Until last week, there was only well-deserved praise for Jon Lester. The quiet lefthander beat cancer and helped the Red Sox win the 2007 World Series, starting down a career path that includes a no-hitter and two All-Star selections.
That changed when it was revealed in a Globe story chronicling the Red Sox’ September collapse that Lester was one of the unruly players drinking beer and eating fast food during games.
Lester broke his silence on the matter yesterday, admitting during a lengthy interview that he did drink in the clubhouse, but disputing the idea that it helped lead to the team’s downfall.
“There’s a perception out there that we were up there getting hammered and that wasn’t the case,’’ Lester said via telephone from his home in Georgia. “Was it a bad habit? Yes. I should have been on the bench more than I was. But we just played bad baseball as a team in September. We stunk. To be honest, we were doing the same things all season when we had the best record in baseball.’’
Lester said the drinking was confined to starting pitchers who weren’t in the game that day.
“It was a ninth-inning rally beer,’’ he said. “We probably ordered chicken from Popeye’s like once a month. That happened. But that’s not the reason we lost.
“It was the wrong thing to do. But most of the times it was one beer, a beer. It was like having a Coke in terms of how it affected you mentally or physically. I know how it looks to people and it probably looks bad. But we weren’t up there just drinking and eating and nobody played video games. We watched the game. We cared about what happened.
“We’d go in, get a beer, and go back on the bench. The accusation that we were up there sitting around and playing video games is obscene.’’
Lester has not spoken to ex-Sox manager Terry Francona since the end of the season, communicating with him only through text messages. He said he was sorry to see Francona go, but he believes it might be for the best.
“I love Tito and he did a great job for us when he was here,’’ Lester said. “On a personal level I was more than grateful for what he did for me and my family. But there comes a time when your authority is no longer there; you kind of run your course.
“People knew how Tito was and we pushed the envelope with it. We never had rules; we never had that iron-fist mentality. If you screwed up, he called you on it. That was how it worked.
“I never saw guys purposely breaking rules or doing the wrong thing in front of him and rubbing it in his face. But this particular team probably needed more structure. Tito was the perfect guy for this team for a long time but I think he got burnt out.’’
Lester does not blame Francona for the collapse.
“That’s our fault,’’ he said. “That’s my fault. We needed to take control of our clubhouse. I think everybody in there was guilty of something, big or small. In the end, we’re the ones playing and we played terribly.’’
Josh Beckett and John Lackey, the other pitchers implicated in the scandal, have not responded to repeated inquiries for comment. But Lester took it upon himself to speak for them.
“Consider us a unit when it comes to these accusations,’’ he said. “We either fall together or rise above it all together whether they like it or not. Things got magnified because we lost and sources started telling people what happened, which has me upset because if you’re going to say something, be a man to put your name to it. But we’re not bad people and we’re not a bad group of guys.
“Are there things I regret? Sure there are. But nothing happened that had me unprepared to pitch. I don’t blame people for wanting answers because we had a hell of a team and we lost. You can’t have a team that gets paid like we get paid and loses and not expect people to want answers.’’
Lester also denied that poor physical conditioning was a reason for the team’s 7-20 September collapse. He said that pitchers typically gain weight during the season.
“It’s probably because of how we eat,’’ he said. “We have some crazy hours with the travel and you get in at 4 a.m. and you get room service or something quick. But unless your body fat is going up 10 percent or something like that, you don’t have a problem.
“I’ve heard what people are saying in Boston. I can tell you that guys were in the weight room. Guys were doing their shoulder [exercises] and guys were prepared to pitch. If we win a few more games in September and make the playoffs, none of this comes out. But we didn’t and that’s on us as a team and on me personally. I take a lot of the blame for this, a lot.’’
Lester was 15-6 with a 2.93 earned run average in his first 27 starts. He was 0-3 with an 8.24 ERA in his last four starts, with the team losing all four games.
“It bothers me because I’m supposed to be a stopper,’’ he said. “I picked a terrible time to stink. That’s on me.’’
Lester said it wasn’t true that he went too far in imitating Beckett.
“I’m not a follower,’’ he said. “I’m a grown-ass man. I made my decisions. He wasn’t twisting my arm like I was in high school. Did I try to emulate him as a pitcher when I was younger? Sure I did because what he does works. Now, over time, I’ve tweaked what I do because that’s what works for me.
“But as far as decisions, he doesn’t make them for me. I’m who I am because of my wife and my mom and dad. Not Josh.’’
Lester said he would love to see pending free agents David Ortiz and Jonathan Papelbon return next season. But he also thinks the team needs more high-character type players such as former Red Sox Alex Cora, Eric Hinske, or Sean Casey.
“We need that good veteran presence,’’ he said. “If you have somebody like that, it makes everybody better.’’
Lester is confident the 2012 team will rebound from consecutive third-place finishes.
“There are lots of things we need to work on as a team and things did not go the way we expected this season,’’ he said. “I think you’ll have a lot of guys with chips on their shoulders next season to set things right. There are a lot of good people in that clubhouse and they’ll show that.’’
Lester hopes that speaking out will help allow the team to move forward.
“Whoever the new manager is, I want to talk to him and give him my ideas and hopefully we come to spring training and start fresh. It’s unfortunate what happened and I’m sorry it did.
“Hopefully people understand I care about the Red Sox and that I want to do the right thing.’’