Yankees to the Houston Astros. He had previously announced plans to retire at the end of the 2019 season at age 39 and as his 300-pound frame was beginning to break down.
It was time. And in five years it will be time for Sabathia to be eligible for possible induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. As always, it will be up to the voters, of course, but he seems to have the numbers and the endorsement of those who have watched the game for as long or longer than I have.
I first began to think about Sabathia’s chances in January of 2018 when Jim Thome was voted into the Hall. Based on my quick research, I wrote that Thome, a member of the Burlington Indians in 1990, was possibly the first player with Burlington minor league connections to be enshrined in Cooperstown. I wondered if Sabathia, a former Cy Young Award winner in 2007 and ALCS Most Valuable Player in 2009, would be the second.
Sabathia, who pitched in five games for the Burlington Indians with a 1-0 record, is perhaps the last of a diminishing breed in baseball today — the one-time staff ace and reliable workhorse pitcher. During his career he had 560 starts and worked more than 3,500 innings. He had a win-loss record of 251-161 with an ERA of 3.64. He compiled 3,093 strikeouts — only two other lefthanded pitchers in history accomplished that, Randy Johnson and Steve Carlton — both in the Hall of Fame. There are but 17 members of the 3,000 strikeout club. He recorded a respectable 10-7 mark in his postseason starts. He chewed up innings, got his team close to the end of games and saved pitching staffs from wear and tear.
In an era dominated by specialization, particularly when it comes to pitching, Sabathia’s 251 wins is a healthy number. There was a time when 300 wins was a magic number for entry into the Hall. Today that number just might be 250.
So it looks like chances are favorable for Sabathia to enter the Hall where he will join Thome as former Burlington and Cleveland Indians there.
Chances are much murkier for Manny Ramirez, one of the best right-handed hitters of the last 25 years. He would almost certainly be in the Hall of Fame were it not for his connection to performance-enhancing drugs. At age 19 in Burlington he played 59 games with 19 homers, a .326 batting average and 63 runs batted in.
Another possibility is Jack McKeon who may yet be elected to the Hall of Fame as a manager or baseball executive. The legendary Trader Jack, who now lives in Elon, built highly successful teams in San Diego as a general manager and won a World Series as a manager in 2003 with the Florida Marlins. He was 72 years old at the time. This year he worked as a consultant for the NL champion Washington Nationals. McKeon played minor league baseball in Alamance County and returned here to attend and graduate from then-Elon College.
On a whim I checked to see just how many former Burlington Indians are still in the Major Leagues. It’s in imprecise search. The last time a Burlington minor league team took the field as an affiliate of the Cleveland Indians was in 2006. It’s not many. In fact, I could find only one: Chris Archer of the Pittsburgh Pirates. But he almost doesn’t count. Archer pitched one game in Burlington in 2006. He recorded an inning and a third with a hit batter, a strikeout and a wild pitch. His ERA, a robust 10.80.
Two other candidates for last member of the Burlington Indians still in the Major Leagues didn’t pitch in 2019. The remarkable Bartolo Colon last pitched for the Texas Rangers in 2018. You can read about his interesting career here. And it would appear that Edward Mujica, Burlington class of 03, spent some time in the minor leagues in 2018 but hasn’t been on a big league roster since 2017. The last stop in a journeyman career was in Detroit.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, the current minor league team in Burlington is affiliated with the Kansas City Royals. It’s way to early to know who from those 2007 to 2019 teams may blossom.