Before baseball shut down for the coronavirus pandemic, the news that ace Chris Sale had elbow trouble had already cast a pall over spring training for the Boston Red Sox. In the wake of the shutdown, he and the team decided he had to have Tommy John surgery, which he went through on March 31 after an 11-day delay caused by the crisis.
Seven weeks later, Sale is recovering and turning his eye toward resuming his career on the mound with the Red Sox, a career the lanky 6-foot-6 lefty began as a first-round draft choice by the Chicago White Sox in 2010. He joined ESPN's Marly Rivera to talk about rehabbing his elbow, online pitching mechanics "experts," losing to the Astros in the postseason in 2017, MLB's suspension of Red Sox manager Alex Cora and whether we'll get baseball in 2020.
What was the last thing that went through your mind as they put you out right before surgery?
Chris Sale: I don't really remember the last thought I had before I went under because I got the surgery on my birthday. I looked at the whole thing from a completely different perspective than most people did. A lot of people thought me getting Tommy John surgery was like this big, "Oh, man, that's such a bummer." And in a sense, it is, because I'm missing time. I'm not playing baseball and someone else is going to have to do my job. That part of it sucks.
But from a personal standpoint, I'm done trying to figure out what's wrong with me. It's like "OK, this is the end of all the crap that you've gone through for a couple years." It's like a new beginning for me. I wouldn't be able to play baseball productively without this surgery. I'm a baseball player, what can be better than getting a brand-new elbow for my birthday?
Early in your career, there was a lot of speculation that you were going to break down eventually because, sort of like Randy Johnson, you had success with an unorthodox delivery and an atypical physique. Did that weigh on you, people saying this guy isn't going to last because his mechanics are not right, because he's too skinny?
Sale: That was something I never really worried about because of all the people that I trusted around me. Don Cooper, my pitching coach in Chicago, he was the best for me for the start of my career. I will always appreciate our relationship and what he did for me. He was probably my loudest advocate against all that. He would say, "I don't understand what these people are talking about. As long as you repeat your delivery very well, and you hit all the spots you need to hit when you need to hit them, I'm not going to change it because it works."
"Did I break down as they said I would or did I outlast where they thought I was going to be?" Chris Sale, on critics of his unorthodox pitching delivery
It lasted nine years, and even before that, because I pitched like that in college. I even asked my trainer in Boston. One day I was sitting there, and there's a couple of guys around me and we were watching TV and they were showing me having a messed-up elbow all over the place. I said, "I have an honest question to ask you guys, are they right or am I right? Because I don't know. This will be my 11th season, but my 10th full year in the big leagues. Did I break down as they said I would or did I outlast where they thought I was going to be? If you told someone in 2010, you're going to draft this guy and these are the things that he's going to do, and then on this day, he's gonna blow out and he's going to have Tommy John surgery, do you draft that guy?"
That's not for me to answer, but that's what I would ask people. If you look at my body of work before I blew out [my elbow], would you take that for the years that I played, for the money that I made? If it's a no, it's a no. I got no beef with anybody that agrees or disagrees with it. Now I'm sitting out a year and at the end of the day I'm gonna have like a brand-new elbow and I get to crank on this thing when I get ready to go and I'm gonna do the same thing that I did before.
Is it hard to handle the criticism that you're an overpaid player, who some may consider has not lived up to expectations?
Sale: I had a good career in Chicago. When I got to Boston, my first year was really good too. My second season was decent but I ran into some shoulder issues. We ended up winning a World Series, so I'd even call that a relatively good season with a little hiccup. Then, 2019 was an absolute disaster. But in the end, I've never paid attention to what people say about me, because it doesn't matter.
What my teammates, what my family, what my coaches think about me, that's first and foremost. Not to mention the fact that all these people were talking about how I was so underpaid and undervalued, that I wasn't making enough money for the production that I was doing. Then overnight, I'm an overpaid player. If the flag is that easily blown, you can't really pay attention to it.
I appreciate the fans of baseball, and especially Boston fans. Just like me, they have high expectations and they'll let you know when you're not doing what they want you to do. But if you look at my track record, I have always had really high expectations, and I'm the first one to tell you when I suck. At the end of the day, I truly believe you should never play any competitive sport for anything other than to win. If you're playing for a contract, if you're playing for numbers, if you're playing for fame and fortune, whatever it is, usually you can tell what players play for that kind of stuff; they never achieve what the final goal is.
When you play a game from the time you're 4 to however old you play, all you want to do is win. Once you lose that, then it's time to go home. I'm too competitive to care about anything else other than winning. People asked me when I was playing under a quote-unquote team-friendly contract, what my main goal was. It was always to win. Now that I'm making all this money and I'm not producing, my goal is still to win. It doesn't change for me, no matter who I play for, the money I'm making or however many years I have in the league. I play to win.
How do you handle that two years removed from winning a World Series, your team traded arguably one of the best players in baseball in Mookie Betts and you no longer have David Price in the rotation, among losing other players? If your only goal is to win, how can the Red Sox do that when you come back, hopefully in 2021, if maybe the pieces just aren't there?
