The defining day in Jon Lester’s baseball career was not October 28, 2007, when he became the third pitcher in World Series history to win a series clinching game in his first post-season start. Neither was it May 19, 2008, the day he threw a no-hitter in a 7-0 win against the Kansas City Royals.
It came before he achieved those milestones, on August 27, 2006, only 78 days into rookie season with the Boston Red Sox, when he was scratched from his scheduled start against the Oakland Athletics due to a sore back.
What seemed like a minor, everyday kind of setback for then 22-year-old southpaw turned out to be anything but ordinary. The following day he was placed on the 15-day disabled list, and was sent back to Boston for testing. At the time, Lester’s back problems were thought to be the result of a car crash he was involved in earlier in the month.
On August 31 it was reported that Lester had been diagnosed with enlarged lymph nodes and was being tested for a variety of ailments, including forms of cancer. A few days later, doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital confirmed that Lester had a treatable form of anaplastic large cell lymphoma.
Lester underwent off-season chemotherapy treatments at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. In December 2006, ESPN.com reported that Lester’s latest CT Scan showed no signs of the disease, which appeared to be in remission.
Eleven months from that defining day Lester took the mound for the Boston Red Sox on July 23, 2007, against the Cleveland Indians at Jacobs Field in Cleveland, pitching 6 innings, allowing 2 runs on 5 hits and struck out 6, picking up the win.
Three months later he would win that World Series clinching game for the Red Sox.
Following that season, Lester received the 2008 Hutch Award, given to the Major League player who “best exemplifies the fighting spirit and competitive desire” of Fred Hutchinson, the Detroit Tigers pitcher whose life was cut short by cancer at age 45 in 1964.
It was a miraculous, life-changing comeback for the young pitcher.
“It might be hard to believe, but as difficult as cancer was, in some ways it was good for me,” Lester wrote in a 2013 guest column for CNN.com.
“Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone,” Lester continued. “Even the word ‘cancer’ brings back the nausea and pain, the fear I felt and the heartbreak I saw in my parents’ faces. The smells that fill hospitals and the constant tired feeling that comes with treatment are also permanently stuck in my memory.
But here’s the thing: The disease changed the path of my life in some ways that have been really great.”
In 2011, Lester and his wife, Farrah, started a nonprofit, NVRQT, for “never quit,” to raise money for pediatric cancer research.
When Lester signed a six-year $155 million contract to pitch for the Chicago Cubs this offseason it reunited him with another cancer survivor, the Cubs’ All-Star first-baseman, Anthony Rizzo. The two had met on May 16, 2008, soon after Rizzo, then a minor league prospect in the Boston Red Sox organization, had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It was Cubs president Theo Epstein, then the Red Sox’s general manager, who arranged the meeting.
“Even though it’s not our family, it really is a family when you’re in an organization, and so our hearts are going out to him,” Epstein said in a 2015 MLB Network mini-documentary about the Cubs’ young slugger. “We were panicking a little bit and then when Anthony showed up, he was almost like the calming influence. It was remarkable. We’d just been through it a few years earlier with Jon Lester. Here’s someone who had just got through what Anthony’s now going through and had beat it and was back thriving.”
Lester recalled: “(Epstein) kind of pulled me aside and said we got this 18-year-old kid who was just diagnosed with cancer and he just wants to talk to you.”
For Epstein, it seemed the right move at the right time. “You couldn’t get a better person for (Rizzo) to talk to, so he could feel like he wasn’t the only one and feel like there’s a roadmap back,” Epstein said.
“You could tell he was weak,” said Lester. “You could tell he was just trying to hold himself together. You’re just trying to be as positive as you can for an 18-year-old kid who has all his hopes and dreams ripped away in a 20-minute conversation with a doctor…We ended up sitting in there for almost an hour if not longer and just talked – talked about his fears, my fears, what I went through.”
Three days later Rizzo watched Lester throw a no-hitter. “Our whole family was so happy about that,” Rizzo said. “It’s something I’ll never forget.”
Now the two cancer survivors are teammates, brought together again by Epstein.
It seems obvious why the Chicago Cubs, a team whose 2014 payroll barely topped $89 million, decided to bust open the piggybank and invest $155 million over six years on Lester, a 31-year-old starting pitcher.
There were the numbers all the other teams saw: .634 (winning percentage over nine years), 2.46 (career-best ERA in 2014), three (All-Star appearances), two (World Series rings) and one (no-hitter).
Add them up and they equal a winner. Something the Cubs – a team coming off five straight losing seasons and a 106-year championship drought – sorely need.
But more than the numbers there is that intangible that is character. If the Cubs are going to do something that they haven’t done since 1908, they need not just a winner; they need a leader – someone who can show others how to be a winner. It was the quality that Epstein clearly saw in Lester.
For Lester, who has achieved so much already, the challenge of bringing the Cubs that elusive championship is one that he’s not only ready for but eager to take on.
“Leaving the place you’ve already won and the comfort of that is difficult, but relishing the process of a chance of winning a World Series for a franchise that never has adds that little extra for me, “Lester said at a news conference after signing the franchise-record contract. “To be a part of something like that would truly be special and unbelievable.”
View the MLB Network Presents video about the unique bond new Cubs teammates Anthony Rizzo and Jon Lester share at: