I'd rather be a sparrow than a snail
Yes, I would, if I could, I surely would
--El Condor Pasa
Six years can go by quickly. That's the time it takes for the largest flying bird in the world, the condor, to go from chick to full maturity. The Chicago White Sox turned over their entire roster between 2010 and 2016. It was on May 8, 2010, that a lanky, junior left-hander for Florida Gulf Coast University was vomiting between innings while trying to impress major league scouts.
Chris Sale had food poisoning during the game against East Tennessee State, and that, maybe combined with the stress of watching his fiancee give birth to a baby boy a few days before, had him retreating behind the dugout to lose the lunch he so obviously needed. But he persevered, and the rest is looking like baseball history.
"Brianne and I were just talking about how fast our lives have rushed by," Sale said while perched on the padded seat above the bench in the home dugout at U.S. Cellular Field. "One day, we're college kids with a baby boy and kind of an uncertain future, and now, here we are. The other day she was telling me about Rylan, dressed in his full White Sox uniform, standing at attention for the national anthem."
With that, Sale leaps from the bench to imitate his son. He assumes a rigid pose that fully displays his 6-foot-6 height and lack of weight, 185 pounds. He's smiling, and you can't help but smile at this big, happy-go-lucky, 27-year-old kid who has people comparing him to Hall of Famers.
Just like the "Star-Spangled Banner," Sale deserves our full attention. He goes into Tuesday's game against the Cleveland Indians with a 9-0 record, a 1.58 ERA, a 0.717 WHIP (!) and a 6.20 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Sale, aka "The Condor," aka "The Other Ace From The Other Team In Town," is just the fifth man in baseball history to have an ERA below 2.00 after winning his first nine starts. The most recent one was Sal "The Barber" Maglie for the 1952 Giants, and the first one was Richard "Rube" Marquard for the 1912 Giants. (Jake Arrieta is not among the others.)
Sale was a dominant starting pitcher in the four seasons before this. He won 17 games in 2012, has made four straight All-Star appearances and struck out an AL-leading 274 batters last season. He still has the same stuff, including a high-90s fastball, a slider and changeup, the same freakish, 82-inch wingspan and the same elastic, almost slapstick, three-quarters delivery that earned him his avian nickname. (The folks at the indispensable Baseball Reference once photoshopped Sale in his No. 49 uniform onto an actual condor at the top of his page.)
But it's the quantum leap Sale has made from the past season to this one that has baseball people talking, opposing batters mumbling and White Sox fans cheering. He's smarter, more efficient, more trusting of his fielders, more diabolical, wiser. He is fooling hitters the way he fooled the scouts who thought he might be too fragile and the analytics people who thought his inverted W delivery would lead to "scapular overload."
All that is to say the White Sox would not be where they are today -- first place, same as the Cubs -- without Tuesday's improbable pitcher.
I'd rather be a hammer than a nail
Yes, I would, if I only could, I surely would
If condors seem an unlikely inspiration for a folk song -- El Condor Pasa, which Simon and Garfunkel popularized and Anglicized -- consider this: They can live as long as 50 years and fly as fast as 125 mph. Before they do that, though, they have to spend their first eight months in the nest and their first six years learning the intricacies of long-distance flight.
Sale grew up in Lakeland, Florida, the spring training home of the Detroit Tigers. In a 2012 interview with Dave Van Dyck of the Chicago Tribune, Sale said, "I remember showing up for the first day of kindergarten, Miss Springer's class, and the question was, 'What do you want to be when you get older?' I wanted to be a baseball player."
His dad, Allen, encouraged his dream, coached his team and even built a pitching mound in the backyard. But Chris didn't seem all that special, even at Lakeland High. In a 2013 article for ESPN The Magazine, his coach, Mike Campbell, told Adam Doster that Chris was a "young kid without a lot of muscle trying to catch up with his coordination."
As Sale himself puts it, "I had a growth spurt after my junior year that left me in a goofy state -- which I'm still in, by the way."
Credit the Colorado Rockies for first spotting Sale. They drafted him out of high school in the 21st round. He elected to go to Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers instead. Back then, he was throwing straight over the top, and he had what longtime coach Dave Tollet called "the worst freshman year of fall ball I've ever seen a kid have." But after his freshman year, Sale worked with FGCU pitching coach Derek Tate on a summer team in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, and together they honed the funky, three-quarters delivery he now uses. All of a sudden, Sale's fastball became all of a sudden.
Nick Hostetler, now the White Sox director of scouting, said he first saw Sale in the summer Cape Cod League after his sophomore season.
"What stood out first was his physical stature," Hostetler said. "Then there was the delivery -- all arms and legs. But the more I saw him, the more I liked him. I especially liked his makeup: all business, no frills."
Hostetler was there for the game in Sale's junior season against East Tennessee State. With the baseball draft only a month away, the stands at FGCU were crawling with scouts eager to see this Sale kid. The temperature was in the 90s, Sale was already exhausted by exams and brand-new fatherhood, and to top it all off, he ate a bad cheeseburger the day before.
Despite the circumstances, he threw a four-hit, seven-inning shutout in a 10-0 victory, the first game of a doubleheader. "It was the best start I'd ever had," he once said.
