BOSTON — Don’t expect that when John Lackey leaves Boston a year from now, when his contract unofficially expires (the Red Sox own the option for 2015), that he leaves with a big wave good-bye.
A thumb to the nose is probably more like it.
To put it politely, the 6-foot-5 Texas native doesn’t appears to like “us” and hasn’t forgiven “us” for what he endured the previous three years, when he either stunk, was hurt, or both.
He was given a few opportunities yesterday, two relaxing hours before the tension-filled opener last night, to wax poetic about his unexpected worst-to-first-like climb here and how he has finally won over “us.”
At one point he was asked what he would tell an impending free agent of his opinion of playing for the Red Sox.
He didn’t even nibble at it.
“I’m not going to get into all that,” said Lackey. “I’m focused on trying to win a ball game tomorrow.”
Contrast that with what starter Jake Peavy said a few weeks ago, that he was born to pitch for this city and these fans, and you understand his lingering angst.
There has always been an interesting dichotomy about Lackey. His teammates don’t like him; they adore him.
“Coming up as a rookie I looked up to him,” said Sox first baseman Mike Napoli of his time with Lackey with the Angels. “He was a veteran to me, showed me the way on the field, off the field, how to carry myself. So to see what he’s gone through and to bounce back like this, it’s awesome. It’s a good feeling just to see a friend be able to overcome some stuff and get healthy and be who he is.”
There are stories galore about Lackey picking up tabs of younger players at every opportunity. He loves to hang out with “the guys” on the road.
Heck, Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon said that Lackey stepped up and helped pay for his daughter’s wedding when he was a coach with the Anaheim Angels.
We didn’t know all of those nice things.
What we knew was his inconsistentcy and unimpressive first season here in 2010 (14-11, 4.40 ERA), followed by the disastrous 2011 season (12-12, MLB-worst 6.41 ERA), and his incessant whining, excuses and complaining.
“I’ve never been around a player where the perception inside the clubhouse was so different than it was outside,” said Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington. “He’s a really good guy, a great teammate. He pitched when he was hurting. He did that because we needed him. People don’t give John enough credit for that.”
If Lackey does what he did the other night against Justin Verlander, which is go pitch-for-pitch with a flame-throwing ace — tonight, it’s Michael Wacha and his 98 mph fastball — and hand the ball to some very capable relievers with the Sox tied or ahead, it probably will mean the Red Sox are in complete control of the World Series or he saved this franchise’s butt again.
The irony is that long before rumblings about Clay Buchholz’s tired shoulder (has anyone heard of that injury at a World Series?), the vast majority of people that previously booed Lackey’s existence wanted him to be the Game 2 starter.
In other words, he has won New England over.
“I’m not really concerned about some of that outside stuff,” said Lackey yesterday. “I know who I was in the clubhouse and where I stood with the guys in the clubhouse. That means a lot more to me than about anything.”
As for the surprising rebound, not everyone was surprised by Lackey’s production almost since opening day (10-13, 3.52 ERA).
Cherington said one of the bright spots from last year’s 69-win debacle was the fact that Lackey was around, apparently working his keister off.
“He was incredible. We saw how hard he was working,” said Cherington. “I remember talking to John (Farrell) before spring training. He told me that John Lackey would be the most important player this season ... And the fact that he rejuvenated his career in a place like Boston says something about him. Not many players can do that.”
Indeed. Bill Buckner tried, but the fact that he left for nearly two decades still holding a grudge proves it’s not easy. We are very, very tough on our professional athletes. At least the ones that underachieve (see Lackey’s 5-year, $82 million contract).
But now, with the lights the brightest in October, there is irony laced in this relationship. Lackey and the people he resents are very similar — passionate about winning and baseball.
If time doesn’t heal all wounds, maybe a World Series win and eventual title will.
You can email Bill Burt at firstname.lastname@example.org.