The lanky lefthander came to campus with a bit of swagger. He had been picked by the Colorado Rockies out of high school to play pro ball. But he declined and decided to come to the small school just south of his hometown of Lakeland, Florida. He’d be a sure thing to make the starting rotation, right?
Turned out it wasn’t going to be that easy. But Chris Sale went from a shell-shocked freshman at Florida Gulf Coast University to one of the best pitchers in Major League Baseball.
Along the way, he’s kept his connection to his university and the community that surrounds it. Since leaving school, he and his family have spent offseasons here. Now that he’s been traded from the Chicago White Sox to the Boston Red Sox, he’ll also spend his spring training in Southwest Florida at JetBlue Park. And, if you time it right, you might just run into him when you least expect it.
Typical Chris Sale story: FGCU baseball coach Dave Tollett got a call on a Thursday this winter from Sale. His former pitcher wanted to know if he could jog with the team the next day. So, at 5:45 a.m. on a Friday, the All-Star was striding alongside the amateurs. He then asked Coach what was going on later in the day. Tollett told him he’d be taking the team to the Helping Kids with Cancer Radiothon at Mel’s Diner. And there he was, the star pitcher taking photos with diners, making a generous donation and giving a plug live on Cat Country 107.1 to get people to stop by. “That’s just who he is,” Tollett says.
Those who know Sale, 27, describe him as down-to-earth and unpretentious. He can also be outspoken, perhaps a bit hardheaded—and that’s gotten him in some controversy in his Chicago playing days.
For those who remember him back from his college days, he’s still that lanky lefthander—just a few more pounds added on his 6-foot-6-inch frame. He took his lumps and bounced back in a way no one really expected.
As far back as Sale can remember, he wanted to be a Major League Baseball player. His parents dumped out a small hill of dirt in their backyard and smoothed it into a pitcher’s mound. He spent evenings and weekends out back with his father, Allen. The youngster would unleash some wicked pitches while poor dad sat on a bucket with only a catcher’s mitt to protect him. “He got his share of hit shins,” Sale says.
Lakeland High School was known more for its football, but around Sale’s time there, it started to produce elite baseball players, including fellow pitcher Drew Hutchison, a former top prospect in the Toronto organization.
Coming out of high school, Sale landed on the national radar. He had an unorthodox throwing motion, a violent whip of his left arm that many scouts throughout the years have said may be prone to injury (but has held up just fine, so far). The Colorado Rockies selected him in the 21st round of the 2007 MLB draft. But he decided to take a chance in Southwest Florida. Florida Gulf Coast University was the only Division I school that had any serious interest in him.
Coach Tollett saw the fire in him. “He was a competitor from day one,” Tollett says. “You just knew that one day he would put it together, and he would be fantastic.”
But that took some time.
Sale’s high expectations were quickly lowered freshman year. To put it in the politest way possible, he was getting rocked. Even pitchers were cranking home runs off him.
Tollett once remarked that it was the worst fall he’d seen any player make. Sale was relegated to the bullpen and spent time building himself up—both his skills and confidence. “Coach never lost faith in me,” Sale says.
His frame started to fill out with more time in the weight room, and as his sophomore season started he became a dominant starter.
In April 2007, FGCU faced a tough matchup with the Lipscomb Bisons. On the mound would be Rex Brothers, a prospect high on many draft lists (who would later be taken 34th overall). Tollett knew scouts would be there. He reworked his rotation and put Sale on the mound. The sophomore went eight innings, striking out eight. FGCU won 7-1. The buzz among the scouts wasn’t about Brothers afterward. It was about Sale.
“That was his coming out party,” Tollett says.
He ended his sophomore year with all-conference, first-team honors.
Over summer break, he got into the prestigious Cape Cod league. It’s a wooden bat league, a place where players can prove their worth against top college talent. It was yet another step up. This time, he made a leap. Playing for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox, he was given the Outstanding Pitcher Award for the season. He led the league in strikeouts and, in a bit of foreshadowing, pitched in the All-Star game in Fenway Park. He was named its MVP.
Junior year was even better. He went 11-0. He struck out 146 in 103 innings. He was a consensus All-American and Collegiate Baseball Player of the Year.
