Being a White Sox fan for the last eight or nine seasons has been quite a trying task. Year after year, Sox fans have had their hopes raised with childlike wonder and naivete in December, only to have them dashed by June. At least through parts of the least seven seasons, Chris Sale has been able to preserves the sanity of a fan base that without him, likely would have jumped ship long ago.
The 2016-17 offseason is likely to be one of the dullest in recent memory. With Winter Meetings approaching in just a week–barring a labor crisis–there is a slim free agent market, and the signings will feature talent a bit more lackluster than in previous years. Due to this slight crop of talent, a whole lot of trade speculation is on the table heading into the most action-packed week of the offseason.
That certainly makes the whispers that have been circulating since the All-Star Break about whether or not the White Sox will move Sale somewhat of a cornerstone of barroom discussion this offseason, and the hot topic of the moment in the baseball world. Other people sit around and talk about how they don’t know how they’ll survive their aunt asking them for the twelfth time when they’re getting married this holiday season. Baseball people, specifically White Sox fans, sit around and talk about how they don’t know how they’ll survive a Chris Sale trade.
Let’s dial this conversation back for a moment. Statistically, we understand that Sale is one of the best pitchers the sport has seen in recent years. The 27-year-old has made the All-Star team and finished in the top-six of Cy Young voting every season since he’s been a starting pitcher. He’s even managed to do something that rarely happens in our great sport: post a valuable enough campaign to receive MVP votes for the last two seasons as a pitcher (though when looking at his surroundings, it isn’t hard to envision him being the most valuable player on his team). Sale has a career ERA of 3.00, a strikeout rate of nearly 28 percent, has pitched 14 complete games in his seven-year career and logged a total of 1,110 innings pitched, only 94 of which were in his first two seasons before he was added to the rotation full time. Just this past season, when he induced some panic with a rise in contact and fall in strikeout rates, at the end of the year Sale managed to keep nearly all of his peripheral stats in line with his career averages and post four games in which he struck out 10 batters or more — including a 14-strikeout game against Seattle in last August. (In line with what is typical for recent team history — somehow the White Sox managed to lose that game.)
Those are all things that fans care about. They’re things that baseball executives care about. They’re things that Sale cares about. They’re important. But they’ll only be a portion of what the White Sox fan base will endure in a world without Sale on the South side. That’s not what this is about. This is about something that goes beyond baseball stats, beyond the All-Star votes, beyond whether or not the White Sox should expect a Shelby Miller-type return for Sale or not. This is about what next year looks like with a bullpen, a dugout, a mound, a locker room, and a fan base left devoid of something that they have seen as their only source of consistent and positive identity for seven years. Sale grew up as a baseball player in this franchise, and became a perennial All-Star with it. Keeping Sale healthy and productive on their roster is the one thing that the White Sox have managed to not just be good at, but absolutely excel at on a baseball level, not just a White Sox level, in the last seven years.
There have been many tumultuous happenings that White Sox fans have managed to look the other way and cry in their beer about in the recent past; being a Sox fan is trying on one’s sanity. But Sale was never one of those things. Sale became the one piece of the White Sox franchise that left fans thinking even among the darkest of days “Well, at least we still have one of the best pitchers in baseball.”
Sale has become the foundation in which nearly every White Sox fan who has been around for the past seven years has taken comfort, an identity that fans have associated their last shred of hope with over the years. He is a pillar of normalcy that other fan bases usually feel from their team as a whole and not just one player in an otherwise noxious atmosphere. This isn’t to say that there aren’t other talented players on the White Sox, there are, most recently we have seen the rise of Jose Quintana and the promise of Tim Anderson, while Adam Eaton was good enough to muster an MVP vote this offseason. But none of them hold the same value to White Sox fans that Sale does, and so with the absence of Sale, the fan base will lose something that has guided them through the murkiness, and helped them feel as though they are not as lost as the rest of the franchise would lead them to believe.
Sale is a constant. He’s a leader, and though some baseball folks, Sox fans or not, may not agree with his sometimes crass methodology of handling the issues at hand in 2016 or previous, he’s been a voice that perhaps helps Sox fans understand that someone else sees the same discrepancies that they do, that their suffering does not go unrecognized — something the White Sox front office has failed to do for their fans until Rick Hahn’s comments just this past summer. Sale recognizes that this organization owes their fan base more, that they ought to put more interest into the betterment of the team with a focus on winning, and that perhaps this organization on and off the field is not as united as it could or should be.
Trading Sale could be important for the future of this team, but drudging through the process of a full rebuild to craft a future that this fan base can be proud of will be challenging without his leadership and without his contributions to any sort of feeling of success with which this fan base can identify; a feeling this franchise has deprived it’s loyal followers of for years with the exception of Sale’s success.
The saying goes that the night is always darkest just before the dawn, that things have to get worse before they get better, that the mess has to get messier before it can be clean. Those sayings are all in good stead when the belief is that there is a dawn coming, that things will get better, that the mess will be cleaned. The track record the Sox have, which in turn has lead to this sort of Chris Sale coping mechanism, is not one that should instill much faith in a fan base, and draws the concern: if they cash in their big bargaining chip, will the loss be in vain?
Seeing Sale on the mound wearing another team’s jersey, on a calculated path to success with another franchise, will not be easy to watch — but it will be harder to watch if the White Sox remain as stagnant as ever, only this time without Chris Sale.