- Gordon Edes, ESPN Staff Writer
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- If you believe a friend, John Lackey may need to revise his self-portrait.
"He calls himself a big country boy from Texas, claims he's a Texan," scoffs Brendan Donnelly, the former Boston Red Sox reliever and Lackey's teammate with the Los Angeles Angels from 2002 to 2006. "But ask him about his place in Newport Beach, and taking up residency in southern California.
"I think over the last several years, he's gotten a little soft on us. Hopefully, he'll toughen up a little bit again before he gets to Boston."
John Lackey, Mr. Softie? The same guy who, when asked how he felt after the Angels lost to the Red Sox in a 2008 American League Division Series, said, "Like I want to throw somebody through a wall"?
The same guy who called a Fenway Park double by Dustin Pedroia in that same series "a fly ball that anywhere else in America is an out, and he's fist-pumping on second base like he did something great"?
The same guy who proclaimed, "We lost to a team that's not better than us," then a year later came out and dominated the Red Sox in Game 1 of what became a three-game Angels sweep?
All right, Donnelly has had his fun, though not as much as Angels manager Mike Scioscia did in spring training a couple of years back when he discovered that Lackey had failed algebra at Grayson (Texas) Community College, the same institution of higher learning in which Lackey passed with flying colors such classes as varsity baseball and "country, pop and rock." Scioscia called Lackey's mother, a teacher, and assured her that he would address the matter. By this time, of course, Lackey already was six seasons into his big-league career.
As Mike DiGiovanna of the L.A. Times tells it, Scioscia invited some brainy mathematics graduate student to administer an algebra test to Lackey, after Scioscia informed Lackey's teammates of his "F" by posting his grades on the clubhouse wall.
Lackey explained the bad mark by saying he'd blown off the final exam, which came just five days before he was drafted by the Angels. Besides, at last check, there's nothing wrong with his counting ability, not after signing a five-year, $82.5 million deal with the Red Sox last December.
So it's time for Donnelly to come clean, too, with his own portrait of what the Red Sox are getting in the 31-year-old right-hander from Abilene, Texas.
"He's one of my top five all-time teammates," Donnelly said. "We came up from Double-A together. I was older, but Lackey, if you want to win a game, just give him the ball. Nothing fazes him. He's a gamer, from start to finish."
San Diego Padres manager Bud Black, who played with Terry Francona and John Farrell in Cleveland and was the Angels' pitching coach when Lackey arrived in the big leagues in 2002, said the Angels had no qualms about pitching the rookie in Game 7 of the World Series against Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants.
"We had a choice," Black said. "We could have used Ramon Ortiz on regular rest. But we knew John, we'd seen John down the stretch, we saw him win Game 4. I remember saying to Mike and the rest of the coaches after he won Game 4, 'If we get to a Game 7, I recommend we pitch John.' And Mike goes, 'Absolutely.' It was a no-doubter, even though he was a rookie and pitching on three days' rest for the first time all season."
Lackey held the Giants to a run on four singles and a walk in five innings before Scioscia lifted him. Donnelly, another rookie, was one of three relievers who preserved the victory for Lackey, clinching the first Series title in franchise history and making Lackey the first rookie starter to win a World Series Game 7 since Babe Adams in 1909.
"He'd already established himself as a go-to guy," Donnelly said. "Now he goes out and makes the biggest start in Angels history. We knew he was tired, but he got us through five, and we pieced the rest of it together.
"Nothing bothers him. The fans in Boston know baseball better than anybody, and they respect the effort. I'll say this: They'll never sit back in their seats and wonder if Lackey gave everything he's got. That's not going to happen."
It's virtually impossible to miss how Lackey is feeling when he's on the mound. At 6-foot-6 and a listed 245 pounds, he's impossible to miss, period, even before he starts stomping around, throwing up his arms, glaring at a misplay, acting aggrieved when the manager dares to take him out of the game.
For many pitchers, that act would wear thin with teammates. Not so for Lackey. Black offers an insight why.
"He didn't pitch much in high school," Black said of Lackey, whose football coach at Abilene High didn't want his star quarterback throwing too many fastballs. "He played mostly first base. Even when he was at Grayson, he played first base and pitched. I think even when he got up to the big leagues, he viewed himself as a player who pitched.
"I think he feels as if he's in the trenches with those guys, and it probably works both ways. The position players realize he's in the trenches with them.
"He shows his emotion, but they know he demands a lot of himself, and demands a lot of his teammates as well. To this day, he shows emotion on the field, but everyone knows John is about team. Guys love playing with him. And he's not afraid to dress down another pitcher, either."
There were times, Black said, when he and Scioscia needed to remind Lackey that he could not allow his emotions to cause him to lose focus.
"But I never wanted to take that out of John, and neither did Mike," Black said.
When Lackey played football at Abilene High, his first start -- as a sophomore -- came against Odessa Permian, a six-time state champion and the school immortalized in the book/film/TV series "Friday Night Lights."
"That was his claim to fame," Donnelly said. "He'd be sure to bring in the videos for all of us to watch."
He also was the starting center on his high school basketball team.
"He's just a good athlete," Black said. "I remember we were in Cleveland once, it was during a rain delay, and there are Ping-Pong tables down beneath the clubhouse. I'd played a lot of pingpong growing up, and in college and stuff, and I was winning some games. All of a sudden I saw John playing and I'm thinking, 'I'm in trouble.'
"He whipped me. I don't think he's lost in the last four or five years."
(Wait till Pedroia hears this. The Sox second baseman fancies himself quite the pingpong player, so a spring-training smackdown is all but inevitable.)
Donnelly, who pitched for the Sox in 2007 but whose elbow gave out at midseason, said he and Lackey spoke before Lackey signed with Boston. They have the same agent, Steve Hilliard.
Lackey has had little success in Fenway Park, going 2-5 with a 5.75 ERA. But Donnelly dismissed the notion that Lackey has little use for the place.
"If you're a visitor, it's not an easy place to play," Donnelly said. "I don't think he hated pitching there, I think he hated losing. We came through there and lost more games than we won on a regular basis. I think he'll love pitching there, now that he's on the right side.
"He asked me how I liked Boston, and I told him I felt like a 5-year-old kid again going out there. A whole other animal. Crazy. It made the game fun again overnight."
Lackey was not among the early arrivals in camp, but showed up Wednesday afternoon. The official reporting date is Thursday. He'll be joining a rotation that includes Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Jon Lester. Add Lackey, and you're talking about four pitchers who have all won at least one World Series game, have all won at least 17 games in a season, and have all struck out at least 199 batters in a season.
"He's a special talent -- a lot like Beckett, actually," said Donnelly, who was around for Beckett's finest season in Boston, 2007, when he won 20 games and was untouchable in the postseason. "Hand him the ball, and he'll give you a chance to win every time he goes out there."
Lackey missed the first six weeks of last season with a strained forearm. In his first start back, he lasted two pitches. The first went behind Texas leadoff man Ian Kinsler. The second hit him in the ribs, and Lackey was ejected, protesting all the way.
Mr. Softie? Not so fast.
"He has an aggressive style," Black said. "A good hard fastball, a hard breaking ball. His mindset is to attack."
His style, Black said, should play well in Fenway.
"He likes the big games, he likes that intensity, he feeds off the emotions of the situation," Black said. "He craves the big moment. And where he is now in his career, with the experience and success he has had, he's going to be fine."
Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.
8hMatt Walks, ESPN.com