Will the same fire that makes Chris Sale great burn him out in Boston? 8:00 AM ET
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LAST JULY, Chris Sale stunned the baseball world when he used scissors to shred a set of 1976 White Sox throwback uniforms because he did not want to pitch in them. The story quickly went viral: Who on earth would do that? Chicago team president Kenny Williams thought he was being pranked when his GM called to inform him. But here is a sampling of reaction from people who have known Sale well over the years:
Seven-year White Sox teammate John Danks: “I wasn’t completely shocked by it.”
High school teammate and Pittsburgh Pirate Drew Hutchison: “I wouldn’t say I was surprised.”
High school pitching coach Bob Gendron: “Nothing surprises me with him.” Summer league and college pitching coach Derek Tate: “I smile; I just smile.”
His own father: “I can’t say it surprised me.”
Informed that so many people were not exactly floored by his actions, the newly minted Red Sox ace laughs.
“That means you’re talking to the right people.”
ALMOST A YEAR later, in the first inning of Boston’s May 2 game against Baltimore, Sale rocks back and fires a 98 mph fastball behind Manny Machado’s knees. The teams have been feuding for weeks, and while Machado screams at the ump and manager Buck Showalter runs out to complain, Sale stands still, glaring toward home plate. Minutes pass; Sale barely blinks. When play resumes, he strikes out the Orioles star with another 98 mph fastball — this one on the correct side of his knees — and strides to the Red Sox’s dugout, where he high-fives every teammate he can find and yells. A lot.
Lounging in that same dugout a day later, the 6-foot-6 lefty pauses when asked whether he is angry when he pitches. “I’m competitive,” he says. “I would say there might be a little bit of anger. But I just really like competing. I really like it. It’s fun.”
Says his father, Allen, “He has that intensity if he’s playing pingpong with his mother.”
Sale has harnessed his over-the-top energy mostly for good, riding it to five All-Star Game selections with the White Sox before being traded to the Red Sox in the offseason. Through May 10 of this season, he led MLB in strikeouts, was second in WAR and had a 1.92 ERA.
But Sale’s intensity may also be the greatest threat to his continued success. It can overtake him on the mound, causing him to lose focus. “He can still get pissed,” says Don Cooper, his pitching coach for seven years with the White Sox. “I still think there’s things he’s got to master there.”
It can also lead to blowups — Sale is usually good for at least one per year. In 2015, he tried to bust into the Royals’ clubhouse to continue an on-field brawl. Last season, months before the uniform ordeal, he lashed out at Williams after the White Sox banned Adam LaRoche’s son from the clubhouse.
“You get in between the lines and you’re a little amped up, and sometimes it spills over outside the lines,” says Sale, 28. “Nobody’s perfect; you’re going to make mistakes. You just try to learn from them.”
Heading into the season, a popular question around Boston was whether such a combustible player could withstand the pressure of pitching in Fenway Park. But those who know Sale say he’s all but impervious to the outside world — he hasn’t had a social media account since he deleted Facebook in college. How he’ll do in Boston has nothing to do with the city and everything to do with him.
“When you have a positive mind frame and when you think more clearly and more positively, it’s going to be better,” Sale says. Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty ImagesACCORDING TO HIS father, once Chris decides something is right or wrong, it is near impossible to move him. “A trait he has had since he was 2 is persistence,” Allen says. “That comes from the Sale side of the family. We are that way. Me, his grandmother and his great-grandfather Scamahorn.”
His sister is the same way. Allen recalls once referring to her as “stubborn” during a parent-teacher conference. The teacher chided him, saying that the school preferred more positive verbiage, like “persistent.” “I said that’s fine, she’s as persistent as a mule,” Allen says.
Chris also is, you might say, as persistent as a mule. “We used to say that he’d try to go through the table instead of around it. Something got in his way, he just bowled it over,” Allen says. “He is that intense. That is part of his persistence.”
