'Left-handed out of the womb'
Chris Sale makes White Sox top pick
Published: Tuesday, June 15, 2010
Updated: Thursday, June 17, 2010 11:06
Before Chris Sale became a Major League Baseball first-round draft pick, his career was on the fast track to nowhere.
His performance in the fall of his freshman year at FGCU, the only NCAA Division I school to offer him a scholarship, demanded change.
The lack of consistent velocity on his pitches — a tendency that scared away recruiters — and a dour mindset to match, left his future looking bleak.
"Chris had a terrible freshman fall, the worst I've ever seen," said Dave Tollett, FGCU head coach. "After that period he seriously considered quitting. He didn't think he could play at this level. He just didn't have a lot of confidence. Once the train started, he didn't know how to stop it."
Richie Erath — Sale's roommate, closest friend, and a fellow pitcher — observed, "He would throw real hard the first few innings of a game, and then he'd go down to like 88 or 89 (miles per hour)."
As Sale himself tells it, "My freshman year I really struggled. I was having trouble getting outs. There was a span where I was pitching good, but during mid-summer my fastball was really flat. I kind of hit the wall."
Though he hadn't experienced success at the collegiate level yet, he still was good enough to be plucked out of high school by the Colorado Rockies in the late rounds of the MLB draft before deciding to attend FGCU for the immediate playing time it offered.
His status was lofty enough to where it would be natural to resist modifications, and to persist with what had gotten him there.
However, displaying a big-picture vision, Sale entered the Northwoods League in Wisconsin the summer after his freshman year with the intention to tear himself down in order to build himself back up.
"I was talking with some of the coaches there and they were saying you can't keep doing the same thing you're doing, you have to try something different," Sale said. "So I dropped down and tried a different arm slot (a three-quarters delivery). I saw immediate results with it. It was night and day. My velocity went up, I got the most out of my change-up, and I got better with the slider."
Beyond physical, tangible benefits, the altered technique and the results that followed allowed for the inner confidence that Sale always possessed to show through.
"What the change in arm angle did was create movement and sink on his pitches," Tollett said. "He had the belief now that he could get it done. I started putting him in situations where he could be successful, where he didn't have to worry about results. Then I put him in some big ball games and started to see what his future could look like."
That future featured an accolade-filled junior season where Sale went 11-0 with a 2.01 ERA and 146 strikeouts in 17 games, and was named 2010 National Player of the Year by "Collegiate Baseball," Atlantic Sun Conference pitcher of the year, and a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award, given to the nation's best amateur player.
It featured him becoming the 13th overall selection in the 2010 first-year player draft June 7.
It featured Sale making a deep impact on his teammates and his school, while awing them in the process.
And it features a career with the Chicago White Sox organization.
But before he underwent the face-lift that ultimately gave him these things, Sale was planting the seeds for their arrival.
Sale grew up in Lakeland, a baseball-crazed city tucked between Tampa and Orlando.
There are no baseball roots in his family, from dad Alan to mom Marla and everywhere between, though his dad's passion for the game was always evident.
He built a mound in the backyard of their house for Chris to throw off of two to three times a week.
"As a little kid, I always just wanted to play baseball," Sale said. "My dad would always want to toss around wiffle balls and we had all the Fisher Price gear and everything. Immediately I was like, ‘Sign me up'."
Of Sale's upbringing, Tollett says, "He comes from a pretty good baseball community (Lakeland), but there is no baseball in his family. His dad was a swimmer. But they are very supportive and have handled Chris's career unbelievably."
A close follower of the game, Alan Sale knew his son was born with an inherent advantage: being left-handed.
"I was left-handed out of the womb," Sale says laughing. "My right arm and hand are useless. Being left-handed was the reason I started playing. My dad and his friends would say, ‘Well, he's a lefty … let's see if he can play,' knowing how awkward that makes it for hitters."
Alan Sale also knew early on that his son had the make-up to be a dominant pitcher. Pitching requires a singular focus and will, as the pitcher stands alone, with the ball in his hands more than anybody else, giving off the feeling that he is on an island.
"Growing up, I would always love to compete," Sale said. "I would have the same mindset when I would play golf with my grandfather like I would if I was pitching versus the Yankees (New York). I've always been horrible at basketball, but I expect to win every time I play."
While he credits his success to a number of influences in his life, including his dad, Tollett, and other people he came across who had played in the major leagues, he and his father learned the essence of pitching at "Baseball Basics," a camp run by Mike Campbell, who also served as Sale's coach at Lakeland High School.
"Campbell helped me along with a lot of kids I grew up with," Sale explained. "Him and two other people started the camp in a warehouse, where they had batting cages and a mound. We had pitching and hitting lessons."
Seeing how Campbell would interact with his students served as a template for Alan Sale on how to approach Chris.
"From listening to other people, and watching MLB games, and watching Campbell teach me, my dad would take that stuff to my house and teach me," Sale said.