ST. LOUIS — You could feel the bitterness. Dare we say, hatred?
In his first interview with Hub reporters since he was traded by the Red Sox last Thursday, John Lackey reluctantly submitted to questions from New England sports media in the Cardinals dugout late Tuesday afternoon. I haven’t felt this kind of loathing since walking into the Adrian Gonzalez/Josh Beckett/Carl Crawford charm-fest in Dodger Stadium last summer.
Sorry, but it’s not just media meanies. Lackey’s got a problem with Boston baseball. Why else would he admit he’s OK pitching for the Cardinals for a contractually-agreed-upon $500,000 next season, but not for the Red Sox.
It’s true. Lackey told the Cardinals he’ll pitch for the minimum next year. But when asked if he would have done the same for the Sox, he answered, “I don’t know about that . . . ”
So there you go. After being paid more than $77 million to go 47-43 in 4½ seasons with the Red Sox, Lackey is not sure he would have honored his contract with Boston next season. Clearly, this is a guy who wanted out.
How did he feel when he heard about the trade?
“Pretty excited, actually,’’ said Lackey. “I wasn’t really surprised. Honestly, this is a good place for me to be. I was pretty happy with where it happened. I’m happy with what happened.’’
He said winning a ring is the only reason he’s still playing. It pleases him to be in position to do this with the Cardinals.
Were there any conversations with the Red Sox regarding extending his minimum major league wage deal for next season?
“No,’’ he said. “Not really. We didn’t get that far ahead.’’
Asked if his new happiness is a direct result of being out of Boston, he countered with, “Absolutely not. I have some great friends on that team that I left. We had a great year last year. It was a ton of fun with those guys. It’s just part of the game.’’
He chose not to dwell on what has happened to the Red Sox in 2014.
“I’m focused on being here right now and trying to help this team win,’’ said Lackey. “Where they are is where they are right now. I’m not really part of that anymore.’’
But John. You were in Boston 4½ seasons. How would you characterize that time?
“There was definitely some ups and downs, for sure. Some fun and some not so fun, I guess.’’
Were the hard times the hardest times you have had in baseball?
“I’ve moved on.’’
You don’t seem very sentimental about Boston.
“I don’t know what you want me to say.’’
He said he would like to have pitched against the Red Sox this week, but Sunday was his turn in his new rotation (Lackey beat the Brewers, 3-2, an important win for the Cardinals). He said he enjoyed seeing his former teammates, adding, “There’s definitely some guys I miss, but that’s part of the deal.’’
He said he looks forward to not facing a designated hitter on a regular basis. He said he talked to Jon Lester after the trades were made and the two would love to face one another in the 2014 World Series.
Lackey grew uncomfortable when he was pressed on his unwillingness to give the Red Sox the guarantee he’s giving the Cardinals.
“You guys are trying to stir stuff up.’’
Actually, no. We’re just wondering why he’s giving the Cardinals something he wouldn’t give the Red Sox. Was there any reason?
Lackey had no words. Seconds later, a Cardinals PR person said, “Guys, thanks for taking the time.’’
The interview was over.
Whew. It’s getting testy out here on the Red Sox Reunion Tour. Thank God Nick Cafardo had the assignment of talking to A.J. Pierzynski.
Lackey is a 35-year-old veteran of 12 major league seasons. He won the seventh game of the World Series for the Angels when he was a rookie in 2002. Angels manager Mike Scioscia gave him the ball for 12 postseason starts. Theo Epstein showered him with a five-year, $82.5 million deal in December of 2009.
In Boston, Lackey saw lots of fire and rain. He was famous for showing up teammates on the field when plays were not made, but none of his teammates seemed to mind. He was a good tipper and a good teammate. He was adored by the folks who work around the ballpark.
Lackey went 14-11 in his first season in Boston, then struggled through an awful (6.41 ERA) 2011 campaign in which he pitched much of the season with a ligament tear. He was booed with gusto at Fenway for most of that season.
He was part of the chicken-and-beer nonsense that got Terry Francona fired, but when Tito needed a starter for the final weekend in New York, Lackey took the ball and pitched well in a game the Sox eventually won in extra innings. If the Sox had survived the final days in Baltimore, Lackey was willing to pitch a one-game playoff vs. Tampa on two days rest. That was the same week he flew off the handle when TMZ called his cellphone to confirm his pending divorce.
Lackey had Tommy John surgery after 2011 and collected $15.25 million without throwing a pitch in 2012.
He rededicated himself after his surgery. He dropped 20 pounds and posted a 3.52 ERA in 2013. He was the poster boy for Team Redemption. On the final night last October, Lackey started and won the first Red Sox Fenway World Series clincher in 95 years. Against the Cardinals.
Ultimately, he was able to compete and win in Boston, but he was never comfortable. He missed the Anaheim anonymity.
Now he is in Baseball’s Pleasantville-by-the-Arch.
Free at last.