Sale: So is every other team. The 2014 San Francisco Giants, the 2015 Royals team. We're only going through the same exact thing that other teams have gone through. Very rarely in this day and age, you get to play with the same team for a long time. We gave it a shot, and unfortunately, our starting pitching wasn't able to hold up like it did in '18. We all got hurt other than Rick [Porcello]. Rick and Eddie [Eduardo Rodriguez] were manning the post, and that's hard. When you have 40% of your rotation working and 60% is not, a part that is supposed to carry a pretty big weight, that's tough.
But we have to adapt and go with it. We don't make decisions; we don't trade players. We show up to spring training and we do our best to win with the players we have.
How much of an impact did the offseason investigation and Alex Cora's suspension have on you? What was that like?
Sale: It was a big deal because from players to staff, we meshed really well. I don't think you're going to talk to a championship-winning team that will tell you that they didn't have good chemistry; that they didn't have good leadership; that it didn't start from the top. That was especially true with us. AC [Alex Cora] came in and put players in positions to succeed and took care of all of us. That's why we love and respect him so much.
That was a blow. It was a big blow and it sucked. We didn't want to see him go because of the love and respect that we had for him, and he earned that. You don't just come into a big league clubhouse and get that kind of respect. AC earned it.
After learning about the 2017 Astros sign-stealing scandal, did it change your opinion of Cora, this guy that you say you have so much respect for?
Sale: I lost zero respect for AC. And look at what I did in 2017, in the playoffs. In the ALDS, you have to win three games, which means you can only lose two. I lost two of those three games to the Astros that were cheating, right? The very next year, AC comes over to us and we won the World Series, and I learned who he is.
Maybe I'm different, but I believe everyone blew this thing out of proportion. Let me be clear: I believe what the Astros did was wrong. That is first and foremost. But it doesn't matter. What am I going to do? Am I going to go back and change it? Am I going to go steal the Astros' rings and put a "B" on them instead of an "H"? For me, it's just like this Tommy John surgery. I can sit around and pout about my elbow blowing up and missing games or I accept that I can't change it. I can't go back in the past. There's no point in sitting around complaining about losing.
Honestly, I learned a lot from 2017, which was my first experience in the postseason. I fell as flat on my face as anyone's ever done in their first career postseason appearance. The what-if game doesn't appeal to me. When I see Jose Altuve or Carlos Correa or George Springer, I will still say hello to them. It's not like I'm not gonna talk to those guys ever again. That World Series may be tainted a little bit, but there's nothing I'll ever be able to do to change it. So, why am I going to spend any time thinking about it?
Where are you in your rehab?
Sale: I'm six weeks out. I've been doing a shoulder program and we're doing soft-tissue stuff but I'm starting to get into some pushing stuff, some rows. A lot of this actually is a lot of shoulder work too, which is good. I'm going off of what these guys have for me. They've done this a million times and I'm really happy with where we're at.
We can kind of start, as they say, tearing it down to the studs. I can work from the ground up. I can completely tear my body down and build it back up. Right now, since I'm not really working out to achieve anything, I can really focus on the little fine details that sometimes might be overlooked getting ready for a big, bulky season. I love the guys I'm working with and I know I'm in good hands.
How do you deal with the disappointment of "letting the team down," as you've said?
Sale: What I miss the most is not being around my teammates and not manning my post. That's something that I really look forward to; something that I strive to do. All that has mattered for me is to answer the phone when it's my call. I was able to do that for a long time and now I'm not. The last couple seasons it was my shoulder, then my elbow, and now here we are. Those are the hardest parts for me mentally, letting down my teammates, missing time.
But, I will say the thing that helps me through all that is that all those guys that I feel I'm letting down, are talking to me or sending messages constantly: "Hey, man, it's a part of it." "We got you, you're gonna be all right." "We'll see you in a year, get it right and we'll be good." When the guys that you feel like you're letting down are picking you up, it makes it just a little bit better. But I'll never forget the time I missed. I will never be OK with that.
Even though you won't be a part of it, do you believe we'll have a season this year?
Sale: I don't know. There's too many moving parts with all this right now. There's obviously negotiations between the players and the owners, and that's what I hope we can iron out sooner rather than later. On my end of it, I'm not missing any games that everyone else isn't missing. Plus, I'm not getting paid, so no one can call me an overpaid asshole right now [laughs].
What do you think will be the biggest hurdle?
Sale: Nothing else matters if we can't find a safe way to do this. I would hope that we're leading with this, because I know when you talk about business, you talk about money. That can lead to some things getting overlooked, but at the end of the day, the safety of not only the players, but also the fans and the people that we're coming in contact with, should be the most important thing.
Once we get that figured out, we'll talk about money and all the other stuff. I think we need to figure out what we're going to do from a safety standpoint before we start talking about dollars and cents. I think that right now players are looking at it as the risk outweighs the reward, but it's the same for the owners. So, what's important is how do we find common ground and how do we get there.