EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 3, 2006

Lester not alone in his fight

Rob Bradford

Bradford Files

For three months, Jon Lester has been bombarded with the best wishes of the world. Wednesday was his time to give back.

One day before undergoing his fifth round of chemotherapy treatment for the non-Hodgkin's lymphoma the Red Sox pitcher was diagnosed with on Aug. 31, Lester met with an old friend, Johnny DuRocher.

DuRocher, a Graham, Wash., native who had known Lester since the two started playing competitive baseball and basketball, had excelled in his own right athletically, serving as the backup quarterback for the University of Washington football team. But last week, the junior found out he had more in common with his old friend than just athletic achievement.

While being tested for a concussion suffered during the Huskies' Nov. 11 loss to Stanford, DuRocher was diagnosed as having a benign brain tumor in the back of his head. The accidental discovery was eerily similar to Lester's, whose diagnosis was fast-forwarded thanks to a back pain originally perceived to be caused by an Aug. 18 automobile accident on Storrow Drive.

Then, just 24 hours before Lester's next wave of treatments and DuRocher's brain surgery, the pair of 22-year-olds was found meeting in Seattle for lunch. Suddenly, after crates of supportive letters, T-shirts, and flower arrangements, it was the pitcher who was serving as the support system for one of the first friends he originally leaned on in late August.

"They went out to lunch and talked about what Johnny was going through since they were both kind of going through the same experience," said Lester's father, John. "Even though Johnny knows it is benign, to have a golf ball-sized tumor in the back of your brain is a scary thing."

Lester, the oh-so-promising left-hander who had consistently displayed the kind of courage on a big league mound usually not found in rookies, knew just how therapeutic an outpouring of love and understanding could be. It's a lesson the hurler started learning the minute word got out regarding his battle with the usually treatable form of cancer.

"It's been a constant outpouring," said John Lester. "Starting with the Red Sox organization stepping up to the plate from the time the whole thing started in August. Right from when we found out something was wrong, (Sox manager) Terry Francona met with me and lent his support. (Boston general manager) Theo (Epstein), (Red Sox owner) John Henry, everybody. ... John Henry sent his airplane out and flew us back (from Washington to Boston). Jonathan talks to Tito (Francona) just about every day. It's all pretty amazing."

As seemingly unimaginable as Lester's diagnosis appeared to his family, the subsequent reaction has been nearly as astonishing.

Initially, there was the care that was taken by the team, allowing the young pitcher to take up a private room at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute with a guard outside of his door. Also from the start have been the constant support and understanding from one of the Red Sox's team physicians, Dr. Larry Ronan, who has done everything from making arrangements for the Lesters at his favorite Italian restaurant near the hospital, Antonio's, to keeping in constant communication with their son throughout his treatments.

Then, not long after the diagnosis became public, came the ultimate message that the level of support just might be on a bit of a grander scale than initially anticipated.

"The (New York) Yankees sent flowers that first week. They were the only organization (other than the Red Sox) to do so," John Lester said. "That was great. I don't know who it was in the organization, but somebody sent him a large (bouquet), saying that they were rooting for him. That's kind of cool. People tell me it could even have been (New York owner George) Steinbrenner."

The first month was just a constant wave of greetings, hundreds and hundreds of them. The influx of letters might have slowed down a bit, but they continue to come, as is evidenced by the 20 or so arriving in the Lester mailbox Thursday via the Red Sox.

For Lester, the thought of those sending everything from cards to religious medals to homemade pillows to T-shirts is mind-boggling. But, according to his dad, the messages have also offered a reminder of a past he wants to replace with a much brighter future.

"He doesn't read a lot of them because it is a reminder, and when you're going through it, you don't need a reminder," said John Lester, whose wife, Kathie, sorts through virtually all of the mail. "Believe me, he really, really appreciates the support. But sometimes it's hard, because you don't want people to feel sorry for you. You like the support, but you don't want to be reminded of it three or four hundred times. He has picked out a few and sent pictures and baseballs back."

And some of those letters Lester has latched onto offer glimpses of a life the pitcher most likely never would have seen if not for his current plight.

There was his 12-year-old cousin who recently relayed the message that when asked what he wanted for Christmas, he said for Lester simply to get well. (He put that one up on the refrigerator.) A boy from nearby Mercer Island sent a picture of himself with the ball Lester had thrown to him during batting practice before a Mariners game with the Red Sox. (Of course, it took the long way to Tacoma, heading across the country to Yawkey Way before coming back to Washington.)

And then came the real heart-wrencher.

"One that caught my attention came from a lady who had cancer and didn't have a really good chance," John Lester said. "She wrote a letter to Jonathan which said she wasn't given a good chance to survive, but her son was a baseball player and she made it her goal not to miss any of his games. She would almost not be able to function, but she would still make it to the games.

"Her son was a good pitcher, but just an average hitter. One time he got the hit that won the game. The first thing he did was come out from the dugout and give his mother the ball. At the end of the whole story, it said that her son had now graduated from high school and she was in remission. She said that she will now be watching for Jonathan to come back, and that what he needs to do is to give his mom a ball from that first game he pitches in Fenway. She said for his mom to keep an open space for that ball.

"We were all sitting there, just saying, 'Wow!' "

Another thing that has been gratifying for Lester has been the constant communication with members of the Red Sox, such as Curt Schilling and Mike Timlin. Although at one point members of the organization were being so respectful in regards to his privacy that the pitcher called Francona saying, "I like to be bugged. Have somebody call me."

While home, he continues to be showered with acknowledgement, with his former high school, Bellarmine Prep, wanting to hang his jersey on the gymnasium wall, along with constant prayers during Mass at the family church.

Now for Lester, however, there is just one gift left he is hoping to receive - a plane ticket to spring training.

"It was funny; he was talking to a doctor and he asked Jonathan where spring training was," John Lester said. "He told him it was in Fort Myers. The doctor said that was too bad - he had been to Fort Myers. Jonathan told him that as far as he was concerned, Fort Myers was going to be the most beautiful place on earth."