Inside the mind of Chris Sale

Rob Bradford
February 24, 2020 - 11:35 pm
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Chris and Allen Sale recently sat down for a talk. Son. Father. Not out of the ordinary even if one of them was making $30 million a year, living life as one of Major League Baseball's most noteworthy pitchers. There were hard questions and uncomfortable answers.

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In many ways, everything about this moment is what has molded Chris Sale, pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. That unique image of accountability that is defining Sale these days was born from this sort of exchange.

"I was telling him I want to give my sons the same opportunities," Sale said in a lengthy sit-down with WEEI.com. "I want to do the same things he did. It’s hard. That’s why when the offseason comes, it’s sacred for me because that’s the time I do those things. I take my son to baseball practice. I got my oldest son golf lessons so he can come play golf with me or he can come hang out with me and my friends. My dad had some stuff to say about the differences, the pros and the cons. He’s always someone I rely on for information. He’s still my dad. I can ask him questions and talk to him about stuff."

We can talk about what Sale will do this season, or how his health will hold up. There will be time to analyze the merits of his $30 million-a-year contract and how important he is to the success of these Red Sox. That's surface-level stuff. Easy. What's hard is to take a deeper dive into the foundation of this athlete who admittedly wrestles with his life as a professional baseball player and what he thought his existence as a parent and son should look like.

As unique a baseball player as Sale is, his priorities are extremely relatable. That reality was surfaced in the aforementioned father-son get-together, but born from lessons learned from an upstate New York farm girl and Lakeland insurance man.

"It’s different avenues, but the dedication, the pride, the work ethic, it’s all there," he said.

WHERE IT ALL STARTED

Chris' mother, Marla, grew up on a farm town called Peasleevilee, New York. "There is one blinking stoplight," the Red Sox pitcher said. "Good luck finding it on a map. ... The one thing I remember is they had a horn for the fire department. They said, ‘Well when the horn goes off everybody in the town can hear it.’"

His dad was part of Lakeland insurance royalty, part of "Sale Insurance" in the Florida city Chris' great-grandfather had moved to from Georgia a long, long time ago. Marla moved down to the area for her senior year of high school, paving the way for a meeting with her future husband. On March 30, 1989 their son was born. A few years later young Chris was offering the first hint regarding his future.

"My grandmother told me we would have Thanksgiving and they would have those velcro paddles and tennis balls. I would just go all the way down the line and then back again. I threw that thing until the velcro wore off," Sale said.

Soon, the passion was surfaced at a whole different level. Allen Sale saw it and acted accordingly.

"With sports, because that’s all I ever did," Chris said. "I didn’t want to fish. I didn’t want to hunt. I didn’t want to work on cars. When I had time I wanted to play. I was calling him at work saying, ‘When are you coming home?’ My dad would go to work at 7 in the morning so he could come back at 3 and hang out with me and it still wasn’t enough. I would call him at lunchtime saying, ‘When are you coming home? We have to shoot some hoops! We have to play baseball!’ I try and do the same thing with my boys. My dad would come home after a good day, bad day, whatever and he would take off his suit and tie, throw on his basketball shorts and t-shirt and play until it got dark.

"My dad was that every day. And on the weekends we went to Peterson Park. My dad was so disappointed I didn’t become a hitter because he threw millions of baseballs to me. You can’t even count how many baseballs he threw at me to hit. So when I got my first big league hit that was a big deal."

THEN CAME THE LESSONS

It was all well and good that Chris had a father who was happy to encourage his son's passion. But there was always a caveat. If you were going to be all-in, there were going to be no easy exits.

"You go through ups and downs in baseball," he said, "and I remember my dad saying, ‘You can quit at the end of the season but you’re going to finish this out. You can play any sport you want. You can never play another sport ever again. But you started this season, you’re going to finish this season.’"

There were the usual bumps in the road. Bad games, sometimes against friends and longtime adversaries. It happens. As Sale explained, "There were times I hated baseballs because I sucked. When you do bad you don’t want to play anymore." But when could that possibly been the case for this pitcher has long been perceived as better than the best? "Shoot, I sucked last year," he immediately responded in the quick-witted manner that has endeared himself to Boston fans.

