One year later, how Tommy John surgery has changed Chris Sale

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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Chris Sale sits on the back-field bleachers at JetBlue Park, riding out his final days as a 31 year-old with a smile on his face, a scar running down his left arm, and a new lease on life. All things considered, his world is good.

And it all started with that birthday present March 30, 2020.

"You tell me, what could be better for a pitcher with a bad elbow than getting a new elbow for his birthday?" he asked with a chuckle during a lengthy sit-down with WEEI.com.

He's right. That new ligament -- the one that came from his right arm -- has changed everything. Certainly more than Sale bargained for.

"No."

That was his response when asked if this Tommy John surgery thing was what he expected. Sure, he had picked the brains of those who went through it before. Nathan Eovaldi told him to set shorter goals. Brandon Workman warned that this was not going to be "rainbows and butterflies in an open field," bringing up the grind of it all. And Martin Perez simply pounded the merits of sticking Sale's hand in a bucket of rice over and over and over again, using the resistance as his best ally.

They were all right.

But there was so much, even with all the advanced warning, that Sale never saw coming.

"I didn't know what to expect so this is kind of walking into the woods blindly with no GPS. What do you expect? Well, you expect anything," Sale said. "I'm definitely appreciative of this process. It seems like forever and it's definitely not easy, but I will definitely come out better on the back end of this."

As the Red Sox sit days away from their new season, Sale will still not have thrown off a mound. The lefty is limited to simulated tosses off of the hill, while continuing to play whatever catch he can. This is his lot in life.

It he antsy? Sure. The southpaw is quick to point out that he hasn't lived life as a Major League Baseball player since Aug. 13, 2019. But there is undoubtedly a new lease on life with this person, one which simply wouldn't have been afforded him without that birthday present a year ago.

"There wasn't anything specific to this happening," he explained. "For me, I think it was just kind of the accumulation of everything over the years. I've got 10 years in. That's no walk in the park. Obviously, guys have done it before without it, but I don't think there was one specific thing. The car just took a dump at 100,000 miles. I have tried to be conscious of that. I'm excited. It was tough. It was hard. But I believe, and I have no reason not to think, I'm going to be just as good if not better when I get back out there. It might not be the first time I pitch. It might not be the first handful of times I pitch. I damn sure going to try. But in the long run I will be better off out there."

THE CHANGES

One might not have noticed it on that night in Cleveland, when Sale threw his final pitch with that old elbow ligament, but he wasn't right. And it wasn't just about his arm.

The guy who had been told he needed to gain weight his entire professional life had done exactly that, hovering around 200 pounds for the first time in his life. It wasn't good.

"I was at 197 at the end of 2019," Sale said. "That was the most I've ever weighed in my life and how do you think that resulted for me. I sucked and I blew out. I'm not saying that was the reason."

The arm was the priority. But, without warning, that was what changed Sale's existence in a way he never saw coming.

About six months ago, in the heart of his rehab, the guy who never had to worry about what he ate realized that really wasn't the case. Gluten? gone. Big Macs? Gone. And alcohol? He hasn't had a sip of since the surgery.

"Allen Thomas, the strength coach in Chicago, he said something when I was young and it is true. He said, 'You'll go buy a Mercedes, a BMW or a Ferrari and you'll put the best gas in it, but then you'll eat Taco Bell and McDonald's? You're treating your car better than you're treating your body.' I was thinking a lot about that," the pitcher said.

Sale now sits between 174-177 pounds, but more importantly the fuel that is helping him down this path toward the second half of his career is the good stuff.

"I got my blood tested and I was intolerant to some things that I had to cut out of my diet. It's just cleaner stuff," Sale said. "I had the metabolism where I could eat anything. I had to give up gluten because that was just creating so much inflammation in my body. I haven't had a single sip of alcohol in a year, just because I know that's volatile for the body. I'm not 22 (years old) getting Tommy John surgery. I'm not 38, but I'm kind of right in the middle of my career. I wanted to make sure when got on the back end of this I was as prepared to be as good as I possibly could be.