Growing up in Lakeland, Florida, though, Sale did not have the talent to match his emotion. He could always locate the ball, but entering high school he was 5-8 and rail thin. He couldn’t throw hard and didn’t make varsity as a freshman or sophomore. Then one day the next summer, he got sick with what his parents figured was mono. When he finally popped out of bed four days later, he was suddenly taller than Allen, a former college swimmer who stands 6-3. Seeing him for the first time, his mother asked, “What are you standing on?”
Sale’s stretched-out limbs gave him newfound leverage, increasing his velocity. He couldn’t hit 90 on the gun, but his command allowed him to mow down hitters.
On the mound, though, his emotions were unrefined. “If a batter got a hit off him the time before, he’d throw at him the next time,” says Lakeland JV coach Ron Nipper. “He was trying to be the baddest guy on the field.”
“He could beat up a cooler a little bit with a bat,” his father says.
Then there was the truck. Allen and Chris got ahold of a gray Dodge pickup and souped it up with giant mud tires, a body lift and custom speakers. Chris and his friends would drive around blasting music — Jeezy was a favorite — at inconceivable volumes.
The police used to call Mike Campbell, the varsity coach, begging him to get Sale to turn it down. “He had more sound ordinances,” Campbell says.
Says Allen: “He liked to do the things that he liked to do, and if somebody didn’t like that he played his music too loud or drove his truck somewhere he wasn’t supposed to, sometimes he cared and sometimes he didn’t. But I have always said he was always good to children and small animals.”
Even as Sale improved, college recruiters stayed away. When Allen reached out to the University of North Florida’s baseball staff, nobody even replied. Sale’s only bite came from Florida Gulf Coast, a D2 program that was getting ready to move up to D1 the next season.
Rusty McKee, the FGCU coach who scouted Sale, recalls being mocked by a North Florida recruiter over the signing. “He said, ‘Ha, you got the Sale kid? You didn’t do your homework.'”
STILL ONLY THROWING in the 80s, Sale struggled as a freshman at FGCU. That summer he went to Wisconsin to play for the La Crosse Loggers in the Northwoods League. “I was getting crushed,” he says.
“He wasn’t in throwing shape,” says Tate, the Loggers’ pitching coach. Sale was so stiff, he could barely touch his toes. Every time he got shelled, he’d beat himself up, driving himself into a downward spiral.
About halfway through the summer, Sale went to Tate and told him he was ready to quit. “He said, ‘Coach, I almost drove home last night, I’m so frustrated,'” Tate says.
The team’s manager, Andy McKay, remembers having a long conversation with Sale in the bullpen. Sale decided to stay, and from that moment, McKay says, he took his preparation and conditioning more seriously.
“It ended up being a kind of life-changing summer for him,” says McKay, a trained sports psychologist who now serves as the Mariners’ head of player development.
At McKay’s urging, Sale increased his focus on the mental side of the game. “That was something that I had never even put my foot in the water in,” he says. “Baseball is a physical game, it’s a sport; you just go out there and play. And he brought a different aspect of the game to me. When you have a positive mind frame and when you think more clearly and more positively, it’s going to be better.”
Crucially, McKay and Tate also adjusted Sale’s delivery, lowering his arm slot to give him the deceptive three-quarters motion he has today. “I saw some pretty immediate success in terms of velocity and depth of pitches and movement,” Sale says. “It just felt more natural coming out.”
By the time he returned to Florida Gulf Coast for his sophomore season — along with Tate, who joined the Eagles as their pitching coach — he was a different player. “He’d show up to 5:30 a.m. weights at FGCU and was excited to be there,” Tate says.
Sale’s velocity climbed into the 90s, and by his junior year, scouts were swarming to Fort Myers, trying to divine whether the stick-figure lefty with the funky delivery could hold up in the majors. Allen Sale, who then weighed 250 pounds, got so fed up with their questions about his son’s build that he made himself a T-shirt to wear to games. On the front was the FGCU Eagles logo; on the back, beneath the word SALE, it read, “MY FAT ASS IS PROOF HE’S GOING TO PUT ON WEIGHT.”
