Pocket Aces

“One night I’m icing my shoulder,” Lester recalls. “And about four other guys and I just sat and talked about baseball till, like, 2 in the morning. They’re asking me questions, they’re 18 or 19, and they’re looking up to me the way I’m looking up to Josh or Schill. Just sitting in the clubhouse and talking to other guys, talking about baseball.” Their passion put a lot in perspective. “Really helped me get back and appreciate exactly what I do,” he says. Baseball, in other words, went back to being a game.

Lester’s numbers in Greenville: three starts, an ERA of 2.08. “He was having fun,” says Gabe Kapler, his manager during the quick stint there.

From Greenville, Lester kept having fun, coasting through a rehab assignment in Portland, pausing in Pawtucket, and receiving the call from Fenway in July 2007. On October 28, he won the deciding game of the World Series against the Rockies. Now that was fun.

By the time the 2008 season began, Jon Lester had reached a turning point. His trip back through the minors had taught him to enjoy the game and also not to mope after every loss, or celebrate after every win — including a no-hitter, which came in May of that year against the Royals. His combined 3.31 ERA for ’08 and ’09 earned him a long-term deal, signed in 2009: five years, $30 million. And while many players tend to slack off at the start of a big-money contract, in 2010 Lester climbed as high as he ever had: 19 victories. He’d become the team’s ace.

What has he learned along the way? Don’t lose yourself in the moment. Average out the numbers from your past three healthy years, and that’s more or less where you’ll be at the end of each year, slumps and streaks notwithstanding.

This new perspective has altered how he’s dealt with his illness, too. Nearing five years without cancer, he now knows that he’s an inspiration to other patients — a role that he desperately avoided at the start.
“I don’t want to be Jon Lester, cancer survivor,” he said two years ago. “I want to be Jon Lester, pitcher.”

And today?

“Well, tough shit,” he says now. “I’m going to be a cancer survivor. It doesn’t matter what I think. It took me a couple of years to mature and understand, to figure out that people need to see me that way.”

AS IS SO OFTEN the case with young men who stumble, the misstep was of Clay Buchholz’s own doing. He was an 18-year-old freshman at McNeese State in Louisiana, pitching and playing shortstop. One night in 2003 he and a buddy drove back to his hometown of Lumberton, Texas, dropped through the ceiling of Clay’s old middle school, and, like a couple of Mission: Impossible wannabes, ripped off 29 laptops.

He was short on cash at the time, and the laptops were “just a way to make money,” Buchholz says now (pictured above right), with a trace of an embarrassed smile. “That’s all it was for me.” But this was also a moral felony; it brought shame to his parents, specifically his father, who had to given up on semipro baseball to marry Clay’s mom.