The Yankees pitcher — who recently announced his retirement after a 19-year MLB career — was a throwback, a gritty workhorse who wanted the ball no matter what.
Short rest, cranky back, diminished fastball … he was still fearless on the mound. He threw the final pitches of his career in the American League Championship Series with a dislocated shoulder. Even with the injury, he still wanted to keep pitching.
Carsten Charles Sabathia’s career stats: 251 wins, 3.74 ERA, 3,093 strikeouts (16th-most ever), six All-Star selections, one Cy Young award, one World Series title, universal respect.
His pro career began days after his 18th birthday in Burlington, N.C., then home of the Appalachian League’s Burlington Indians.
Sabathia joined Burlington in August 1998 and only pitched in five of the team’s 47 games. But CC stood out in the Appalachian League. It’s easy to stand out when you’re listed at 6’7” tall and 235 pounds and throwing gas.
Dennis McEwen is known as the “Original Admiral.” McEwen — who played minor league hockey with the ECHL’s Hampton Roads (Virginia) Admirals throughout the 1990s after attending the team’s first training camp in 1989 — was a fan favorite, happy to help the team however he could.
Minor league teams need players like McEwen, who was commonly nicknamed “Q” because of the pronunciation of his last name. Big prospects draw crowds as they advance through the organization, but workmanlike players such as McEwen help teams maintain a fan base across seasons, providing a sense of stability and community presence amid the constant turnover of rosters and personnel.
“Q” settled in Virginia and started a family. By the mid-1990s, as McEwen’s pro hockey career wound down, he pursued a career in printing. A longtime collector of hockey and baseball cards, McEwen worked on team sets devoted to the Admirals.
He was friends with the GM of the Norfolk Tides, the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate in the International League, and in 1995 McEwen was asked about doing a team set for the Tides — that year, Norfolk had phenom pitchers Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher and Paul Wilson. So McEwen made a team set, and it was a big hit, and then other minor league teams came calling such as the Toledo Mud Hens and Tacoma Rainiers.
Tacoma of the Pacific Coast League happened to have a star shortstop that year who batted .360 in 54 games before reaching the majors for good — Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod’s 1995 Tacoma team issue shows him in the on-deck circle getting ready to bat, a simpler time in his life before the MVP awards, before hundreds of home runs, before the Yankees, before everything got so complicated.
After producing numerous team sets — some credited to Coastal Forms & Data Products, the company where McEwen worked, others later to his Blueline Communications — McEwen received the ultimate seal of approval in 1998: a Major League Baseball license.
The license allowed him to use MLB team logos on his cards and to make deeper inroads on league-wide levels. Other similar licensees at the time included Grandstand on the west coast and Multi-Ad in the Midwest, so the Virginia-based Blueline picked up lots of work through east coast Minor League Baseball.
By 1998 he was dubbing his cards “Q-cards,” a nod to his nickname.
“Q-cards had a nice, easy ring to it, so we came up with a little trademark,” McEwen said.
McEwen was proud of his Q-cards. They featured full color on the card backs (other companies at the minor league level were using black and white) and were distributed in resealable team bags.
One of his hottest sets was for the 1998 Iowa Cubs — it contained a base card and checklist of pitcher Kerry Wood.
“I just shipped them their cards, and he went and struck out 20,” McEwen said, recalling Wood’s historic fifth MLB start on May 6, 1998, when he decimated the Astros’ lineup in a one-hit shutout. “So they sold out of 2,000 sets immediately. And they called back and asked for another run of 1,500. We pulled the plates and did another set.”
McEwen relied on his connections with the International League and also developed a set of Carolina League prospects that included Rick Ankiel and Carlos Beltran.
The short-season Appalachian League was a logical choice for his next set, given its location (Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia) and talent depth. He had each of the league’s teams submit three players for inclusion in a prospects set. The Burlington Indians included Sabathia, Eric Thompson and Donnie Suttles.
The card fronts feature green borders and yellow nameplates. The backs include full-color photos, stats and a short bio.
On the reverse of Sabathia’s card: “Selected in the first round of the 1998 June free agent draft, C.C. was 12-1 with a 0.62 ERA in his senior year at Vallejo High School. He was named to Baseball America’s All-American second team as both a pitcher and utility infielder. Enjoys shopping, fishing, and golf.”
The prospects in the Appalachian League set had varying career success. Thompson and Suttles never reached the Big Show as players (Suttles later became a scout). Ryan Madson had a respectable career for the Phillies and other teams. Cardinals pitcher Bud Smith — identified in the set as Robert, his first name — pitched a no-hitter in 2001. But no one had a career as significant as Sabathia.
And on cardboard, that career began with 1998 Appalachian League Prospect Q-Cards No. 16. Since Sabathia signed his contract with the Indians in late June, the turnaround was too short to include him for any 1998 sets. This was before the creation of Bowman Draft Picks & Prospects, first released as a box set in 2000, or the current Bowman Draft line devoted to top draft picks who sign pro contracts.
As a result, McEwen’s card came first.
“I don’t think a lot of people even know about it,” McEwen said. “We provided every team 100 sets, so the print run was only 1,000 sets. Only 1,000 of those cards are out there. When each team got their prospect sets, who knows what they did with them?”
The PSA population report hints at the card’s scarcity. Sabathia’s 1998 Appalachian League card has been graded six times by PSA.
Compare that to his most popular rookie cards from 1999 — Topps Chrome Traded (764), Topps Traded (732), Bowman (208), Bowman’s Best (196).
His 1999 Bowman’s Best Atomic Refractor, serial numbered to 100, has been graded 11 times by PSA.
McEwen’s card of Sabathia has been largely overlooked, but it’s a licensed, legitimate card — the first card of a future hall of famer.
“He had a nice career,” McEwen said of Sabathia. “It’s neat watching him.”
Another once-in-a-generation type of player came through the minors in 2000, and McEwen hoped to make a card of him, too.
But Multi-Ad made sets for the Peoria Chiefs and Midwest League top prospects, and Active Graphics made a set for Midwest League All-Stars, so McEwen didn’t get the chance to make a Q-card of Albert Pujols.
By that point, McEwen was ready to relinquish his Major League Baseball license.
“It was a small business, and the workload became overwhelming,” he said.
All told, he produced about 80 different sets. He kept a copy of each one, a chance to look back and to show his children all of his baseball and hockey cards.
At the time McEwen was making his Q-cards, he envisioned everything one day being digital — digital photos, digital stats and digital proofing, a print-to-order model similar to Topps’ custom cards.
“Maybe I was a little ahead of my time,” he says.
Perhaps — but in terms of making CC Sabathia’s first card, the former hockey player put himself in the perfect position.
For more from Dan Good, follow him on Twitter @Dgood73.