While discussing a 107-year-old White Sox strikeout record he was closing in on back in September 2015, Chris Sale was staring at the lanyard holding my press credential.
It was near the end of another dominant season gone to waste, and Sale clearly was tired of the losing.
“It’s cool to talk about, to talk to your buddies and your family about stuff like this (record),” Sale told reporters. “But I see a (reporter) wearing a postseason lanyard right there. You don’t get to the postseason with strikeouts. You don’t get to the playoffs with fancy numbers and stuff like that.
“You get there by wins, and I think everybody in this clubhouse and everybody around major-league baseball can tell you that there’s one thing that’s important, and that’s winning.”
A little more than three years later, Sale finally is where he always wanted to be: starting Game 1 of the World Series, which begins Tuesday night at Fenway Park.
It has been a long and adventurous journey for the Red Sox ace, who started out in the White Sox bullpen in the summer of 2010 and quickly developed into one of the game’s elite starters.
Sale was supposed to be leading the White Sox into the World Series, having signed a five-year, $ 32.5 million deal with two team-option years during 2013 spring training that made him one of the game’s biggest bargains. The White Sox annually tried to surround him with enough talent to get to the postseason, but they finally gave up after 2016 and dealt him to the Red Sox in the trade that kick-started the rebuild.
Most lauded the deal that brought top prospects Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech to the White Sox. But Moncada’s first full major-league season this year was a disappointment, and Tommy John elbow surgery in September ended the promising beginning of Kopech’s major-league career.
Sale, meanwhile, has started the last two All-Star Games wearing a Red Sox uniform and has gone 29-12 with a 2.56 ERA and 545 strikeouts in 372 1/3 innings. At one point this season he went 6-0 with an 0.20 ERA over seven starts, the best seven-start span since Bob Gibson posted an 0.14 ERA in 1968.
But we haven’t seen the best of Sale in October, and who knows how long he will be allowed to go after being hospitalized with a stomach illness after starting Game 1 of the American League Championship Series.
Sale battled shoulder issues during the second half and probably missed a chance at winning his first Cy Young Award by resting his arm to be strong for the postseason. He pitched only four innings in the ALCS loss to the Astros, allowing two runs on one hit, four walks and a hit batter. More worrisome was the fact Sale’s average fastball velocity dipped from 95 mph to 92 from his division series victory over the Yankees.
But after waiting so long for this opportunity, Sale should be ready to return to his normal self on a prime-time stage with the nation watching.
It will be a bittersweet moment for the White Sox, who knew they were dealing one of the best pitchers in franchise history when they sent Sale to Boston.
He could be difficult to deal with at times, as evidenced by the episode in which he sliced up his teammates’ throwback uniforms so he wouldn’t have to pitch in one and the day he ripped management over the decision to stop allowing Adam LaRoche’s son, Drake, to be with the team. Once he even tried to get into the visitors’ clubhouse after an on-field brawl with the Royals, hoping for Round 2.
But the White Sox always chalked it up to Sale’s competitive nature, and nothing he could do off the field ever trumped what he did on the mound.
Sale has one more season in Boston before hitting free agency, where he figures to command one of the biggest contracts in the game. He never complained about his team-friendly contract, even after White Sox teammate Jeff Samardzija fled for a $ 90 million deal with the Giants after the 2015 season.
“Don’t feel bad for me, man,” he told me at SoxFest in 2016. “I’m in a good spot, trust me. I’ve said it a million times: I knew exactly what I was getting into when I got into it. My agent thoroughly traveled down every avenue that could possibly be traveled down. And I’ll have my shot again hopefully.”
When I asked Sale if he thought the traditionally conservative-spending White Sox would pony up the kind of money needed to keep him on the South Side for years to come, he said it was “too hard to even talk about” playing elsewhere.
“I love Chicago and I’m glad I’m here now,” he said. “I appreciate it while I have it.”
White Sox fans appreciated Sale while he was here, and no doubt many will be rooting for him when he takes the mound Tuesday to start the World Series. Maybe someday he will come back to the place he loved, helping take the rebuild to the next step, as Jon Lester did in signing with the Cubs in 2014.
You can always dream.
Red Sox win the AL pennant with 4-1 win over Astros in Game 5 »
White Sox roster outlook for 2019: Who’s likely to return and who’s likely to depart »
New technology only adds to baseball’s culture of paranoia »