Maybe it sounded worse than it was. Jon Lester said that much four years ago and again Wednesday.
Maybe it wouldn’t play as a great PR move right away. But maybe it’s just what the Cubs need as a next big target in their hunt for October.
Anybody up for a beer-and-chicken reunion in the Cubs’ starting rotation?
Long before Jason Hammel’s leg injury Wednesday highlighted the Cubs’ concerns over their starting pitching depth, veteran right-hander John Lackey has looked to insiders like a fit for a Cubs team trying to ascend from intriguing upstarts to bona fide contenders in 2016.
League sources say the Cubs already appear to have stepped up efforts to find starting pitching in the wake of Hammel’s injury, which could result in a DL move when the team reveals results from an MRI Friday.
But regardless of what they can get done this month, Lackey could be the kind of fit and impact acquisition over the winter that could make passing on nine-figure names like David Price and Jordan Zimmermann feel like good business.
“It wouldn’t have to be too long of a deal, I guess,” said the St. Louis Cardinals’ 36-year-old starter, “me being an older guy.”
And if it reunited two of the key figures from the beer-and-chicken controversy that coincided with the 2011 Red Sox’s historic collapse in Theo Epstein’s final season in Boston?
“That would be awesome,” said Lester, the Cubs’ big-money ace who considers Lackey “my brother” and challenges anyone who criticizes Lackey’s character or clubhouse value – no matter how Boston media painted both after revelations they drank beer and ate fried chicken in the clubhouse during games they weren’t pitching during their team’s epic collapse.
“That’s something that we always have as a stigma,” said Lester, who reached out to several Boston media members to “set the record straight” in the immediate aftermath of those reports. But being there and actually being part of it, I know what actually went on, and it wasn’t to the extreme that was written.
“It was the topic. It was what the blame went to because we didn’t perform. And that’s fine,” Lester said. “I think if you ask any of those guys who were part of it, we take full responsibility of it, and that’s all you can really do.”
If injuries and the worst baseball of their season hadn’t knocked them out of the playoffs on the final day of the season, the beer-and-chicken revelations might even have been afforded the same kind of glory and mythology that the 2004 Red Sox players got for their pregame shots of Jack Daniels before the ALCS clincher and each World Series game that championship October.
“I tried to use that analogy with one of the media guys [in Boston], and they didn’t really take too kindly to it,” said Lester, speaking for the first time at length since signing with the Cubs about the purported breach of trust and character issues raised in Boston when he, Lackey and fellow starter Josh Beckett were described drinking in the clubhouse instead of being with teammates in the dugout during games.
“Anything we did that year, probably 29 out of 30 teams do what we did. I don’ think there was anything that was excessive,” said Lester, who at the time admitted the occasional “ninth-inning rally beer” while defending himself and teammates against the idea they backed off their work or weren’t prepared for starts.
“I don’t think there was anything that was out of the norm of baseball related deals,” he said Wednesday. “I think it just got blown out of proportion. It was kind of a perfect storm for that to happen with the collapse and all that.
“Like I said then, and I say now, I take full responsibility for it. I answered all the questions as best I could, and we tried to move on from it.”
The bottom line is that a Cubs front office who knows Lester as well as any in the game, believed enough in Lester to commit a six-year, $155 million contract to make him the centerpiece of its competitive turnaround.
And that same front office knows Lackey almost as well as Lester does.
“I know if you ask anybody around the game that has ever played with him, they would say the same as I say about him, nothing but good things: competitor, great teammate, great clubhouse guy,” Lester said. “And I would hope that would also be said about me. And just because of whatever happened in ’11, that doesn’t tarnish that by any means.”
The Cardinals believed enough in that to trade for Lackey last July, and he’s on the way to a second consecutive October in their playoff rotation.
Make no mistake: Lackey is on the Cubs’ radar as they evaluate the acquisition market through their ever-moving 18-month window.
One Cubs official said he’d “love” adding Lackey – who has twice won World Series clinchers — to a rotation that already has a playoff-caliber front end.
Lester, who as a free agent last winter asked Lackey about the Cardinals, said Lackey has asked him more recently about what it’s like playing for the Cubs.
And not only does Lackey have a relationship with Cubs president Epstein, but he also said he believes in the staying power of the Cubs’ young core and the team’s direction.
Perhaps as important as anything: He already showed a willingness to get creative with Epstein on a contract – which could be a key to the Cubs’ next big splash if ownership can’t or won’t significantly increase the payroll for the first time since the Ricketts family bought the team.
The Cubs finished second in the pursuit of free agent James Shields in February after offering to creatively structure a three-year, back-loaded $60 million deal to accommodate their payroll projections.
Lackey makes the minimum MLB salary this year as a term of the contact he signed in Boston, stipulating the option year at that price if he spent significant time on the DL for the injury the Red Sox physical revealed.
Lackey pitched the entire ill-fated 2011 season with a blown elbow, taking cortisone shots to keep going, until undergoing Tommy John surgery afterward.
“It wasn’t pretty at times. I know he had a high ERA [6.41] that year,” Lester said. “But that’s the kind of guy he is; he takes the ball every five days regardless of how he’s feeling. You know you’re going to get that competiveness.”
By 2013, Lester and Lackey combined to win three of their four starts in a six-game World Series victory over the Cardinals.
“Everybody gets enamored by superstardom,” Lester said. “Like Zimmermann and Price and [Johnny] Cueto are what everybody’s going to talk about this offseason.”
Then there’ll be that grizzled Texan, who beat Lester Monday (before, yes, drinking “all of his [beer] at his house”), and who may have set the tone for a sweep of the Cubs two weeks ago with a first-pitch shot to Anthony Rizzo’s arm that Rizzo still fumed about days later.
Lester compares Lackey’s edge and game-day fight — which also included a face-off with Cubs coach Eric Hinske during a game last year — to one-time teammate and pending free agent Jeff Samardzija and Samardzija’s “football mentality.”
Lackey won Game 7 of the 2002 World Series as a rookie for an Angels team that had Joe Maddon as a bench coach, and won the decisive Game 6 in 2013, in his 33rd start after Tommy John surgery, with catcher David Ross behind the plate.
He pitched in 14 postseason games in between, two since, said he had a “great” relationship with Epstein and that he’d certainly be open to reuniting with “one of my best friends in the league” in the Cubs’ clubhouse. “It could happen for sure,” he said.
“I think he’s going to be the sleeper of this offseason,” Lester said. “I’m biased, but I’d love to see him over here.”