Theo Epstein, who’s in a position to know closely enough, says Jon Lester is quite the changed fellow from the one he shepherded to the Red Sox. And this is a pitcher whom Epstein saw conquer cancer and help the Red Sox to the second of their three World Series triumphs in ten seasons.
Lester in development, Epstein says, began as an “18-year-old kid [who] certainly wouldn’t have been ready for this challenge and everything that comes with it—being one of the lead guys out front, to win a World Series for the first time in over a century.” Now, Lester’s once and present boss says, the lefthander is “very comfortable in his own skin—extremely confident and is in a great place in his personal life with his family, in his professional life, knowing the impact he can have on a baseball field, both on the field and in the clubhouse.”
As a Red Sox Lester’s lone regret, other than perhaps the lowball they offered him talking contract extension last spring, was that he didn’t make it in time to be part of the Red Sox’s 2004 curse bust. Now a Cub, Lester seems like he can’t wait to put paid to whatever it is that’s kept the Cubs from winning a World Series since the Roosevelt Administration—Theodore’s.
He knew what he might be getting into long before the Cubs’ brass impressed him with how they dealt with him as a man as well as as a pitcher. When he went to Oakland at mid-2014, he got plenty of skinny from two other erstwhile Cubs, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, the latter of whom has returned to Wrigleyville. Clearly he knew he’d be going someplace special, regardless of the accompanying heartbreak history.
But when he was introduced formally as a Cub Monday, Lester seemingly couldn’t wait to dial up his inner Curt Schilling.
He didn’t say he guessed he hates the crosstown White Sox or even the next-state Cardinals now—Schilling becoming a Red Sox for 2004 said “I guess I hate the Yankees now”—but Lester isn’t exactly shy about hoping the Cubs’ 107-year-to-be rebuilding effort concludes properly, and soon enough.
“In the end,” he told the press gathering, “it’s baseball. You’ve got to get the outs and you’ve got to make the pitches. And whether that involved a goat or a dead Babe Ruth, or whatever it does, it goes along with records and curses are made to be broken.”
“I want to be a part of bringing the first World Series in modern history to Boston,” said Schilling after he waived his no-trade clause to go to Boston, under the same kind of personal, men-to-man more than men-to-pitcher influence Epstein and his consigliori Jed Hoyer eventually deployed for Lester. “And hopefully more than one over the next four years.”
Ol’ Blood and Sox was just that in 2004 and 2007. Lester may have felt disappointed that he came along almost a year too late for the 2004 frolic, but he was a teammate of Schilling for 2007. And he understands the meaning that single acts have upon fans whose teams are returning to the mountaintop after too many generations and too much extraterrestrial calamity.
“Those will be legends forever,” he says of the 2004 Red Sox, few (if any) of whom will have to pay for many if any of their own steak dinners in Boston again. “This takes nothing away from Dave Roberts, but you look at him and he stole one base (down three games to none in Game Four, 2004 American League Championship Series, launching the great four-straight overthrow of the Yankees) and the guy’s a legend. He had a great career up that point, but now he’s a legend.”
Lester has had a fine career to date during which he’s approached greatness several times. He’s also emerged, little by little, from a shell Epstein remembers only too well: ”Jon’s always been an incredibly respectful, high-character kid. But he kept to himself. As he said, he’s not the most vocal. He wasn’t, early in his career, a huge presence in the clubhouse. He was very respectful of the veterans.
“But we [with the Cubs] noticed, right off the bat, how much more confident he was, how much more interactive he was, how comfortable he was in his own skin. He was even funny, which is not something he was accused of early in his career. There was a marked difference.”
Epstein remembers especially the September 2011 Red Sox collapse. The one after which Epstein and manager Terry Francona fired themselves before they could be fired thanks to the rats abandoning their own sinking ship. The one during which several pitchers were shown to have been almost more interested in chicken and beer in the clubhouse than inducing outs from the mound, over which Lester proved the most accountable.
The collapse that provoked the guaranteed-to-implode import of Bobby Valentine to manage a 2012 Red Sox club that were badly addled going in and suffered injuries enough in the early going. Valentine saw a clubhouse afire and called in a gasoline truck.
“He came through that as well as anyone possibly could,” Epstein says of Lester, speaking both of the 2011 collapse and the Valentine nightmare, part of which nightmare involved Lester indirectly. Valentine left Lester in against the Blue Jays, on a day Lester lacked his best, and Lester took an unconscionable eleven-run beating before Valentine saw fit to find him early relief. It provoked Textgate—the demand for a players’ meeting with team brass (which they got) reputed to be sent from Adrian Gonzalez’s cell phone.
Valentine, of course, was executed after season’s end, and John Farrell was brought in to do exactly as he did do—still the bristling waters and let the ship sail properly. And that it did, all the way back to the Promised Land, with considerable aid and comfort from Lester’s pitching.
“2013 was another step” for Lester, Epstein says, “because it saw him became The Guy that others looked to on the team to take the mound in the biggest situations. He had great leaders alongside him in the clubhouse and became part of the core group. And getting traded. When he walked into that Oakland clubhouse [in mid-2014], he saw teammates looked at him with adulation, and looked at him as The Guy, which was new for him because he had come up with the Red Sox and he was always one of the homegrown guys.
“So I think those factors and his great family situation, the stability in all phases of his life, gave him a new outlook. It really showed. I think he’s fully matured in terms of his confidence, on and off the field.”
And there was Lester Monday, smiling under a Cubs cap, wrapped in a Cubs jersey, proclaiming for one and all in Cub Country to hear that curses are made to be broken. ”I didn’t get to be a part of it in ’04 and I know how disappointed I was,” he told the gathering. “I was a long way away. But to see that and see what it did for the organization, see what it did for the town. I know that was part of reason that led us [to Chicago]—that lure of wanting to be part of that.”
New sheriff in town? The Cubs just might have found themselves a new commissioner. Which should make mayor Epstein’s and chief Joe Maddon’s jobs an awful lot simpler. Maybe even miraculous, while they’re at it.