Somebody had to do it, had to tell Major League Baseball it’s gone too far with its endless promotion of nostalgia, dressing players in throwback uniforms, many of which we didn’t like the first time, like Astros tequila sunrises and the brown drab of the Padres.
Of all the misguided cultural notions of the mid-1970s, nothing looks sillier than the Chicago White Sox tribute to leisure suits, with stiff opened collar and a loose-hanging, untucked jersey, sometimes worn over pants that ended above the knees. I’d almost give Chris Sale a standing O for destroying the throwup that had been hung in his locker for Saturday night’s game.
The 27-year-old lefty was scheduled to pitch and was therefore one of the first players arriving at U.S. Cellular on Saturday afternoon. He tried on his throwback uniform and decided that’s exactly what should be done with it: throw it back.
When he complained to management that the jersey was “unorthodox and uncomfortable” — navy blue on a hot humid night — he was told to wear it anyway. He was disappointed that manager Robin Ventura did not support him. “Robin is the one who has to fight for us in that department,” Sale said. “For them to put business first, over winning, that’s when I lost it.”
He proceeded to locate a knife that was big and sharp enough to slash every throwback jersey he could find while his teammates were taking batting practice in their usual duds.
Sale had a point, though perhaps it did not have to be made at knifepoint. Baseball executives ought to consult with the athletes before redesigning their attire. These are work clothes, not Halloween costumes. This was a baseball game, not a fashion show.
Sale said the team is more interested in jersey sales than in winning games. I say let him be an ambassador to other sports as well. Please, no more Pittsburgh Steelers dressed like bumblebees.
Though I can’t say I was terribly annoyed by the flimsy, flapping little dresses on women tennis players at Wimbledon, I understood their criticism: athletic performance was compromised by the Nike collection. That’s basically the complaint Sale had about the wardrobe change forced upon him.
When White Sox general manager Rick Hahn saw the damage Sale had wreaked, he sent him home and issued a statement in the press box about “an incident in the clubhouse.” There were rumors that a note was sent to his parents.
Later came more detail. Hahn said the incident was “non-physical in nature.”
Not to quibble, but it could be argued that slicing up a dozen jerseys is more a physical activity than a non-physical one. Guess it’s just semantics.
Anyway, when the Sox took the field Saturday night against Detroit, they were wearing their substitute throwbacks, the 1980s beach blankets. The crowd made no audible protest over the new unis but booed when hearing that Matt Albers was pitching in place of the five-time All-Star who‘s leading the big leagues with 14 wins.
Sale was suspended five days without pay, which for someone earning $9 million a year amounts to around $250,000. He was assessed another $12,700 for the cost of replacing the destroyed jerseys.
But at least he was not arrested for vandalism. The Sox did not press charges, even though, as Ventura was only too eager to point out, “this is not the first” emotional eruption by Sale.
Sale ranted in spring training when executive vice president Ken Williams objected to the frequent presence of first baseman Adam LaRoche’s 14-year-old son. Sale insisted the kid was well mannered and well liked by the players and should be allowed to continue mingling with them during practice.
Hahn sided with Williams, and ever since then, Sale’s future on Chicago’s south side has been in doubt.
With the non-waiver trade deadline at the end of this week, Sale is very close to peak value. It may be that no baseball player has ever had as much trade value, because of his pitching dominance and a team-friendly contract in an era when more than half the teams are in pennant contention this time of year.
He’s signed through the end of the 2019 season, and the club – whatever club that owns his rights — has an option (million-dollar buyout) on the final two years. His salary for 2017 is $10 million, a bargain considering what starting pitchers far less accomplished are earning. In 2018 his pay would go to $12.5 mil, then $13.5 for 2019, when he’d be 30, still very much in his prime.
So this is not a rental where quick but short returns are expected, as when David Price was traded to Toronto a year ago or Johnny Cueto to Kansas City. Or, just last week, radar-busting closer Aroldis Chapman to the Chicago Cubs for a bundle of prospects. Sale is a long-term, low-risk investment.
Hahn insists the jersey-shredding does not affect the plans for Sale, that he has not asked to be traded and that the club wants to keep him to “win multiple championships.”
What he means is that Sale’s price will not be discounted by his bizarre attempt at tailoring. Only a cynic would suggest that the alterations were intended to provoke a trade to a team with a chance of playoff success.
Hahn reportedly wants full value — five top prospects — for a pitcher who’s a little bit nuts but always shows up, could bring multiple championships to a team that’s just an ace away from winning one.
Sale is 6-foot-6, a lefthanded power pitcher, the American League’s answer to Clayton Kershaw. And unlike the back-strapped Kershaw, Sale is completely healthy, except, perhaps, in a non-physical way.
Sale is that rarest of pitchers, a consistent winner for a bad ball club. As long as you don’t mess with his routine, sartorial or otherwise, nothing rattles him. In 4½ seasons as a starter he’s 67-40 with a team that’s 55 games under .500 for the same period.
Give him any support at all, he bags the W. Insert him in the Texas Rangers’ rotation, in front of Cole Hamels, Yu Darvish and Colby Lewis, and you could see them in the World Series.
You could say the same for the Houston Astros, whose rotation is spinning upward with Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers and Collin McHugh recovering from early-season miseries. Each has at least five consecutive starts allowing no more than three runs. Doug Fister has won 10 and is their most consistent starter. Sale could make this the best staff in baseball.
With the possible exception of the Cleveland Indians, any team would benefit hugely by adding Sale. But whoever acquires him must give up a Sale of the future. The Rangers and Astros have deep farms that could produce the megaharvest Hahn requires. But the Rangers must part with their prize apprentice, Joey Gallo, and the Astros with Alex Bregman, who this week was promoted to Houston.
So how do you measure the value of a World Series?
And how do you explain the emotional volatility of Chris Sale? Is he a borderline psychopath?
The Sox are marketing Sale as passionate and determined. He’s had no other disturbing cutlery episodes. He’s a prodigy, an artist, a pitching version of Van Gogh. So we give him his space, hoping that in his worst knife-wielding sprees he doesn’t slice off an ear.
But let’s not forget that even if it was overly emphatic, his fashion statement was well aimed. Sports executives – in all sports — could learn from it.