"We didn't find out about the food poisoning until their coaches told us after the game," Hostetler said. "Needless to say, that only increased his value. We were now looking at a warrior."
They were also looking at a pitcher with a record of 11-0, a 2.01 ERA, 146 strikeouts and 14 walks. The White Sox had the 13th pick in the draft that year.
"We didn't really expect to get him," said Rick Hahn, then the assistant to GM Kenny Williams and now the White Sox general manager. "Some teams might have been scared off by his physique, others by the signability issue. But Kenny saw him as a pitcher who could help us right away as a reliever and down the line as a starter."
Among those who went before Sale were Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Matt Harvey and Yasmani Grandal. Also taken before him were Barrett Loux, Karsten Whitson, Michael Choice and Deck McGuire. The White Sox were able to sign Sale for a bonus of $1.656 million. He also got some advice from then-manager Ozzie Guillen.
"I told him to go to Roy Rivas to eat a little bit," Guillen said. "He's the guy who's cooked for the White Sox for the last 40 years."
The team sent him to the minors, but for only 11 innings of indoctrination. On the day Sale was called up from Charlotte, exactly three months to the day after Rylan was born, veteran reliever Randy Williams sat him down. According to Sale, Williams said, "Listen, man. You've been given a gift, so treat it like a gift, and don't ever forget: It's something special."
In one of his first games, against the Twins, Sale struck Joe Mauer out on three pitches. As Hahn said, "Mauer came over to our bench and said, 'You mean to tell me there were 12 F'ing guys better than him?'"
Away, I'd rather sail away
Like a swan that's here and gone
How best to describe Sale's pitching motion? Students of pitching mechanics call it an "inverted W" because at one moment in the delivery, his elbows come to points at the top (which begs the question: Why don't they call it an M?).
Here's another crack at it: He's a question mark come to life.
Sale stands stock still on the third base side of the rubber, arms nestled at his belt. Suddenly, he turns his back to the hitter, brings his right leg up, recoils his left arm in a sweeping motion that seems to encompass the entire field and whips the ball toward the plate as his left leg swings over to first base and his glove hand indicates third.
The motion itself is a distraction to the batter, but it's really the ball the poor guy is trying to pick up, and here's where the mystery comes in: The batter doesn't know if he'll get the low-90s fastball, the high-90s fastball, the changeup or the devastating slider, and Sale hides the ball until the last instant. Also, he's going to throw it exactly where the catcher wants him to throw it.
The comp people jump to when they first see Sale is Randy Johnson, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame last year. Johnson was tall (6-foot-10), thin and left-handed, with a whipping, three-quarters motion. Sale himself worshipped the Big Unit as a youngster.
"They're actually very different," said White Sox manager Robin Ventura, who saw enough of Johnson in his 16-year career. "Different repertoire. If anything, Chris has better control. And it took Randy a long time to find himself."
It didn't take Sale long at all. After a two-year apprenticeship as a reliever, he was put into the rotation by Ventura, who had just gotten the managerial job, and Don Cooper, who had been the pitching coach since 2002. Sale burst onto the scene and was named American League Pitcher of the Month for May, with a 4-1 record, a 1.71 ERA and a 15-strikeout game against the Rays. He would go on to his first All-Star appearance, 17 wins and a five-year, $32 million contract that made him the arm -- if not the long, thin face -- of the franchise.
There was something eye-popping about Sale's statistics in each of the next three seasons: a league-leading four complete games in '13, a 2.17 ERA in '14 and eight consecutive starts with 10 or more Ks in '15, which tied him with Pedro Martinez for the major league record. But there was also a sense that Sake hadn't quite put it all together, as well as a foreboding about that delivery of his.
For whatever reason, there are those in the analytics community who are convinced Sale will eventually break down because of his mechanics. What they don't take into account is the exercise regimen established by Cooper and trainer Herm Schneider that strengthens arms or the natural flow of Sale's motion. It is the same every time, and if you watch it long enough, you might begin to believe that every pitcher should throw that way.
Sale doesn't put much stock in baseball analytics, anyway.
"I really don't care how I pitch when it's above 74 degrees below the Mason-Dixon Line and the wind is coming out of the northeast at more than 10 miles an hour," he said. "Just give me wins and losses."
I'd rather be a forest than a street
Yes, I would, if I could, I surely would
How best to describe Chris Sale's personality?
"He's kind of a throwback," Ventura said. "He's all about the team, hard work, leading by example. People can talk all they want about his 'stuff,' but it's the stuff inside that really counts, and he's got that."
Sale credits his high school and college coaches for instilling that old-school mentality in him.
"It was always team-first with them, and it became that way for me," he said.
That's what makes his transition from thrower to pitcher that much more sweet. His pitching philosophy now matches his personal philosophy.
Last year, Sale set the White Sox team record for strikeouts in a season with 274, which surpassed Ed Walsh's 269 in -- talk about old-school -- 1908. This year, on May 7, the White Sox gave away special Chris Sale K-counter bobbleheads (sponsored by Wintrust Community Banks) so fans could keep track of his strikeouts during the course of the season.
