Sunday, October 28, 2007

You May Be Rooting Against The Sox Tonight, But You'd Be Hard-Pressed To Root Against The Kid On The Mound

Sometimes people get dealt a dose of reality. Jon Lester downed the whole fuckin bottle.

On August 23rd, 2006, Red Sox rookie lefty Jon Lester shook hands with his teammates in Anaheim after yet another imperfect victory. The 22 year-old kid was now 7-2 but was winning ugly with a ton of walks and a knack for getting into and out of bases loaded jams every time he stepped to the mound. He had the gift of guile. He'd shake off Red Sox hero and universally respected Jason Varitek to throw a 3-2 curve with the bases loaded in a one run game and nail it. While many questioned the kid's command, no one questioned his guts. Four days later Lester was scratched from his next start with a sore back and four days after that 22 year-old Jon Lester wasn't worrying about whether he'd make his next start, he was worrying about whether he'd make his next birthday. Jon Lester was diagnosed anaplastic large cell lymphoma. Those guts of Jon Lester would come in mighty handy.

Flash forward to Spring Training and Lester is running wind sprints and throwing long toss. There's now no traceable sign of the disease in the kid's body but he spent so much time treating it and recovering from it that he isn't in regular baseball shape (ironically, Curt Schilling showed up more out of shape than Lester and he entered the offseason as healthy as he'd been in years). Stories are written and ESPN is calling (Chris Connelly probably was probably nocturnally emitting all winter waiting for this story) and Lester shrugs it all off. He just wants to be treated like everyone else. He's not unaware of the gravity of the disease he conquered he just wants to be one of the guys. He's not looking for excuses and accolades, he's looking for a roster spot. To a man, the entire staff told him to slow down. He basically told them to go fuck themselves. When Tito Francona suggested that Lester take an extended Spring Training and that he'd probably start the year in the minors, Lester told Tito not to make any decisions about him until they broke for the regular season. He wanted the same shot as everyone else. While he ended up starting the season in the minors, Lester didn't get cheated out of a day. Some would have just been satisfied just to make it back to the mound, any mound. This kid wasn't satisfied until he was back in the majors. And when he did get back to the majors on July 23rd--less than one year after being diagnosed with lymphoma--he throws 6 innings of 5 hit ball giving up 2 runs and striking out 6 in a win over Cleveland. That's not a comeback, that's a come-all-the-way-back.

I've struggled with the idea of whether I'd be rooting for this guy so hard if he wasn't my guy or was on a team I hated. I can only speak for myself but all I can think of when of think of Lester's situation is myself in his place. 22 years-old and ripping through lineups in the majors with almost unlimited upside in a town that treats their baseball players like latter day Greek deities. Your entire life is comped and you are riding on frickin air. If there's a better life, I'd love you to tell me about it. And then a sore back becomes a life threatening disease and instead of receiving public pats on the back and shout-outs you're whispered about and eyes are averted. How do you come down from that high to deal so immediately and so viscerally with your own mortality? The hardest parts of dealing with your scariest private moment are now public consumption and it's impossible for people to treat you like a regular guy let alone the athlete they'd come to worship. For me, it's unimaginable. And to even have the balls to attempt a comeback after that sobering event is admirable. Some people would've just taken their money and packed it in and moved on. To have the physical ability to overcome those odds is remarkable in and of itself. And to step on the mound in a major league park and stare down superstars whose toughest offseason moments included whether to bang the blonde, the redhead or the two asians, and to rip through that lineup as if nothing happened is absurd. The mindset it takes to put that stuff behind you and focus and compete is something I find extremely compelling and worthy of praise. It's tough for me to find a reason not to root for the guy even if you can't root for his laundry.

So I guess I'm saying that I understand if you want the Rockies to comeback and shove this series right up the Sox ass. If the tables were turned I'd want that too. But maybe in a place you don't talk about at parties (I've been waiting 6 months to use that line) you will be pulling for the kid who was knocked off the top of the world and is being given the opportunity to climb back up.

(UPDATE: Jon pitched pretty well. His parents certainly approve.)

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