By Jordyn Matez
If you visited Swanson Stadium, home of the FGCU baseball team, in 2008, you might stumble across a freshman pitcher tirelessly vacuuming the floors of the clubhouse — a punishment for sleeping through his 6 a.m. alarm, resulting in him being late to practice.
Though vacuuming was one of many frequent “opportunities” given to Chris Sale by FGCU baseball head coach Dave Tollett in his first years as an Eagle, the World-Series winning pitcher wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“6 a.m. comes early, and it comes even earlier when you’re in college,” said Sale through a laugh. “It was good because that’s the time where you learn structure and you can kinda make a misstep and your coaches are going to get you back in. You do that professionally, it’s money out of your pocket.”
Before Sale donned a Boston Red Sox uniform, he wore the number 41 in green and blue. He pitched for the Eagles from 2008-2010 before he was selected as the No. 13 overall pick of the Chicago White Sox in the 2008 MLB draft as a junior.
As a freshman, Sale finished second on the team with 21 appearances, though only one of these was a starting performance. He threw 46 strikeouts and only nine walks over 36.1 innings, earning him a spot on the Freshman All-ASUN team.
Though he only appeared in 14 games as a sophomore, Sale saw 12 starts and went 7-4. He threw 89.1 innings total, logging 104 strikeouts and at least seven strikeouts per start, and had a 12-strikeout performance on two separate occasions.
Statistically, Sale led the 2009 Eagles in ERA (2.72), opposing batting average (.246), innings pitched and strikeouts. By the end of his second season as an Eagle, Sale was ranked 22nd in the NCAA in strikeouts.
Sale’s third and final year at FGCU was packed with local and national achievements that put him on the map as a standout pitcher.
He was awarded the 2010 Collegiate Baseball National Player of the Year award and was a finalist for both the CBF National Pitcher of the Year award and the 2010 Golden Spikes Award. He earned a spot on the NCAA, Yahoo! Sports and Baseball American All-American First Teams, along with an ASUN First Team spot within the conference.
These recognitions all came from a season of strikeouts — Sale ended the year with a nation-leading 146 strikeouts and an unblemished 11-0 record.
All of these accomplishments and more earned Sale the No. 13 overall draft pick before his four years with the Eagles were over — a step up from the 21st round draft selection he received from the Colorado Rockies as a high-schooler.
After turning down the offer to play professional baseball right out of high school in order to commit to FGCU, Sale had to quickly adapt to college life. This included juggling a full-time student workload and baseball practices, all while maintaining the most active social life he could muster.
“Sometimes the lines were blurred a little bit,” said Sale. “But, you figure it out.”
Aside from the typical struggles every FGCU student faces in their time in Fort Myers — the inconvenience of the shuttle bus system among the worst, according to Sale — choosing the college route gave Sale the time he needed to grow as a person and athlete.
This growth stemmed from structure and mentorship that came with FGCU’s baseball program. Sale’s teammates and family offered the support and space he needed in order to grow, though one name stands apart from the others: Coach Tollett.
Tollett, who has been the program’s head coach since its inaugural season in 2001, did not treat Sale or his teammates like the innocent and naive college freshman that he may have entered FGCU as. Instead, Sale recalls Tollett’s coaching style as more of a tough love situation that actually made playing under Tollett that much more enjoyable.
Tollett is notorious for awarding players with “opportunities” to improve, which often translated to grunt work like running miles or cleaning the facilities. On one instance, Sale was given the “opportunity” to paint the yellow foul poles of Swanson Stadium after losing an in-house World Series matchup.
While he may not have realized it in the moment, Sale looks back on his experiences with Tollett as nothing short of life-shaping and imperative to his success as a baseball player and person.
“I feel like you need it,” Sale said of Tollett’s coaching style. “If you get babied, you’re never going to grow up. If you have someone demanding excellence from you and anything less than that is not acceptable you raise the bar, you’re forced to. You have to.”
Regardless of the effort it took to get to where he is now, Sale is living the dream of every little-league hopeful.
He is a seven-time All-Star selection (2012-18) and a two-time American League strikeout leader (2015, 2017) with 1,803 strikeouts under his belt through eight seasons in the MLB.
He also holds the MLB record for fewest innings pitched to reach 1,500 strikeouts, a feat he achieved in 1,290 innings.
Perhaps most exciting and dream-fulfilling was the 2018 World Series, in which Sale threw both the first and last pitches of the Series.
“It’s something that I’ve obviously dreamed of my entire life,” said Sale. “To think about where I was then and kinda my career evolving into that it’s really hard to believe, even now.”
If you told that vacuum-carrying freshman in 2008 that he would win a World Series title for the Boston Red Sox in just ten years time, you’d probably be met with speculation. Sale himself couldn’t have predicted his success, but maybe — just maybe — he’d know that the days of vacuuming and painting foul poles would be the most valuable of his life.