The White Sox took him 13th overall in the next draft. Since, his career has skyrocketed. He was called up to the majors during his first year, a relatively unheard of feat. During his first year as starter in 2012, he was named to the All-Star team and hasn’t missed the game since. He’s a consummate candidate for the Cy Young Award, finishing in the top five for the past four years. He’s got that same intimidation factor that his idol, Hall of Famer Randy Johnson, had in his day—hurling fastballs in the mid-90 mph range and mixing in a wicked slider. His ERA is an even 3.00, the third-lowest among active pitchers.
Off the field, things were rougher. Fair or not, he got labeled a malcontent in Chicago. He was openly critical of White Sox brass following the retirement of teammate Adam LaRoche, who left after he was told he was no longer allowed to bring his son to practice. Then came the throwback jersey incident. The story went something like this, according to rampant media reports: The White Sox told the players to wear throwback jerseys for an upcoming game. Sale took issue with the jerseys because the tight collar could restrict his throwing motion. The complaint fell on deaf ears. So, Sale took a pair of scissors to his jersey—and then everyone else’s. He was suspended for five games. He later said he regretted missed time due to the incident, but didn’t really apologize for actually cutting up the jerseys.
Now, Sale says the right things when it comes to his time in Chicago. Chalk the jersey incident up to a learning experience. “There was way too much good in Chicago that outweighs the bad,” he says.
Whether any of “the bad” came into consideration when he was traded is uncertain. What is certain is that the White Sox gathered a slew of young talent in the trade while giving the Red Sox another superstar.
Sale was actually headed to FGCU when he got the call about the trade. Ironically, in his truck was a box of White Sox jerseys. He was going to sign them to auction off at the school’s annual Night at the Nest fundraiser.
He got to campus and took a picture with his former coach and a few others, and it got posted on social media. He stands there in Nike flip-flops and baggy gym clothes, smiling ear to ear and holding a printout of a Red Sox logo. Tollett remarked that had been the happiest he’d seen him since he was drafted.
Those trips to campus aren’t uncommon. After getting drafted, Sale and his wife, Brianne, lived in Estero. Then in 2012 they moved into a modest home in Naples (modest for Naples standards, of course, but not among the sprawling seaside estates). His parents are still in Lakeland; her parents are in West Palm Beach. Naples ends up being a nice midway point. Besides, they’re Florida kids, Sale says: “Neither of us are big on the cold.”
In between workouts at Beyond Motion and jaunts to Boston, Sale says this winter was spent with family. His second son, Brayson, was born over the winter break. And, his 6-year-old son, Rylan, is getting more invested in sports—although he’s shown an early preference to soccer.
When he does get time, he’ll spend it out in the community, whether that’s speaking to North Naples Little League about physical fitness or helping raise money for Laces of Love, a foundation that gives shoes to needy children.
And then there are the days like the one at Mel’s Diner. While he was there, he took a photo with Gavin Lawrey, a boy with a condition that causes frequent seizures. That story actually goes back nearly eight years. Sale was in Tollett’s office when he saw a News-Press story about Gavin. It mentioned a golf fundraiser for the child, and, Sale, an avid golfer, signed up. Gavin’s mother, Brandi, remembers Sale hanging out afterward, singing autographs and posing for photos. Skip ahead eight years: Gavin and his mother are in the car with Cat Country 107.1 on the radio. Through the speaker comes a familiar voice. Gavin, a fan since as long as he could remember, begs his mother to take him to Mel’s Diner. The boy is reunited with his favorite player. “He was just as kind and generous as I remembered,” Brandi says.
It’s stories like these that FGCU Athletic Director Ken Kavanagh says make Sale one of the university’s great “ambassadors.” It’s a pretty big deal for a school that size to have an athlete of that stature. And the university plays it up, for sure, reminding recruits that the great Chris Sale pitched there, in case they missed his trophies or his framed jersey (which is the only one retired at FGCU). But it’s the fact that he’s still so connected to his community that resonates to Kavanagh: “Chris is the epitome of what we like to see with our student athletes.”
In late January, he was up north at the Red Sox’s Winter Weekend. He put on a No. 41 jersey to the cheers of the crowd. Baseball in Boston is like nowhere else. The spotlight will be bigger. The expectations are high. He knows he’ll have to up his game once again. But it’s fine. He’s done it before.
Photos courtesy Associated Press / Daniel Bartel, Icon Sportswire; FGCU Athletics