Sale was virtually unhittable that season, earning National Collegiate Player of the Year honors in 2010. He gave up the truck, and in May, his future wife gave birth to their first son. Allen says Chris left college far more mature than when he entered.
Come draft day, Sale was projected to go as high as No. 4, but many teams still saw him as a reliever. After Kansas City selected Christian Colon at 4 and the Indians took Drew Pomeranz at 5, he began to slide.
Sitting at pick 13, the White Sox were surprised to see Sale still available. They envisioned him as a starter long-term, but the team needed immediate bullpen help. Kenny Williams, then the team’s GM, turned to Doug Laumann, his scouting director, and asked where Sale would fit on the current club.
At that moment, there happened to be a lefty throwing in the Chicago bullpen, visible from the draft-room window. “I can tell you right now, he’s better than that guy,” Laumann replied. Chicago picked Sale.
Chris Sale had his share of blowups on the South Side, but he was beloved by teammates. Keith Gillett/Icon SportswireSTANDING IN THE hallway of the White Sox’s spring training facility in Glendale, Arizona, pitching coach Don Cooper needs no prompting to discuss his prize pupil.
“I’ll just start talking, I guess,” he says.
“He had all the physical, I knew that from day one,” Cooper says. “It was more the mental side. And keeping him under control and not throwing pitches out of anger. And just continue to focus on the next pitch. He would hate it when somebody got him. He would come out of his shoes.”
Just two months after he was drafted and with only 10 innings of minor league experience, Sale was called up by the White Sox in August and dropped into the middle of a division race. In 23 innings down the stretch, he had a 1.93 ERA.
After spending the next season in the bullpen, Sale was inserted into the rotation to start 2012. He relied heavily on his slider early in the season, though, and came down with arm soreness. When manager Robin Ventura announced that he was moving Sale to the bullpen to protect his health, Sale protested to Williams. But the GM told him he agreed with Ventura. “He took exception to that,” Williams says, “so we had a very animated phone call in which he certainly expressed himself, and I encouraged it to a point, and then I expressed myself.
“Hell, it was a 25-minute conversation, and it was in the first 10 minutes that I told him, ‘OK, you can go back into the rotation.’ And he kept arguing with me that it was a bad decision in the first place.
“At the end of it, I got off the phone and I called [owner] Jerry Reinsdorf, and I said, ‘We have an ace.'”
Cutting down on his sliders, Sale made his first All-Star Game and stayed healthy through the season. He continued working with both Cooper and Jeffrey Fishbein, a sports psychologist who served as the White Sox’s mental skills coach, on harnessing his intensity.
“I just think for me, it’s channeling it, like finding a tunnel,” Sale says. “Early on as a starter, when I’d get into trouble, I went for more. And Coop’s big thing was, it’s never more stuff, it’s just more focus.”
As Sale grew into an ace, he became one of the most popular players in the White Sox’s clubhouse. A lot of pitchers are aloof, says former Chicago slugger Paul Konerko, but Sale was “one of the guys.” He’d dole out gifts to teammates and staff, like golf clubs or gift cards. And on the road, Sale often got a suite so teammates could hang out, order room service and play video games (mostly FIFA). “Give Chris room service and video games and he’s happy,” Konerko says.
Perhaps most appreciated, though, was that for all his fury on the mound, he made a point of never showing up teammates. “I don’t get upset at anybody other than myself on a baseball field,” Sale says. He believes so strongly in the sanctity of the clubhouse that he won’t even discuss what happens inside it with his father.
“Sale will do anything for anybody,” says White Sox infielder Tyler Saladino. “He’s got your back. And you love those guys that aren’t afraid to show it.”
All of which means that Sale is most vulnerable to boiling over when he believes his team or teammates have been wronged. In 2014, he appeared to accuse the Tigers of using binoculars to steal signs — miming binoculars from the dugout and motioning to the outfield — and beaned Victor Martinez, causing a massive brawl. The next year was when Sale, after being ejected in a fight, tried to continue the festivities in the Kansas City clubhouse.
