Commentary

Lester makes Red Sox proud

Originally Published: October 28, 2007
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

DENVER -- Boston's Jon Lester is more than the winning pitcher in a World Series clincher, a role model for cancer survivors and a popular teammate in the Red Sox's clubhouse. In a baseball season that was long on the improbable and inspirational, he is the last feel-good story standing.

Rick Ankiel, Josh Hamilton and Dmitri Young all had their moments in the summer of 2007, but when the 30-team field had been reduced to a sole survivor, there was Lester, wiping champagne from his eyes and trying to put his amazing odyssey in perspective.

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At age 23, he's a walking endorsement for the power of happy endings.

After being diagnosed with anaplastic large cell lymphoma in August 2006, Lester spent last winter back home in Tacoma, Wash., undergoing treatment. Days and weeks that should have been devoted to preparing for spring training were spent in chemotherapy, and coping with the physical strain and emotional fallout.

A spring of rehabbing and strength work led Lester to minor league stops in Greenville, Portland and Pawtucket, then his 2007 big league debut July 23 in Cleveland, where his parents sat in the stands and watched him beat the Indians 6-2. He was alternately good and bad down the stretch, and he hadn't made a start for the Red Sox since Sept. 26 against Oakland.

So how can you explain the road leading Lester here to Denver, roughly 1,800 miles from the cramped home clubhouse near Kenmore Square, to pitch 5 2/3 shutout innings in a 4-3 Boston victory over Colorado in the Series finale? It was the kind of performance that prompts onlookers to invent new words, because the usual ones don't suffice.

[+] EnlargeJon Lester
Rick Wilking-Pool/Getty ImagesJon Lester delivered a gem -- allowing only three hits in 5 2/3 innings of shutout ball.
"Jon Lester just pitched the clutchiest game I've ever seen pitched in my life," said teammate Curt Schilling.

While Lester seemed too stunned after the game to put his comeback into proper perspective, his teammates, manager and coaches were happy to do the honors.

On one side of the Boston clubhouse, there was pitching coach John Farrell, whose personal interest in Lester transcends arm slots and release times. Three questions into a discourse on Lester, Farrell's voice began to catch, and his eyes filled with tears.

"This is something you could make a movie about, when you think about all the challenges he's faced on a personal level and how much he's persevered," Farrell said. "Not only is it a punctuation mark on how this year has gone, but it is on many levels a personal triumph for him.

"Most of these guys were here last year when Jon was diagnosed, so they know the battle he went through. I think everybody had a piece in this -- from his teammate to the people who prayed for him to those who were with him through his struggles. It was a night for Jon Lester."

A couple of lockers away there was catcher Jason Varitek, talking about Lester while wrapping the World Series championship trophy in a death grip.

"I was just out in the hall, and he greeted his family, and it about knocked me off my feet," Varitek said. "When you think about what he went through and his parents went through -- to potentially lose your child -- baseball is secondary."

It took a roundabout set of circumstances for Lester to be in this position at all. Veteran Tim Wakefield, who would have pitched Game 4, was taken off Boston's roster before the World Series because of shoulder problems. Despite Lester's recent inactivity, his three innings of shutout relief against Cleveland in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series were something that manager Terry Francona and Farrell could file away for future reference.

But if the Red Sox expected five innings of pacing and standing on the top step of the dugout watching anxiously, they were wrong. Lester retired Kaz Matsui on a popup to the mound to start the game, and deftly mixed his fastball, cutter and curve while throwing 59 of his 92 pitches for strikes. And he worked out of every jam.

When Lester walked Garrett Atkins with two outs in the sixth inning and Francona signaled to the bullpen, Red Sox infielders converged on the mound. They tapped Lester on the back and the top of the head with the type of affection typically reserved for little brothers who make you proud.

Still, Varitek wasn't buying that characterization.

"He's not a little brother," Varitek said. "He's a man."

This is going to sound funny. But God blessed Jon Lester with cancer just to show a lot of people that you can overcome something that's so hard in your life you think, 'I'm not gonna make it.' He's going to be able to take his faith in God and the strength God gave him and tell a lot of other people a great story.

--Red Sox reliever Mike Timlin

And his time is about to come. Just as Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury and Kevin Youkilis have made an impact on Boston's lineup, and Jonathan Papelbon has staked his claim on the ninth inning, it won't surprise anyone if Lester and no-hit author Clay Buchholz assume prominent places in the Red Sox's rotation in 2008.

After hugging his parents and looking in vain for a trophy to hug, Lester finally found that wonderful piece of hardware on the field beside the third base dugout. He raised it gleefully over his head, and Boston fans in the box seats erupted in cheers.

All Red Sox players are celebrities in Boston, but Lester knows that his story qualifies him for a different brand of fame. As a lymphoma survivor, he has the power to inspire and be a role model for years to come.

"I don't think anybody in my position would have done anything different," Lester said. "That being said, if I can help out one person who's down in the dumps because they have cancer and it's not going well, maybe they'll say, 'If he could do it, I can do it.' "

An enduring legacy, a champagne shower and the gratification of a job well done. All things considered, Sunday was a pretty good day in the life of Jon Lester.

"This is going to sound funny," said Boston reliever Mike Timlin. "But God blessed Jon Lester with cancer just to show a lot of people that you can overcome something that's so hard in your life you think, 'I'm not gonna make it.' He's going to be able to take his faith in God and the strength God gave him and tell a lot of other people a great story."

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer