Six years ago this December, Jon Lester took a chance. One of baseball’s true aces, he made the decision not only to sign with the Cubs, but to be the sign of change at the corner of Clark and Addison.
As the No. 1 starter, he lent credibility and a winning pedigree to a young, hungry team. Two seasons in, he helped them reach the ultimate goal of breaking a 108-year drought and capturing a World Series title.
He has etched his name as the Cubs’ greatest free-agent signing — possibly the greatest free-agent signing in Chicago sports history.
“I didn’t think six years would go this fast,” he said.
"I didn't think six years would go this fast." An emotional night for Jon Lester in what might have been his final start at Wrigley. He said it was especially hard with no fans in the stands. pic.twitter.com/2bAkjB9osw— Krista Ruch (@KristaCBS2) September 17, 2020
No standing ovation. No curtain call. No final tip of the cap. After Lester finished his last inning Wednesday in the Cubs’ 3-2 win over the Indians at Wrigley Field, he simply walked off the mound. After all his contributions, his final regular-season outing at Wrigley didn’t allow for a proper farewell.
He had a different look in his eye after the game, emotional about what could have been his final start at home, depending on how the wild-card series takes shape. With no fans in the stands because of the pandemic, he wasn’t able to show his appreciation to a sellout Wrigley crowd — the kind that had roared when he got out of jams or got a big strikeout on a sunny afternoon.
“I think that’s probably the most frustrating part for me,” Lester said. “Going back to , I didn’t really get to walk off the field like I wanted to at Fenway Park [with the Red Sox], and obviously [Wednesday] didn’t quite go the way I wanted, to have an empty stadium. Not really how I envisioned possibly my last start here.
“A lot of things on my mind. This year hasn’t been easy for a lot of reasons. And I’m not sitting here saying, ‘Woe is me,’ because there’s a lot of people worse off than me. But, you know, [I have] a lot of emotions coming into this and don’t really know what to say or how to take it. A lot of uncertainties going forward.”
Lester, 36, is in the final year of the six-year, $155 million deal he signed in 2014 and is set to become a free agent after the season unless the Cubs pick up his $25 million option.
His effect on his teammates hasn’t been taken for granted. Shortstop Javy Baez was in just his second season in the majors when Lester arrived in Chicago and has taken in all he can from Lester over the last five years.
“I’ve learned a lot from Jonny,” Baez said. “I talk to him a lot. I learned a lot from him — the way he sees the game. The way he prepares. The way he’s got a routine and all that stuff.
“We share conversations — not just me and him [but also] some of our teammates, and it’s impressive to see a guy come this far and still pitching. The game has changed a lot and he’s still doing his thing and is still throwing the ball really well. . . . A tip of the cap to Jonny.”
No one knows exactly what lies ahead for Lester. But if he’s gone, he won’t be forgotten.
“We all play this game because we love it — we all play this game to compete to win, and he embodies that,” outfielder Jason Heyward said. “Anything else can be going on in the world, but when you step in between those lines, you go out there, give it your all and get a ‘W’ for your team. That, to me, is Jon Lester.”