BALTIMORE — By the time he was 24, Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester had thrown a no-hitter, helped win a World Series, and beaten cancer. What he could not do was hold a baby.
The big strong athlete stepped back every time. His left arm could throw a baseball 95 miles per hour but he did not want it cradling a child.
“I would not hold anybody’s baby,” Lester said. “I’m not holding your kid, sorry. My best friend, his little girl was born in October a few years ago and we were there for the offseason and I wouldn’t hold her. Nope, sorry, you keep her.”
Lester just didn’t have a comfort level with kids. His wife, Farrah, was a day-care provider before becoming a pediatric nurse and loved children, but Jon shied away.
Now Lester happily scoops up his two sons, 3-year-old Hudson and 6-month-old Walker, whenever he can. When the Red Sox rolled through the playoffs last fall, Hudson was a regular visitor to the clubhouse and shared in his father’s joy at a second championship.
“I wanted him to be a part of it and remember,” Lester said. “Hopefully he’ll appreciate what it was.”
Lester also embraces children across the country, hosting young cancer patients during visits to Fenway Park and ballparks on the road through an association with the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation.
With the assistance of the Red Sox, Lester contacts children’s hospitals in cities across the American League and, without fanfare, provides them a special day. Facebook is loaded with photos of Lester wrapping his arms around a family and pulling them close.
“We’re trying to raise more awareness through our foundation. Every city has a children’s hospital and a section devoted to cancer. We want to get kids out of there and to the park,” he said.
In 2006, Lester was diagnosed with anaplastic large cell lymphoma, but returned to pitch in 2007 after being cured. That makes him more of a hero to those children than anything he has done on the mound.
“It’s very different, very, very different. I remember being a kid and looking up to baseball players. But to have those kids look up to me is way cooler than being a baseball player,” Lester said.
Lester was so taken with 6-year-old Zein Youssef when they met in Los Angeles last August that he wrote his name on his glove the rest of the season.
“That’s my buddy,” Lester said. “We talked a long time and not once about baseball. Talking to a little kid who seems like a little man because of the bad circumstance he’s in, it’s not something any of us want to be in. But I feel like I was given that opportunity for a reason.”
Zein learned in early March that his cancer was in remission.
“Those days affect you. I check on Zein because you get attachments to those kids,” Lester said. “Man, it’s something.”
Those kids, his own and the patients he befriends, have helped change Lester. The hard-edged young man who pitched his first game for the Red Sox in 2006 is 30 now and a team leader. Professional turmoil and personal growth helped define Lester in ways he’s proud of.
“I’m a little softer now, I can admit that,” he said. “I’ve matured as a person.”
Lester will make his fourth Opening Day start on Monday, facing the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards. He will walk to the mound five months after helping pitch the Red Sox to a championship, winning four of the five games he started in the postseason.
Lester said his body didn’t feel normal again until January, just a few weeks before he had to report to spring training. But it was worth it.
That was something Lester learned from former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, another pitcher who was at his best in the most important games.
“Schill told me the guys who are really good thrive in that situation,” Lester said. “I like having the expectation and responsibility. The coolest part of the playoffs is you forget about everything. As soon as you get on the rubber, you’re fighting to stay on the field. You don’t want the other team to send you home.
“You forget about your sore back. You forget about your sore arm. It’s just find a way.”
Lester and his family live in the small town of Sharpsburg, Ga., amid acres of farmland and forest. It was the perfect place to unwind after the season.
“If you’re not a Brave, they won’t know who the heck you are,” he said. “You can go into Publix and walk around the grocery store and not have to worry about anything. You go off that high of the duck boats where everybody is screaming at you to now you’ve got just your 3-year-old screaming at you. It’s a little bit different.”
But Lester was eager to return, too. He wants to be the leader of the pitching staff and take on more responsibility within the framework of the team. Lester knows the heights of pitching for the Red Sox but also the pain of being part of the 2011 team collapsing then finishing in last place a season later.
“The last few years, it’s been fun watching him turn into what he’s turned into,” teammate Clay Buchholz said. “He’s one of the key members of this team. I think everybody looks up to him and respects his opinion.”
Manager John Farrell was the pitching coach in 2007 and helped map out Lester’s return from cancer. The two are close and Farrell has helped draw leadership qualities out of his ace.
“It has happened in a natural way. If you look at Jon from 2007 to what he is now, there are some things that have changed. But there are some things that have stayed consistent. That’s his work ethic, his determination, and how he takes care of himself,” Farrell said.
“With his status and longevity, his leadership has grown and expanded.”
It was a halting process for Lester, who said his goal early in his career was not to have anybody notice he was in the room. But as he got older, a role that fell to him almost by default became easier to accept.
Lester isn’t the type to pull the team together for a meeting. But he expects other players, particularly the starting pitchers, to follow his example.
“I don’t think anybody comes up to you and says, ‘Hey, guess what, you’re a leader.’ I just put my head down and try to do my work,” he said.
Farrell often describes Lester as a concrete thinker on the mound and off. He wants black-and-white honesty, not ambiguity.
“Just tell me if I’m full of it. If I’m full of it, that’s fine. Tell me and I’ll live with the consequence,” Lester said. “I hate when you come off the mound and somebody says, ‘God, those were good pitches’ and they powder your ass. I need to know the truth.
“The structure makes me tick. Tell me what is wrong and I’ll fix it. That’s the way I’ve always been. That’s the way my dad raised me and that’s the way I work.”
Lester wants to finish his career with the Red Sox, to a point of being willing to take a below-market contract extension. His agents had productive meetings with the Red Sox during spring training before tabling the discussions Saturday so Lester could focus on the season.
Talks are expected to pick up again in the coming months.
To be sure, Lester’s loyalty to the organization will have limits. An extension could be worth $20 million a season over five or six years.
For the Red Sox, there will be risk because of the heavy load Lester has carried. He has thrown 1,232 innings over the last six seasons, more than all but 11 active pitchers. In time, that will diminish the velocity of his fastball and the bite of his cutter.
But Farrell has seen signs that Lester will age gracefully.
“He has shown an ability to adapt to what he has to work with,” the manager said. “You look at his work ethic, his overall strength, and you can project over time that he can sustain similar stuff.
“His personal pride, without a doubt, that is what drives him. We can talk about what a word like ‘pride’ means but without a doubt it’s at the core of Jon Lester.”
That Lester already has accomplished so much won’t change his approach.
“The no-hitter was great. The two World Series were better. What motivates you is the next one,” he said. “You go through what happened in 2011 and 2012 and that motivates you. I have that in the back of my mind.
“I’ve never sucked at anything. I want to get better and not be satisfied where I am. That’s my drive.”
It hasn’t always been perfect for Lester. But it has been honest. In a city that demands much of its baseball players, Lester is comfortable where he stands.
“At the end of the day, trust me, I know the expectations people have of me. My expectations far outweigh those,” he said. “When it’s all said and done, if people say he didn’t do what he should have done, I’ll look them right in the face and say I did everything I could. I worked my ass off every day to get better. Sorry, that’s all I can give you.”