“With him, you need to see it coming and talk him down before it gets to that point,” says Mark Parent, the White Sox’s bench coach from 2012 to ’15. But even when Sale snapped, teammates often appreciated the support.
“If you’re telling me one of his issues is that he cares too much and he flies off the handle when he doesn’t like somebody insulting his team or insulting him or one of his teammates and he goes nuts, like, I’m cool with that,” Konerko says.
Says Cooper, “The old term ‘I’d rather tame a tiger than push a donkey’ comes to mind.”
Last spring Williams decided that Adam LaRoche would no longer be able to bring his son to the clubhouse every day. LaRoche responded by retiring, setting off something of a national furor. In protest, Sale hung LaRoche’s and his son’s jerseys in his locker. He alleged that Williams had misled the team about the reasons behind his decision. “We got bald-faced lied to,” Sale said last March. “Somebody walked out of those doors the other day, and it was the wrong guy, plain and simple.”
Williams says he is back on good terms with Sale, though their relationship never fully recovered. “I certainly took exception to what he said because it wasn’t accurate,” Williams says. “But I can walk away and say, ‘OK, I hope everyone else is fighting that hard for a teammate.'”
The throwback uniforms were not a totally different situation. The shirts had long tails, and Sale’s close friend Carlos Rodon had trouble pitching in them the year before. “It kind of sucked,” Rodon says. “You got your jersey stuck on your leg.” Sale asked the team to move the throwbacks to a day when he wasn’t pitching, but the club declined. He thought the shirts would hinder his pitching, which meant they would hurt the team. “That was the only part of it,” Sale says.
Simply put, he was sure he was right and the White Sox were wrong.
“I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve done on the field,” Sale says. “That’s adrenaline going, that’s being competitive.” Michael Ivins/Boston Red Sox/Getty ImagesWHEN HE TRADED for Sale, Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said he looked into the pitcher’s behavior and was satisfied. “He’s got an edge to him, a good edge,” Dombrowski told reporters. “His teammates love him.”
But not all blowups are created equal. The Red Sox’s clubhouse is about a third of the size of the White Sox’s, and whenever a controversy emerges in Boston, reporters pour in and the airwaves overheat. Life quickly becomes miserable for everyone within a square mile of Fenway Park. This is a city that is still not quite over the great chicken and beer debacle of 2011.
Back in the dugout, Sale glances at team PR man Kevin Gregg nearby. “I’m trying to keep it easy on him this year,” he says.
Discussing his past incidents, Sale uses the phrase “learning experience” so often that he apologizes. “I hate to keep going back to it,” he says. He’s keenly aware of how his temper works and believes the explosions are behind him. “I’ve apologized for my actions to the people I needed to apologize to, and I’ve stood my ground where I thought I’ve needed to stand my ground,” Sale says. “I’m not here to change the past, I’m just here to try to do better in the future.
“I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve done on the field,” he adds. “That’s adrenaline going, that’s being competitive.”
A season ago, Sale tried to pitch more to contact, cutting down on his velocity and strikeouts so that he could go deeper into games. This year he came to camp in better shape than ever — “I trained really hard this offseason,” he says — and has turned Cooper’s old advice sideways. He believes he can have more stuff and more focus. “I’m trying to find a way of raising both of those bars at the same time,” he says. “It’s a combination of both physically and mentally being in, I don’t want to say a better spot but just being in a different scenario.”
So far, it’s working: Sale is piling up innings and strikeouts. During Sale’s eight-inning, 11-K performance against the Orioles, Pedro Martinez tweeted, “Chris Sale is already surpassing everything I’ve done.”
The question, of course, is whether he can keep it up. “Probably, at some point, something will happen that he thinks is not right, and he’ll try to correct it,” Allen Sale says. “And if he can’t get it corrected, he’ll correct it in the way he sees fit at the time.”
Sometimes he will still get pissed on the mound. “I can’t change that,” Sale says. “I don’t think I want to change it completely. It’s what makes me who I am.”
Will the same fire that makes Chris Sale great burn him out in Boston?