USATSI_16794729

Sep 20, 2021; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Jon Lester (31) delivers against the Milwaukee Brewers in the first inning at American Family Field. Mandatory Credit: Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

Terry Francona is on crutches for the next two months, which makes him miserable. He had surgery on his left foot a little over two weeks ago, to ameliorate the effects of a staph infection he contracted in his left big toe last year, and it was so swollen after the operation they had to wait until this week before placing it in a cast.

This is a 62-year-old man who almost certainly is bound for the Hall of Fame but already has had both hips and knees replaced (24 knee operations in all), and for the second straight year was unable to finish out the season as manager of the Cleveland Indians.

“The last two summers have been pretty tough,’’ said Francona, whose last hip replacement surgery came on Aug. 1, right after he stepped aside as manager for the duration of the ’21 season. “Hopefully, I’m coming through it. It’s been a challenge. I hate being on the crutches. But I’m doing OK. I got it done and that was the biggest thing.

“I’ll be all right. I just got to get better. I tried to get through the year and I just couldn’t make it. It’s not good. It’s not pretty. But you know what? I think I’m going to be OK. The Cleveland Clinic, they’re unbelievable. Unbelievable people.’’

But on this afternoon, Francona had not come to the phone to talk about himself. The topic of this conversation was Jon Lester, the 37-year-old left-hander who on Monday night, while pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals, recorded his 200th career victory.

“I got to admit, I was tracking it, and I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness, what a cool thing,’’’ said Francona, who was Lester’s first manager when he broke into the big leagues for Boston in 2006, which was also the year Lester was diagnosed with cancer, bonding player and manager together in an unusually close relationship.

For the 10th time in his 14-year career, Lester appears bound for the postseason, unexpectedly contributing to the Cardinals’ amazing resurgence, a 14-game winning streak they will take into Wrigley Field on Saturday afternoon against the Chicago Cubs. Lester will make the start, his 11th since the Cardinals obtained him from Washington at the trade deadline in a deal that attracted little attention.

In his last eight starts, Lester has gone 4-0 with a 2.76 ERA, pitching at least six innings in four of his last five starts.

“Good for him,” Francona said. “I’m so happy for him. He’s earned the right to enjoy what he’s doing. I was happy he went to St Louis. What a place for him, kind of like baseball-as-good-as-it-gets. I can’t help but pull for him. I mean, I never want him to beat the team I’m with, but other than that I can’t help but pull for him.’’

Lester is already a three-time World Series winner, most recently for the Cubs (2016) and twice for the Red Sox, once with Francona in 2007 and again in 2013, when he beat his current team twice, holding the Cardinals to one earned run in 15 innings over two starts.

He was 22 when he made the Red Sox out of spring training in 2006, after almost being traded away three years earlier by general manager Theo Epstein in a deal for Alex Rodriguez that ultimately fell apart.

“What I remember was in our meetings in spring training, Theo and his guys, there was kind of this running commentary of who was going to be better, Lester or (Jonathan) Papelbon,’’ Francona said. “And I remember listening to these guys talk and thinking, if they’re half as good as the conversation, they’re going to be pretty good.

“And then when you finally get to meet ‘em, it’s really fun when you see guys come to the major leagues for the first time because they’re not really men yet, they’re kind of kids. Then you see them grow up, then you see them turn into men, then you see them turn into fathers.

“It’s like I was playing in this golf tournament two winters ago in Florida and Lester was playing in the tournament and here comes (Lester’s wife) Farrah with their kids and I almost started crying. It’s so cool. When a kid comes to you as a player and he’s a wonderful kid and then you look up 15 years later and he’s a wonderful man, that is pretty cool.’’

It was in the summer of 2006 that Lester began complaining that his back was hurting. He thought the pain might have been connected to a car accident he had on Storrow Drive near the ballpark. But the pain persisted.

“And then we went to Seattle,’’ Francona said, “and his uncle was a doctor and his uncle thought we should get something looked at.’’

Lester was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a blood cancer, which the club announced in the first days of September. “I mean, I was kind of in touch with the family the whole time,’’ Francona said. “I don’t remember exactly how I found out — I think he told me -- but I remember being crushed. I wasn’t expecting that.’’

