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PETER ABRAHAM

For Chris Sale, life is changing fast. But his drive to win still burns brightly

Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Chris Sale is greeted in the dugout before the first inning of a baseball game against the Detroit Tigers, Saturday, April 18, 2015, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio/AP/File 2015

It wasn’t until a few days ago, when a FedEx truck dropped off a large box on his front porch, that new Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale realized just how much his life had changed.

The package was addressed to his 6-year-old son, Rylan. The Red Sox had sent a collection of kid-sized team gear to make sure that he felt welcome.

“He loves the hat with the big ‘B’ on it,” Sale said. “The White Sox were the only thing he’s ever known, but he’s getting used to it. I guess I am, too.”

For Sale, it’s an adjustment that once seemed unfathomable. The White Sox drafted him in 2010, promoted him to the majors almost right away, then signed him to a long-term contract. The Cubs have long overshadowed the White Sox, but Sale was a star in Chicago.

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So when his friends started to pass along trade rumors last season, Sale brushed them off.

“Just a bunch of people talking,” he said. “I didn’t pay any attention to it.”

That illusion fell away on the morning of Dec. 6, when his agent called to say a trade was imminent. Then came word that Sale was going to the Red Sox in exchange for four prospects.

Overnight, it seemed everybody in southwest Florida suddenly knew who that tall skinny guy was.

“I’ve learned the Red Sox have a lot of fans. They seem to be in every restaurant and grocery store around here,” said Sale, who attended college in Fort Myers and now lives in Naples. “It seems like everywhere I go, somebody wants to ask me about the trade.”

Sale was on the phone as he spoke. He had asked to conduct an interview that way instead of in person because his wife, Brianne, is about to have their second child, another son.

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Chris Sale is adjusting to Red Sox fans recognizing him when he’s out and about.Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

The idea of breaking away, even if just for an hour, understandably didn’t sit well with him.

“Everything is happening all at once around here,” he said. “It’s exciting.”

For Sale, a significant side benefit to the trade is that the Red Sox conduct spring training at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, a short drive from Naples. That means an additional two months of living at home.

“That part was huge for us,” Sale said. “Florida has always been home. We both have a lot of great relationships here.”

Sale grew up in Lakeland, a city in the central part of the state, and his family roots run deep. His grandfather, Harold Sale, was born in Lakeland, served in World War II with the 101st Airborne, and opened an insurance company when he returned home. Two of his sons now run the business.

Harold Sale, who died in 2013, was so tall and thin that his comrades used to joke that he floated up after jumping out of the plane. Chris, who is 6 feet 6 inches and 185 pounds, inherited the same build and it has served him well as a pitcher.

Growing confidence

Morry Gash/File/2011/Associated Press

For Sale, baseball started in the backyard with his father. Allen Sale was an accomplished college swimmer and always made time to play baseball, soccer, and other sports with his son after he came home from the insurance company.

“From when I was really young, I was out there with my dad all the time,” Sale said. “We did everything, but baseball was my favorite.”

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His mother, Marla, who worked for a construction company, arranged to have a mound built in the yard. Then the family sent Sale to work with Mike Campbell, a local coach who ran a baseball academy.

“Even then, Chris was a competitive young man,” Campbell said. “He’s got a little Ted Williams in him that way. He was all arms and legs and raw talent. I can’t say I thought he would be in the majors, but he wanted to be good. He had a lot of drive.”

At Lakeland High, again coached by Campbell, Sale grew to 6-5 and his fastball popped up into the mid-80s.

That drew the attention of the Colorado Rockies, who selected Sale in the 21st round of the 2007 draft. But his only scholarship offer came from Florida Gulf Coast University, a Division 2 school moving up to Division 1.

“I wasn’t mature enough for pro ball,” Sale said. “I knew I shouldn’t sign.”

After three months of school, Sale regretted it. He was hit so hard during the fall season that coach Dave Tollett tried to rig an intrasquad game to give Sale some confidence.

He called in Sale to get the final out and sent another pitcher up to pinch hit. Sale allowed a walkoff homer and at semester break told his family he was considering not going back. But he did and pitched with some success out of the bullpen.

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Sale spent that summer with the Northwoods League playing for a team in Wisconsin. Coaches there dropped his arm slot and the results were almost immediate. His velocity crept up and the ball gained lateral movement. When Sale returned to college, he earned a spot in the rotation and pitched well.

Sale’s career took another step that summer when he played for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox in the prestigious Cape Cod League. He had a 1.47 ERA in nine starts and struck out 57 in 55 innings. Professional scouts were noticing.