But that isn't what he's about anymore. At the end of the previous season, Cooper started talking to Sale about changing his approach, a way to go deeper into games and to prolong his career. That meant a little less emphasis on K's and a little more emphasis on W's.
"I'm pitching to contact, trusting my fielders, trying to work deeper into games and keeping our bullpen rested," he said. "And so far, it's working. The one time this year I got into my old mindset was against the Twins on my bobblehead day. Ugly inning, faced eight batters, gave up two runs and left three men on. But I settled down after that."
Indeed, the White Sox won 7-2 for Sale's seventh victory.
"He's a complete pitcher now," Cooper said. "The great thing about Chris is that for all his talent -- three plus pitches that he can throw to any quadrant without letting the hitter know what the pitch will be -- he also has a great pitching mind. Hey, pitching is an airport. The planes would crash without somebody in the control tower."
Sale isn't just about baseball. He's also about having fun, which partly explains why he had his name tattooed on his back when he was in college -- S.A.L.E in dripping letters.
"You live, you learn," he once said. "It seemed cool at the time."
He's a very competitive pingpong player and a surprisingly effective karaoke singer. TMZ has film of him performing Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" at a wedding, if you want to go find it.
Sale and Brianne are also deeply involved in a Florida nonprofit that provides shoes to needy children, and he is subtly encouraging Rylan's burgeoning interest in baseball.
Given his devotion to team and family, it shouldn't have come as a big surprise when Sale found himself at the center of the Adam LaRoche controversy this spring. When LaRoche walked away because team president Kenny Williams told him his son, Drake, had to curtail his time in the clubhouse, Sale was quite critical of Williams and hung the jerseys of both Adam and Drake in his locker.
The incident reinforced that Sale -- who is, somewhat unbelievably, currently the White Sox's longest-tenured member -- is this team's leader and spokesperson. But if any of the White Sox faithful worried that the flap would somehow derail the season before it started, they needn't have. The team had a new ace up its sleeve.
I'd rather feel the earth beneath my feet
Yes, I would, if I only could, I surely would
The White Sox have lost four in a row as they take the field at U.S. Cellular against the Houston Astros on the cool evening of May 19. They are still in first place, and there are 5,000 more people in the park than there had been the night before. That's because the man jogging out to the mound is Chris Sale.
With a 2-2 count, Altuve gamely fouls off four pitches before lining out to left. Sale finishes off the 1-2-3 inning, but he has already thrown a worrisome 18 pitches. He needs another 16 to retire the side without a run in the second. This might not be so easy, after all.
But after he strikes Jake Marisnick out on a 3-2 pitch to lead off the third -- a strikeout that moves Sale past Doc White into ninth on the all-time Sox list -- Sale settles in to nurse a 1-0 lead. It takes him only six pitches to end the sixth.
Basically, the Astros are trapped. If they try to wait him out, he'll get ahead in the count and strike them out. If they go up there swinging, all they can do is guess what's coming. Their best hope is to foul off enough pitches to run up his count and maybe get the pitch they're looking for.
In the meantime, the hardened observers in the press box are smiling. So is Avila, the catcher. ("Never once did he shake me off," he would say later.) They are watching mastery, a pitcher hammering down a pretty good lineup with total control and metronomic rhythm.
The White Sox pick up another run in the seventh. But then, in the top of the eighth, Evan Gattis hits Sale's first pitch -- a changeup, low and away -- over the fence in left center. For a moment, the on-lookers are reminded that Sale is mortal. Just for a moment. He cuts down the next three hitters on eight pitches, then goes into the dugout to tell Ventura, "I'm finishing this."
The manager has reliever David Robertson throwing in the bullpen, but he's inclined to agree with Sale, even after George Springer singles with one out in the ninth. Carlos Correa pops to left, and Ventura pops out of the dugout to reassure Sale that the game was his. With the fans on their feet, he strikes Tyler White out on an 0-2 slider that might have been a parting gift from home-plate umpire Adam Hamari, but hey, not even the Astros could argue about Sale's dominance. Pitch count: 107, 80 for strikes.
As the White Sox players come in to congratulate one another, right fielder Adam Eaton briefly hoists Sale onto his shoulder. It is a perfect ending for the pitcher with the perfect record.
In the clubhouse afterward, Sale characteristically downplays his masterpiece. He gets more animated talking about the Gattis homer than he does talking about himself.
"That was a good pitch he hit," Sale says. "He's one of those guys who squeezes the bat, and sawdust comes out. I love that he doesn't wear batting gloves."
Somebody asks Sale about facing Jake Arrieta in the upcoming series against the Cubs, and Sale gives a noncommittal answer, then excuses himself. He has to go run as part of the regimen the White Sox have designed for their pitchers -- even the ones who are 9-0.
Outside the clubhouse, in the walkway, a mother and her 6-year-old son wait for Dad to shower. The boy is thin, with a crewcut, and he's giddy with excitement. He is also dressed in a black No. 49 uniform.
All in all, it was a good night for both of Chris Sale's families. It seems he made the right choice when he decided he'd rather be a pitcher than a thrower.