ST. PETERSBURG — It was the Facebook post about the strip club that ended Josh Sale's 2013 season, that led to his suspension by the organization and sent the Tampa Bay Rays 2010 first-round pick home to, as Rays farm director Mitch Lukevics said, grow up.
On Wednesday, Sale stood in front of a locker in the Rays' clubhouse and admitted that was the best course of action.
“It was demoralizing,” Sale said. “But it's something my actions induced. It's nothing that could have been avoided.”
The outfielder, taken 17th overall after his senior year in high school, was rated the sixth-best prospect by Baseball America entering the 2011 season. He was named to the Midwest League midseason all-star team in 2012 while playing at Class A Bowling Green, but he saw that season cut short when he was suspended 50 games for testing positive for methamphetamine and amphetamines.
Sale attended the Rays' Winter Development Program in January 2013 and talked about the lessons he learned from his suspension.
But last May, he was suspended indefinitely by the organization after posting on Facebook that he was kicked out of a strip club for throwing 50 cents at a stripper.
“When the (Facebook) thing came out, it was like, 'Come on. You're embarrassing yourself. You're embarrassing the organization.' It was time for him to reflect on his maturation and get his life together,” Lukevics said. “I preach to these kids all the time, life is bigger than baseball. Without life, we have no baseball. I preach that they are a human being more than a baseball player. In Josh's case, it was about the maturation level. 'Come on, it's time to grow up, son.' ”
Sale returned home to Seattle and went about growing up. He said he talked nearly every day to Vince Lodato, the director of the Rays' employee assistance program. He was told to meet certain criteria that neither he nor Lukevics would discuss (the Rays do not allow Lodato to speak with the media).
“I was able to grow up. That's what was really needed to be worked on,” Sale said. “Just me as a person, doing what I could to better myself, because nobody's bigger than the game. The game's bigger than everybody. Making myself a better person off the field will greater my chances to produce well on the field.”
That Sale was invited to attend this week's Winter Development Program is a sign that he is meeting those criteria. He expects to join his teammates for spring training and could be reinstated when the regular season begins.
Andrew Friedman, the Rays' executive vice president of baseball operations, said he's noticed a change in Sale.
“I definitely do. I think the past six months have really been eye-opening for him in a number of ways, and I think he is much better from the time he spent really focusing on himself and not what he can do on the field,” Friedman said. “The hope is once he figures out that part and gets to a sustainable point with his life, it will transfer to on the field as well.”
Sale joined Josh Hamilton as Tampa Bay first-round draft picks to draw a suspension for off-field behavior. Sale said he found inspiration in Hamilton's comeback and from reading Hamilton's biography.
Sale said he thought his days in the organization might have been over when he was first suspended.
“It wasn't far from my mind,” he said.
Lukevics said the Rays were committed to helping Sale. They drafted him because they believed he could be a major-league outfielder, and they still believe that today.
“We care more about him as a human being than a baseball player,” Lukevics said. “All of these kids, no matter what happens, we'll never just send them on their way.”
Sale said he is thankful that the Rays believed enough in him to want to help him work through his issues.
“At some point,” he said, “everybody has to grow up.”
With 29 days until pitchers and catchers report to spring training, Friedman said he is focused on “tinkering” with the roster at positions that need depth ... The Rays released the game times for 2014. The March 31 home opener against the Blue Jays starts at 4:10 p.m. Weeknight games remain 7:10 p.m. starts and Sunday games remain 1:40 p.m. starts. Saturday start times vary between 1:10 p.m., 4:10 p.m. and 7:10 p.m.