In the playoffs, Sale won a game to keep Y-D alive, then marched up to manager Scott Pickler and offered to pitch out of the bullpen in the next game.

“When I tell you that never happens, it never happens,” Pickler said, laughing at the memory. “Those guys are all prospects and want to protect their arms and stay healthy. But here was Chris, saying he would pitch. He had that look in his eye. I appreciated that competitiveness.”

Sale spent that summer living at the Yarmouth Port home of Dr. John Serijan, a local orthodontist.

“Chris was a good kid who was all about respect,” Serijan said. “That’s how I categorize him. He respected you if you respected him.”

Serijan remembers Sale tearing down the street in a go-kart, his long legs hanging off the side.

“Chris was intense as a pitcher, as he is now, but he was a free spirit and had a lot of fun,” Serijan said. “Everything was within reason.”

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Competitive streak

Buoyed by his success on the Cape, Sale went 11-0 with a 2.01 ERA as a junior and was named NCAA player of the year. The White Sox selected Sale with the 13th overall pick in 2010 and quickly signed him to a $1.65 million bonus.

Sale pitched 11 games in the minors and made his major league debut on Aug. 6. He worked out of the bullpen in 2011 then moved into the rotation. He has a 3.04 ERA since, averaging 10 strikeouts per nine innings.

Sale has been named an All-Star five consecutive seasons and finished no lower than sixth in AL Cy Young Award voting since becoming a starter.

Mark Buehrle, Chicago’s ace when Sale was a rookie, taught him the virtues of working at a quick pace. Jake Peavy then helped him learn how best to channel that competitive streak.

“I was fortunate to be around some good role models,” Sale said. “Jake used to tell me that if I gave up six runs in the first inning, go as hard as I could not to give up seven. I’m not really one to look at my stats. I just want to win the game.”

Sale will be 28 when the season starts, still a young man. But he talks with the seen-it-all ethos of a player much older. Rylan was born when Sale was a junior in college and that forced him to mature on the run. Then came the frustration of playing for teams in Chicago that weren’t quite good enough to contend.

“I’ve always been competitive and never any good at losing,” Sale said. “Ping-Pong, video games, you name it. If we jumped in a pool, I’d try to stay under water longer than you could.

“I haven’t always been great at controlling that. Your competitive fire gets going and you really can’t think with a clear mind. Sometimes the wrong thing takes over.”

In that regard, the trade is well timed. The Red Sox are a win-now team laden with star players, and Sale will not go into every start carrying the burden of a franchise on his shoulders.

“I think it got to a point where every time he pitched, he felt like he had to win,” former White Sox teammate David Robertson said. “That’s hard on anybody. Chris is a great teammate, but you could see it was getting to him.”

Sale’s final season with the White Sox was successful on the field. He was 17-10 with a 3.34 ERA and started the All-Star Game. But his 2016 will be remembered for other reasons.

David Banks/Getty Images

In spring training, White Sox management asked veteran designated hitter Adam LaRoche to limit how often his 14-year-old son Drake was in the clubhouse. LaRoche decided to retire and the team briefly rebelled, Sale becoming their spokesman.

Sale went public with criticism of team executive vice president Kenny Williams, saying he lied to the team.

The situation settled down before an even more bizarre event happened in July. On a day he was to start, Sale used scissors to destroy the throwback uniforms the White Sox were scheduled to wear. He thought the uniforms were uncomfortable, particularly the collars.

Chicago suspended Sale for five games.

“I don’t want to rehash old stuff; it’s not positive,” Sale said. “Chalk it up to what it was. You live your life and you learn from it.”

Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski didn’t see the incident as a reason not to make the trade. Manager John Farrell agreed.

“We’re confident we got a good teammate and a guy who cares a lot and will be welcomed here with open arms,” Farrell said. “I love his spirit. You can sense it from across the field.”

Sale is glad the Red Sox wanted him. He and Brianne have friends in the Northeast and have enjoyed road trips to Boston.

“A clean city, a fun city. We’ve always liked it there,” Sale said. “I know the fans have high expectations and they should. I’m fine with that.”

The Sox also represent his best chance to finally get to the postseason.

“That is the most important thing. I have a burning desire for that,” Sale said. “Your job is to win and I’ve never really experienced that. Technically, I haven’t succeeded at my job.”

Said Robertson: “Chris will thrive at Fenway Park. The atmosphere is what he likes, the sellouts and the fans there. That will give him a lot of energy. Him going to Boston will bring out his best and I don’t think we’ve seen his best yet.”

Those closest to Sale are eager to see what comes next.

“Boston is going to love him,” Serijan said. “He’s got big enough shoulders to handle it. This is the perfect spot for him.”


Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.