After weeks of chemotherapy and radiation, the cancer went into remission, and Lester reported to spring training in 2007.

“I can remember when he was coming back, I called his mom and dad,’’ Francona said. “And I said, ‘Hey, just so you guys know, we’re getting ready to really piss your son off, because we’ve got to kind of protect him from himself.

“He was so mad at us. He wanted to pitch, he wanted to make the Opening Day roster. And he was working so hard, but what he had been through, we needed to take care of him. His mom and dad were wonderful people. Some people you just get close to. How can you not, man?’’

Francona made a conscious decision not to burden Lester with a lot of questions about his health.

“We had a deal,’’ Francona said. “I said, ‘Hey, man, I’m not going to bother you but once a week. I’m gonna text you. Just tell me you’re OK.’ And we did that. We did that the whole time.’’

Lester began the season in the minor leagues and was not called up to the big leagues until late July. He made 11 starts for the Sox that summer, going 4-0. But when the Sox swept the Colorado Rockies in the World Series, Lester was on the mound to start Game 4 in Denver.

“It just seemed fitting to me he would be the guy on the mound when we’re going to win this thing,’’ Francona said. “I remember when we took him out of the game. I mean, I probably get all sentimental and everything. He’s out there competing, and I remember kind of putting my hand on his face. 'Hey Junior' – I always called him Junior, I don’t know why — 'You did pretty (bleeping) good.' And I remember almost crying.

“You’re around these guys all the time. You see not only the baseball, but you see the real life.’’

Francona parted from the Red Sox in 2011 after the club collapsed in September and missed the postseason by one game. He was surprised that the Red Sox let Lester go in 2014, first dealing him to Oakland at the trade deadline and then failing to re-sign him as a free agent, the Cubs and Epstein landing him instead.

“They were talking about long-term contracts, but if you’re ever going to bet on a guy, it was him. He could handle Boston. He proved he could be productive there in that environment; not everybody can.

“Obviously, Theo believed in him because he signed him.’’

Lester gave the Cubs six seasons and had one of the best seasons of his career in 2016, when he went 19-5 with a 2.44 ERA, to lead the Cubs to their first Series title in 108 seasons — against Francona’s Indians -- and finished second in balloting for the National League’s Cy Young Award (he finished fourth twice in AL Cy Young voting while with the Red Sox).

The Cubs elected not to re-sign Lester after the 2020 season, and he signed with the Nationals, where he went just 3-5 with a 5.02 ERA. His days appeared numbered. But then came the trade to the Cardinals, and new life.

“He’s accountable,’’ Francona said. “There are reasons you stay in the league as long as he has and you find a way. He’s kind of had to remake himself a little bit. He’s not the power pitcher he was, but he’s got that cutter, breaking ball and slider. It’s just his will to compete. He’s got 200 wins. In today’s game, that’s a lot.

“I laugh when I see him. When he thinks there was a strike and the umpire calls it a ball, you see him put his glove out. I remember with Don Kalkstein (the Red Sox director of mental skills), that was like their way of putting that [pitch] behind him. But I know he’s so pissed inside he wants to kill somebody. I laugh.

“But he competes, man. He doesn’t have to still be pitching, but I’m sure he enjoys it.’’

The morning after Lester won No. 200, holding the division-leading Brewers to two runs on three hits in six innings in a 5-2 Cardinals victory, Francona sent him a text. They exchange texts from time to time, especially if something funny is involved.

“Every time I see him, I say, ‘Junior, do you get bigger every time I see you? I don’t know how a guy your age gets taller.’ He just looks so big.

“I care about this kid a lot. You know we have been through a lot, and he allowed me in on a lot of it. To this day, now when I see him my eyes light up. Even when he was pitching against us in the World Series, when he went out there he looked in and tipped his hat.

“I got an inside view of what it takes. They don’t just grab their glove and pitch. You see all the hard work and everything they’ve done, it makes you proud, man. It makes you happy for him. You don’t lose your affection for people just because they go to different teams.’’

Featured Podcast

See all