"I wasn't springy. I'm springy again. I'm lighter. I feel better. I feel whippy again. I feel loose. I feel free and easy. I'm sleeping better. Everything just kind of came to the forefront with all of this.

"I had a year. You have a year to get your (expletive) together. And I had every resource to do it. The only reason I wouldn't do what I did was because I was lazy. I see it translating on a very small scale, so when I put this on a big scale I can only hope it's the same."

THE OBSTACLES

"Timetable" is the dirtiest word.

Sale would love for this to not be the case, but it is.

"I can't skip a step," he said. "You try and get this thing a little bit faster, but you have to be OK with the fact that it's out of my control. I can't go in there and say, 'I'm going to tell you what to do,' because I've never done it and they've done it hundreds of times."

The pitcher kind of knew that. And it seemed logical enough. But when you're cruising along for the first six or so months like Sale was after his birthday gift, it's hard not to starting looking at the calendar.

But then in September, almost on cue, came the reminder that there is no perfect script.

"We were rolling pretty good for the first few months and then obviously the neck stuff came up and that kind of derailed us for a little bit," he said.

The "neck stuff" was out of nowhere, and absolutely the reason this 2021 season is kicking off without Sale having progressed to throwing off a mound. Two months were lost. A new perspective had to be gained.

And just to top things off, along came a positive COVID-19 test just after Jan. 1. As he noted, "There were some hurdles, I guess you could say."

"There is some degeneration in there," Sale explained when asked for specifics about the neck problem. "Nothing crazy. You wouldn't look at my MRI and think I needed surgery. Surgery was never an option. I kind of lost the range of motion. I had an instance where I had a spasm. It was just one of those things that popped up during the rehab and I was appreciate that it wasn't anything connected to (the arm). There were no nerve issues. It just took time and time was the thing I have no patience for."

THE PAYOFF

Sale is getting another pretty powerful birthday present once again this year: He's reintroducing himself to Fenway Park.

Instead of remaining at home in Southwest Florida, the pitcher will be boarding the plane with his teammates on March 30 -- one year exactly from that day on the operating table -- and flying to Boston.

"They told me I'm going to go up there for the start of the season and do my rehab with the team. I don't know exactly how that's going to look, but I'm excited," Sale said with a broad smile.

"I haven't been in baseball mode for a 1 1/2 years. I haven't stepped in a baseball clubhouse while the game is going on in 1 1/2 years. Just getting those juices going again. Feeling it. There is no denying the feeling the you get pulling up to Fenway Park, walking in there as a baseball player, through the clubhouse, with an objective at the end of the night. Down here has been awesome, but it's just a mindset. I've appreciated down here to the max. I couldn't have appreciated how this has gone. I lived at my house. I get to take my kids to school. I get to pick them up from school. I go to their baseball games, soccer practices and football games. I get to work my job and live my life. But that mentality that I need to get back into is there. My family obviously understands that. They got me for a full year when I wasn't supposed to be there. And that was a great time for us. It was. But there is an understanding that this is my job and this is what I need to do. Part of that is locking it in and feeling it."

It all makes sense.

The first feeling of normalcy came with the re-introduction to his teammates, a joy anyone could see while watching Sale mingle among the other pitchers watching back-field games this week.

Now, the plane ticket.

It will be two birthdays, and one year, that Sale will never forget.

"I've been doing the same thing for a 1 1/2 years," he said. "I blew out Aug. 13 and I haven't thrown a pitch since then. I'm sitting just rehabbing for 1 1/2 years and that sucks.

"Until I'm back in a major league baseball game I just have my blinders on. I'm running this race. Throwing off a mound and getting in a simulated game are great. They are huge steps in the process. But there isn't an ounce of me that will be satisfied until I'm punching tickets in the big leagues for the Boston Red Sox, helping us win games. I can't wait."