[Update, July 24: The White Sox have suspended Chris Sale five games “for violating team rules, for insubordination and for destroying team equipment.”]
Late Saturday afternoon, news broke on Twitter that the Chicago White Sox had scratched left-hander Chris Sale from his start for what ultimately turned out to be a reason that defies the imagination: Sale had cut up the team’s uniforms with a knife.
This is the kind of event that paralyzes you, places you in aesthetic arrest. It’s so outside the realm of what we’ve come to expect from baseball — indeed, from humanity in general — that it’s difficult to process. But let’s try to process it together by going through the best elements of the story.
The story started innocently enough: At 4:48 p.m. Central Time, Sportsnet’s Ben Nicholson-Smith tweeted that the White Sox would start Matt Albers, not Sale, against Detroit. With only nine days to go before the deadline, and with the air thick with Sale trade rumors all day Friday, this seemed like the logical precursor to a trade. Moments later, rumors started swirling that Sale had the flu, followed by immediate skepticism — if the White Sox had pulled Sale while they ironed out the details of a trade, wouldn’t that be exactly the kind of ruse they’d use as cover?
At 5:19, Ringer deputy editor Mallory Rubin sent a Slack message to several staffers on the baseball beat, saying that she was about to see a movie, and would therefore be incommunicado, but that we should be ready to cover a Sale trade, just in case. Here’s what happened before she turned her phone back on:
At 5:28, Fox’s Jon Morosi reported that Sale was not, in fact, ill, fueling greater trade speculation. Would Boston part with Yoan Moncada? Would Texas part with Nomar Mazara or Joey Gallo? What impact would this trade have on the pennant race? Meanwhile, information came out in bits and pieces. At 5:43, the White Sox released a statement saying that Sale had been involved in a “non-physical” incident and had been sent home. At 6:45, Julie DiCaro reported that the incident had something to do with the team’s uniforms.
Then, at 6:51 p.m., Tommy Stokke of FanRag dropped the hammer.
For the record, you know a serious news report is good when it starts with “Not a joke:”
Watching this unfold in real time was like watching a runaway train catch fire, then reach the end of the tracks, break through a brick wall, and fall into the ocean. At some point — and I’m not sure exactly where that point was — this went from being a routine trade story to a slightly unusual story of an unhappy athlete acting out in a high-stress situation to Man Bites Dog to Beyond Man Bites Dog.
It’s not hard to imagine how this starts: Sale finds out the team’s wearing throwbacks that he, for whatever reason, dislikes or finds uncomfortable. Sale’s the best player on a bad team that’s been beset by silliness all year, and almost four months into a stressful season, he loses his temper. Ballplayers tend to be a little more aggro than, say, accountants or schoolteachers or sportswriters, and innumerable players have suffered injuries by kicking or punching inanimate objects in moments of frustration.
Even Sale does this, though he tends to use a bat, which is safer.
But this isn’t punching a water cooler or even ripping up his own uniform. This is taking a knife, as DiCaro reported, and shredding everyone’s jerseys. Were the jerseys in a stack somewhere, or did Sale go around to every locker, take down the uniform, and cut them up individually? What kind of knife did he use? Did he remain in that state of rage the whole time, or did he come to his senses after cutting up two or three and think to himself, “Well, if I stop now I’m just going to look stupid, so…”
Either way, if you aren’t in the terrifying position of actually being in the room with a 6-foot-6 dude slashing shit up with a knife, this is a hilarious image, so far beyond even the constant low-level weirdness of a big-league clubhouse that I don’t know how you could prepare for an event like this.
In case you’d forgotten, Sale and the White Sox started off their season on a weird note when management told first baseman Adam LaRoche, “Hey, maybe you shouldn’t bring your teenage son to work with you literally every day” and all hell broke loose.
In fact, when LaRoche père decided to retire, Sale was one of the loudest voices demanding the return of LaRoche fils to the clubhouse. It was Adam Eaton who delivered the fateful quote about the 14-year-old Drake LaRoche being a leader, but it was Sale who hung father and son LaRoche jerseys in his locker in the aftermath.
The point is, Chris Sale was part of a near-clubhouse revolt over a kid, a bizarre snowball of locker room bullshit that went on for days and days. Then, four months later, he found a way to top it.
Sale Kind of Had a Point
Sale didn’t just see the throwback uniforms and snap, like Raymond Shaw drawing the queen of diamonds. This is reportedly part of a bigger ongoing issue, but let’s deal with the immediate circumstances that led to a knife being drawn and property being destroyed.
It’s not uncommon for the starting pitcher to choose what uniform his team is going to wear when he starts, and Fox’s Ken Rosenthal reports that this is generally the case with the White Sox. If this were just a guy throwing a fit because he didn’t get his turn to choose what the team watched on TV, that’d be one thing, but if he’s not comfortable pitching in the uniform, that’s a real issue. Pitchers can be temperamental, and pitchers as good as Sale, with deliveries as complicated as his, have a right to be particular about details and routine. Rosenthal further reported that Sale was frustrated with the team valuing marketing over wins and losses. I don’t know if that’s a fair criticism, since the White Sox spent a ton of money on James Shields in the interest of winning now (it didn’t work, but you can’t fault their motives), but Sale’s also entitled to feel that way after the team’s competitive start turned into a 46–50 record through no fault of his own.
That said, he probably should’ve expressed his displeasure some other way.
There’s No Way to Go Back to Normal
I’m not really sure what the White Sox do here. The fact that Sale’s pissed off enough to cut up his team’s uniforms probably doesn’t help Chicago’s trade leverage, but what does it do to his value? Does Sale just show up for work tomorrow and hope things aren’t too awkward? What if he does get traded? If he’d walked into the clubhouse in Boston — to name just one suitor — on Friday he’d have been greeted as a conquering hero. Now he’s the guy who cut up everyone’s clothes with a knife. Imagine going to work with a guy who left his last job because he got so angry that he cut up everyone’s clothes with a knife.
This story is so weird it eludes our vocabulary as baseball fans, as Tom Verducci illustrated by pointing out that Sale’s actions could be characterized as insubordination under the MLB Uniform Player’s Contract (no pun intended).
He cut up everyone’s uniform with a knife. That sounds insubordinate as hell to me. A fine and/or a suspension are probably in order, but the White Sox aren’t going to void a contract that could keep Sale in Chicago through 2019 for about what the Twins are paying Ricky Nolasco for the next few years. Is Verducci trying to make Sale’s actions sound scarier or more egregious by emphasizing that they’re also insubordinate? Buddy, this dude just cut up his team’s uniforms with a knife. That’s scary and egregious already.
This is weirder than the LaRoche Affair, weirder than the Best Data Breach in Baseball, weirder than just about any other story the game has produced in recent memory. And that is saying something.