Sale 'speechless' at FGCU jersey retirement

Sale 'speechless' at FGCU jersey retirement

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- There were several moments Saturday night when Chris Sale found himself struggling to find the right words, or at a loss for them entirely.

Why? Because Saturday night's jersey-retirement ceremony was about how much Chris Sale means to Florida Gulf Coast University. To Sale, it's always been just the opposite.

"I smile when people think I'm doing stuff for the school," he said. "They've done more for me than I can ever even think of."

The White Sox ace left-hander is the first athlete in FGCU history to have his jersey retired. Standing next to his framed blue No. 41 jersey, Sale held the hand of his wife, Brianne, who in turn grasped the hand of their son, Rylan.

Meanwhile, FGCU coach Dave Tollett told the sold-out crowd attending the school's basketball game at Alico Arena, "He's the best damn player I've ever coached."

Sale took the microphone and thanked everyone who helped him along the way, including a number of family and friends surrounding him near half-court. His speech was brief, especially compared to the seemingly endless narration of Sale's collegiate and professional accomplishments.

"I still don't really have -- I wish I did have -- the saying that gets etched into stone or whatever, the one that everyone remembers. It's just kind of mind-boggling," Sale said afterward. "I'm just kind of speechless. I know it's an honor. I'm very appreciative of it. I want to show that, but to put it into words is kind of tough."

The lanky left-hander only received one Division I scholarship offer, and it came from FGCU. Tollett typically recruits two "projectability" pitchers per year -- guys who show potential but not polish -- and Sale was one of them. FGCU was the first school to even express an interest in Sale when he was at Lakeland High School.

Sale arrived at the beach-side campus in southwest Florida and had what Tollett called "the worst fall [semester] I've ever seen a kid have." He was raw physically and mentally, but he learned to compete. He left three years later as the Collegiate Baseball National Player of the Year and the 13th overall pick in the 2010 Draft.

Sale was the first player in program history to be named an All-American. Three of FGCU's four Atlantic Sun regular-season championships came during Sale's tenure. He finished his college career with a 20-4 record and 2.52 ERA.

Before "Dunk City" took the college basketball world by storm in 2013, Sale was about as big as it got for FGCU.

"If he's the standard for us retiring jerseys, that might be the only one in the gym. He was that good," Tollett said. "He's special. You know that he's really good, but when he gets to the big leagues and makes those guys look as silly as he made people in the [Atlantic Sun Conference] look, then you go, 'Wow, he was really special.'"

Tollett still considers Sale to be the face of the program. And it's easy to find that face around campus -- even if you don't count the giant cutout of Sale's head students brought to the game Saturday night.

One of the images on the Swanson Stadium walls is of Sale pitching in the same blue jersey the school retired Saturday night. Take a step inside Alico Arena and you'll find several framed pictures of Sale surrounding his black No. 49 White Sox uniform.

But FGCU meant more to Sale than just baseball. It's where he met his wife and where he became a father. He moved to Naples, about 20 miles south of campus, and remains an avid supporter of the school. The White Sox played their last game of the season Sept. 28, and Sale spent Sept. 29 at FGCU.

"It's kind of where I found myself. This is where I really grew up and really started my life," Sale said. "Everything that I've done has come through this school, whether it be my baseball career, my family. ... The first day I was back here, I came up here to see these guys. That's what this place means to me.

"You look at the retired jersey and all these things people talk about what I'm doing for the school. I kind of laugh at it because if you look at what this school's done for me, it's not even really comparable."

Sale will throw his first bullpen session of the year Monday, and it won't be long before he heads out to Arizona for Spring Training. But at some point, he'll come back to FGCU and see his jersey hanging wherever the school decides to put its first retired number.

What's that moment going to be like for Sale?

"I hope I have more to say than I did tonight," he said, laughing. "It's going to be crazy. Just to think about it, I'm still trying to soak it all in and realize what it is. When that moment comes, I'll let you know."

Adam Berry is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.