There are two instances, however, that truly put Allen's rule to the test.

The first came just months after Sale was drafted out of high school by the Colorado Rockies. He reached a point of actually wanting to quit the sport his whole life had revolved around.

"If you go talk to (Florida Gulf Coast University baseball coach) Dave Tollett right now and you ask him who had the worst Fall Baseball stats to this day it has been me. My freshman fall at FGCU was by far the worst thing anyone has ever seen on a baseball field," Sale remembered. "It’s cool we can laugh about it now but I went home at Christmas break and that was probably the first time I really, really contemplated, ‘I don’t know if this is for me.’ I got drafted out of high school but I wasn’t prepared for it. It was the first time I had been on a workout regimen. We’re running three miles, having to get up at 6 o’clock in the morning to do running, weights and stuff like that. I just wasn’t prepared. It happened too fast. I wasn’t getting through innings. It was tough. It was not good. I went there and I was supposed to be a starter, got drafted out of high school. I was feeling myself a little bit and I got knocked off my high horse quick."

The uncertainty and doubt were immediately met with one of those talks with Allen. It wouldn't be the last one.

As a sophomore Sale was charged with closing out what was supposed to be a defining win for FGCU -- a second-year Division 1 program at the time -- overpower Florida State. He gave it up and history had to be put on hold. It was time for another reminder from Dad.

"He always told me I was going to finish what I started. Do what you want after, but finish this off," Sale said. "The love of the game always brought me back. As much as I hated it on the last day of the year. That first game of the year came around I was like, ‘Alright, I want to do this.’"

THE NEXT CHALLENGE

Chris has three sons, ages 9, 3, and three months. He knows one way to parent. If it was only that simple.

The challenges Allen faced while raising his baseball-loving son are similar but hardly the same as the ones facing Chris, as the pair were reminded in their recent confab.

"My dad was always the guy who cleaned the garage on Saturday and then re-clean it on Sunday. He always had to do something. He took pride in everything he did. I like to think I’m trying to do the same things," he said. "When I was with my dad a couple of weeks ago and I was just telling him it’s hard for me living the childhood I lived with a dad that was home every day. I mean my dad never went on business trips. We didn’t travel a whole lot. I didn’t get on my first plane until high school. My first taxi ride? In the big leagues, in Chicago. You don’t have taxis in Lakeland.

"You can ask my mom, ask my dad, ask my sister, ask anybody in my family, my dad missed less than a handful of my games until I got to college. He would have a seminar or something like that to keep your license and would come watch three innings and leave in the middle of the game just so he didn’t miss everything. Going from that to me missing my kids' first day of school, missing my son’s first Little League game, missing practices, missing games, not being there just for stuff, just stuff … it’s hard."

There is simply no way around the unique lifestyle a major leaguer is forced to live. But that doesn't mean Sale is going way out of his way to make sure the lessons of his father, mother and their parents prioritized. There was perhaps no better example of that than during the time Chris calls his lowest professional existence, the 2019 season.

"My oldest son, he’s 9 and he gets it," he said. "I go out there and get my ass kicked and he doesn’t want to say anything. He kind of stays quiet. I’m like, ‘Listen, bud, it’s going to happen.’ My actions, my personality, my attitude, he’s going to see that. If I come home cussing up a storm, throwing stuff around the house, getting all mad -- which when I was young sometimes happened but he was a baby ... you have to learn that separation.

"I learned a lot last year. Even telling my son, ‘Hey, see that. See how bad that was.’ I’m honest with him. I’m not going to shelter him from the truth. I think that’s going to be a big part of how I raise him. The accountability. The honesty. ‘Listen buddy, you see how that went. You see what I way after the game. This is part of it. This is part of being accountable and holding yourself to a standard you have to hold yourself to.’

"Part of it is manning your post no matter how you’re feeling. If you’re sick and you don’t feel good you have to get it done. He obviously knew I wasn’t at my best. And last year was a big learning moment for me. It was the worst year of my life professionally. Being able to tell him I couldn’t wait to pitch even though I just stunk. Those are the little things as a parent."

Sound familiar. 

Admit it, you were wondering how Chris Sale -- one of pro sports' most accountable athletes -- got this way. Now you know.