For someone supposedly allergic to the spotlight, Chris Sale is surprisingly approachable – accommodating, even.
About a week prior, the Chicago White Sox’ pitcher had agreed to an interview with Rolling Stone, a rare occurrence for a guy who makes a concerted effort to avoid attention. Typically, Sale only speaks after he makes a start for the Sox, which is once every five days. He tactically avoids pregame media availability by camping out in areas of the clubhouse off limits to reporters. Or, if cornered, he will politely decline a request.
So it was surprising when, minutes before our carefully regimented interview is about to begin, he approaches me and says: “Let’s do it in the dugout.” Someone avoiding the press might ordinarily ask to be interviewed in front of his locker. That way, he would be flanked by team personnel ready to cut off the questioner when given the sign. The dugout is less occupied and, on this particularly day, only one other media member sits far away. The situation tasks Sale with cutting off the interview himself, which he doesn’t end up doing.
“I’m not the biggest fan of media,” he says. “I don’t have Twitter, Facebook or any of those things. That’s who I am. I like my privacy. I’m probably the last person that would want to be on billboards and all that stuff. That’s not really my style. I just like to show up, do my job and go home.”
Home is loosely defined for any professional athlete. Sale plays in Chicago, and is from Lakeland, Florida, but probably spends more time on the road than anywhere else. That’s perfect for him; after all, home games generally mean more chaos and more cameras.
“I hardly ever read anything about myself because it’s all distractions,” he sighs.
But the road provides a safe haven from those demands. Of course, the security that comes with anonymity is decreasing by the day. Sale – who picked up his 10th win of the year after handcuffing the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim on Monday night – has become one of baseball’s best pitchers over the past two seasons; he’s finished in the top 5 of Cy Young voting twice, and earlier this year, he pitched eight straight games with double-digit strikeouts, tying the record set by Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez. He was the lead baseball story nationally, and though his ranking among baseball’s elite pitchers can be debated, he is undoubtedly the most valuable for the dollar. Dodgers pitchers Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke will make $32.5 and $25 million, respectively, this season, while Nationals ace Max Scherzer will earn more than $17 million. Meanwhile, Sale is hurling on the South Side at the relative bargain-basement price of $6 million.
Recognition comes with its pitfalls. On the road, Sale will go out to dinner occasionally but prefers to holed up in his hotel room – “You got iPhones now,” he says. “It’s too scary to go out into the real world. You got targets on your back.” On his own, he spends hours playing FIFA soccer. There’s a chance you may have actually gone head-to-head with him online (though he’s quick to point out that he plays under an alias). Anything to stay out of the spotlight.
“It takes all the distractions away,” Sale says. “If you’re getting pulled in every which direction – I’m not going to name-drop or anything – but there’s guys in the league, and you see them all over the place. How can you do all this and then try to lock it in for the game? They do. But that’s just not really my style.”
Fame may be new to Sale, but he has always been the focal point of high expectations. After pitching at Florida Gulf Coast University, the Sox took Sale 13th overall in the loaded 2010 MLB Draft. Scouts tabbed Sale as major league ready out of college, but teams passed on him fearing signability issues. Because Sale was so advanced, they thought, he would haggle for a bigger signing bonus. The Sox struck a deal with him, and by the end of 2010, Sale was pitching out of the bullpen, earning four saves in the process. Many thought Sale’s future was as a reliever, a byproduct of criticism he received about his mechanics. Sox pitching coach Don Cooper, among the best at his craft, jokes that those are “people that don’t know anything about mechanics, which is kind of funny.”
“I knew what he possessed physically: Stuff,” Cooper says. “He’s a talented kid, he’s a gifted kid. God has given him a tremendous left arm that can throw the ball very hard. And with that, he also has very good touch and feel with his off-speed pitches.”
By now, with four-straight All-Star selections under his belt and his ace-of-staff status secure, Sale has proven his detractors wrong. As the hype continues to grow and the comparisons to other lights-out lefties (like Hall of Famer Randy Johnson) mount, trying to dodge the growing spotlight will soon become a futile effort. Still, he’s going to keep trying.
“It’s kind of a trip really,” Sale says. “Being a kid, coming from Lakeland, playing in my backyard with my dad, those were all dreams and stuff. But to come here and be in the reality of it, it’s cool. I definitely appreciate it. I don’t want to sound like I’m unappreciative. But again it’s one of those things that I just try not to pay attention to.”