ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — A checkered past always will be part of Josh Sale. No matter what the Tampa Bay Rays outfield prospect achieves in his career, he’ll be remembered for two mistakes that cast him as a misfit and a wild child.
He’s 22 years old, plenty of time to grow into the man he will become, but he must work to rehab his image off the field at an age where he remains a work in progress.
Part of the process happened Wednesday. There Sale stood in the Rays’ clubhouse at Tropicana Field, answering hard questions about an embarrassing suspension imposed last May for conduct detrimental to the organization, after he posted a Facebook update berating a stripper. The incident occurred briefly after he was assigned to High-A Charlotte, following a 50-game suspension for testing positive for methamphetamine and an amphetamine in August 2012.
Sale, for those reasons, was the largest attraction of the Rays’ winter development program. He handled himself well before the large group of media gathered near his stall. He showed remorse. He revealed regret.
Mostly, he sounded like a player who was eager to return to the game that gives him purpose and direction. He knows the past includes mistakes, but he can change how others throughout baseball and beyond view him.
"At some point," Sale said, his hands stuffed in his jeans, "everybody has to grow up."
That’s what he must show in the months ahead. Sale remains suspended, though Mitch Lukevics, the Rays’ director of minor league operations, expects Sale to play sometime this year somewhere in the system.
Whenever Sale returns, the responsibility will be on him to show the self-reflection of the past seven months was put to good use. He credited his family and Vince Lodato, a local sport psychologist, as his largest support system. The Seattle native spent most of his time away from the game at home in the Pacific Northwest, where he continued to train and collect himself for a return.
Still, this will be a large task. The work to come will test Sale’s will, focus and discipline.
Statements like, "Making myself a better person off the field will greater my chances to produce well on the field," sound good in January after a light workout when the stakes are low. But his true obstacle will come when he returns to a professional life where he must police himself.
"I can see him maturing and doing the things he needs to do to be the player that he can be, because he’s an extremely talented player," said Rays infield prospect Richie Shaffer, a first-round pick in 2012. "The future is so bright for him. People do dumb things. I’m sure when I was a young player — if I would have signed out of high school — I may have done some dumb things too."
Recovery from regrettable choices is a process many live. Most athletes collect themselves in college, using those years — like most students — to tinker with life before being entrusted to represent an organization in the adult world.
Sale, meanwhile, was thrust into professional life quickly. The Rays drafted him 17th overall from Bishop Blanchet (Wash.) High School in 2010. He has raw ability — he has hit .238 with 14 home runs and 59 RBI in 134 games in rookie ball and with Low-A Bowling Green — but because of his poor choices, headlines such as "Rays prospect Josh Sale suspended infinitely" and "The Rays suspended jerk prospect Josh Sale" are found in a simple Google search of his name.
At some point, everybody has to grow up.
It’s apparent, however, that Sale has taken time to reflect. On Wednesday, he appeared to be no loose-thinking man of the moment insincere about his lessons gained. He looked far from the goofball portrayed in a popular photo of him spread online, one in which his tongue hangs over the right side of his mouth as his hands are raised above his shoulders.
Instead, Sale seemed regretful, aware.
What was the past year like?
"It put a lot of stuff in perspective," he said. "It was humbling. It was a reality check."
What was it like to receive the call telling him he was suspended?
"It was demoralizing," he said. "But it’s something my actions induced. It’s nothing that could have been avoided."
"Keep your head up," he said. "Don’t always look at the bad, because if you focus too much on the bad things, it’s just going to bring your mental state down. If you don’t have a positive outlook, nothing is going to be positive."
It’s too soon to say whether Sale is changed for good. Many young prospects live growing pains, but most issues in the minor leagues’ lower levels are contained to performance-related concerns: Learning to eat right, dealing with the baseball life’s daily demands, growing as a pro. All are harmless.
That’s a luxury Sale will never enjoy in his climb to larger stadiums. To some, he’ll always be the misguided, inappropriate young man who made a regrettable, public mistake splashed on Deadspin and elsewhere for the world to see.
"I think the past six months have been really eye-opening for him in a number of ways," said Andrew Friedman, the Rays’ executive vice president of baseball operations.
Chances are, Sale will never convince each of his doubters that he’s a more complex man than his mistakes show. Chances are, Sale’s name will bring to mind moments no promising young player should want to duplicate early in his career. Chances are, Sale truly regrets it all.
Still, awareness is the first step in recovery. That’s why Wednesday’s mea culpa was important, movement forward.
Was he wrong? Yes.
Do those actions have to define him forever? Absolutely not.
"It’s hard to fix certain things in life," said Rays infield prospect Jake Hager, a first-round pick in 2011. "But if he starts thinking the way he should start thinking, I think he’ll bounce back and become the player that he was."
In time, Sale will be given that chance, if he behaves. At that point, it will be up to him alone to create a future that makes his past proof of advances made.
Then, a work in progress will become work well done.