FORT MYERS, Fla. - He was the poster boy for bad behavior last year. In a season of Red Sox woes, nobody sunk lower than John Lackey. Early in the season, Lackey told us, “everything in my life sucks right now,’’ and then things got worse.
Lackey went 12-12 with a hideous 6.41 ERA. His wife battled cancer. He appeared to be showing up his teammates and his manager. He became withdrawn. He called out the media on the night of his final start in New York. After the season imploded in Baltimore, he was outed as one of the ringleaders of the “chicken-and-beer’’ brigade. He underwent Tommy John surgery and was ruled out of the 2012 season. He got divorced.
He never talked about any of it. Always a stand-up guy and a clubhouse leader in eight seasons with the Angels, Red Sox Lackey came off as a reclusive athlete who hates Boston.
Despite all of the above, he chose to rehab with the Red Sox this year. He’s in the clubhouse every day, doing his work, talking only to teammates and clubbies.
Monday morning, in a near empty clubhouse at JetBlue Park (the Sox bus already had left for Clearwater) Lackey agreed to answer a few questions.
He said his rehab is going well.
“It feels better than it did last year when I was throwing,’’ he said. “My doctor doesn’t want me to pitch this year. He says it was pretty messed up and doesn’t think it would be good for me.’’
What will it be like being on the sideline for the entire season?
“It’s going to be different for sure,’’ he said. “It’s the first time it’s ever happened to me, so I don’t know what to expect. I’m just going to kind of hang out, work hard, and support the team a little bit. I still want to be around the team. Still want to be around my buddies and support these guys and help them have a good year.’’
He said he would like to be with the team on most road trips.
Lackey is in the third season of a five-year, $82.5 million contract. He said he “absolutely’’ expects to be in the Red Sox rotation at this time next year.
Asked about the pain of pitching through an injury last year, he said, “There’s certain ways they could help me out with the pain on my start night. But on the days in between I wasn’t feeling so good, I’ll just say that.’’
Lackey pitched six gritty innings in the Sox’ 7-4, 14-inning victory on the final Sunday night of the season in New York. He said he would have been available for a one-game playoff in Tampa if the Sox had needed him.
“I’m not sure if they ever made a decision on that,’’ he said. “It was kind of a day-to-day deal. I could have pitched again, for sure.’’
Was he proud of his final start in the horrible season? “We won,’’ he said. “So that’s all that really matters. I honestly don’t remember how long I went. I’m trying to forget last year for a lot of reasons.’’
He said 2011 was “pretty close’’ to being the worst year of his life, adding, “There’s a lot of things are going to be a fresh start, for sure.’’
Does he feel like a marked man in Boston?
“The only way you’re going to change people’s opinions is to pitch better and win games,’’ he said. “It’s amazing how quickly people will forget if you win.’’
Asked if he thought he received more blame than he deserved, Lackey said, “I’m not going to get into all that. You’re just trying to stir up old stuff. It wasn’t a lot of fun.’’
Was he treated unfairly? “Honestly, things that you guys were saying were some of my least worries last year,’’ he said. “So whatever. What are you going to do? I’m really comfortable with who I am as a person. If you think my performance on the field is who I am, you’re a little twisted.’’
Lackey won Game 7 of the World Series for the Angels in his rookie season. He was usually Mike Scioscia’s Game 1 starter when the Angels made it to the playoffs.
“I’m still that guy,’’ he said. “Nothing has changed. A couple of things get blown out of proportion and people think you’re a different person. That’s just not right.’’
His Red Sox teammates invariably stuck up for him. And they seem sincere.
“A veteran told me a long time ago, you can’t fake your teammates,’’ said Lackey. “The guys in this room know who I am. Does it really matter if it gets out there? All [fans] care about is winning games.’’
He said he has not spoken with Terry Francona since the manager was fired after the season. “There always seems to be somebody who has to take the blame for things,’’ he said. “I absolutely don’t think it was [Francona’s] fault. We didn’t perform well down the stretch. He didn’t pitch any games.’’
At this point in the interview, Josh Beckett appeared at his nearby locker (the stalls of Beckett, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and Lackey are side by side in a corner of the locker room). Comments were exchanged regarding the role of the media covering the Red Sox. Sensing that we were having fun, I submitted that Hub scribes are “all about the good stuff.’’
“I don’t think any of those people exist in that town,’’ said Lackey.
Motioning toward Lackey, Beckett said, “He’s my buddy. Where was he going to go? We’ve got to get him healthy. We’ve got to get him back.’’
A smiling Lackey said, “I didn’t say I was going to talk, but I’ll be around.’’
After Beckett went back to work, I asked Lackey about the chicken and beer. Did Lackey think the portrayal of Sox pitchers was unfair? “For sure,’’ he said. “This is stupid to even bring it back up . . . It was tough for a couple of us that got kind of thrown out there. You kind of wonder where those kind of things come from, first of all. It got blown out of proportion pretty big. I saw Josh a few times during the offseason. What can you do? Even talking about it right now is stupid, because it’s just bringing it back up.’’
But you’ve never talked about it, I submitted.
“And there’s a good reason for that,’’ he said. “All you’re doing is re-hashing it. It kind of went away until you, right now.’’
It never goes away, I offered. Reggie Jackson hit three home runs in a World Series game. Lackey won Game 7 in the 2002 World Series. Good or bad, stuff never goes away.
“I know who I am and I know the truth and I’m OK with it,’’ he said.
Does this mean he has a clear conscience about everything that went down in 2011?
“Guys having a beer after their start has been going on for the last 100 years,’’ Lackey said. “This is retarded. It’s not like we were sitting up there doing it every night. It’s not even close to what people think.’’
What about reports of players drinking in the dugout? “They [media] just see how far they can go,’’ he said. “That’s just a flat-out lie.’’
Is he willing to acknowledge that mistakes were made? “I guess. Sure. They’re being made in every clubhouse in the big leagues, then. If we’d have made the playoffs, we’d have been a bunch of fun guys.’’
I reminded him that he used to be a go-to guy for the media in Orange County.
“Nothing positive ever comes out of saying anything here,’’ he said. “You can’t convince that many people. How do you disprove a negative? I had a different role in that clubhouse.
“What would you do, if you got what I got, going through the stuff I was going through?’’
There’s no easy, snappy answer for that one. I thanked Lackey for his time and wished him well.Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.