FORT MYERS, Fla. — To fans, John Lackey is the most unpopular player on the Red Sox. There is no second place; that’s how much of a landslide it is.
Lackey is an expensive free agent who didn’t meet expectations, a quick path to getting booed at Fenway Park. His ill-tempered answers and dismissive gestures to the media only made it worse.
Lackey became the surly symbol of all that had gone so wrong for the Red Sox, pitching poorly in the final weeks of the disastrous 2011 season, then playing a starring role in reports of the clubhouse insurrection that cost popular manager Terry Francona his job.
But on Tuesday, during the first extended interview in several years, Lackey said he had no regrets about coming to Boston and vowed to change the narrative.
“I thought this place would be good for me,’’ Lackey said. “I’m a guy who likes competing and showing some emotion and that is what they want. When I’m pitching well, I think it’ll be a good thing. And I’m going to pitch well. This thing isn’t over.”
A different portrait of Lackey emerges when you dig through the thin layer of public perception. Despite three difficult seasons in Boston, the 34-year-old righthander has become a respected figure within the framework of the team.
When rookies get called up, it is Lackey who picks up the check at dinner or buys them a new suit, repaying favors done for him years ago.
Lackey defied the pain in his elbow in 2011, pitching games against his better judgment because there wasn’t anybody else available. A surgeon later told him the bone spur he plucked out of his arm was the largest he had ever seen.
Now Lackey is coming back from surgery that kept him out all of last season.
“You won’t find a more popular guy among his teammates,” said Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon, the bench coach of the Anaheim Angels when Lackey played there. “He’s an enjoyable person to talk to and I know you don’t believe that. John just isn’t conscious of his public image and never has been. He grew up as a baseball player and he considers himself accountable to his teammates, not the fans. It can come off the wrong way.”
That has often been the case in Boston. Lackey has perhaps the worst body language in baseball, throwing up his arms in disgust when a teammate commits an error or rolling his eyes when asked a basic question.
He knows it looks terrible.
“It’s something that I’ve worked on and tried not to do, but sometimes it just happens,” Lackey said. “If I do something over the line, I absolutely go apologize. I’ll pull them aside and say something. I’m man enough to do that.’’
Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said Lackey’s comportment is not an issue among the position players.
“That’s Lack. It comes from an honest place,” he said. “He’s not trying to show anybody up, he’s just being competitive. If you know him, you know that’s not really him.”
Last season, when asked about Lackey, former Angels outfielder Torii Hunter winced at first.
“Misunderstood guy,” he said. “But a good teammate. He just doesn’t show that side in public like some people do.”
In 2011, Lackey was at the center of the now infamous fried chicken-and-beer scandal. That he was in the clubhouse eating and drinking during games further bruised his reputation.
True to form, Lackey is unapologetic.
“You just take it for the team and move on,” he said. “The whole thing was blown out of proportion. It wasn’t as big a deal as it was made to be. But that’s Boston; everything gets cranked up a couple of notches.”
By the end of that season, the reaction to Lackey on the mound was so harsh that he told his family to stay out of Fenway.
Still, when the Red Sox started their pursuit of free agent first baseman Mike Napoli last fall, Lackey played the role of recruiter.
He had no hesitation about recommending Boston to his former Angels teammate.
“The chance to win every year is still there,” Lackey said. “It’s an ownership that cares and tries to field a winning team all the time. It’s a fan base that cares and wants to win all the time. I’m at a point in my career where I’m here to win. That’s really the only thing that is in play for me.”
There are few expectations for Lackey this season, the product of his surgery and an ugly 5.26 earned run average in his two seasons with the Sox. But with at least two seasons remaining on his $82.5 million contract, he has a chance to recapture what made him so desirable to the Red Sox in the first place.
In the seven years before he signed with Boston, Lackey ranked in the top five among American League starters in victories, strikeouts, shutouts, and starts.
“There’s some challenges that he’s faced,’’ said Sox manager John Farrell. “His ability to re-write his own story certainly starts with pitching well. But I think there’s a person within John Lackey that everyone is not aware of. We’re hopeful that people do see the real John Lackey.
The road to redemption starts with a healthy elbow. Lackey had reconstructive elbow surgery 15 months ago and enters spring training without restrictions.
“I had to stop throwing in the bullpen [between starts] because of the pain,” Lackey said. “I’ve had something wrong with my elbow for three years now.”
Lackey pitched in increasing discomfort for much of the 2011 season.
He said that the Red Sox medical staff — which has all since been replaced — misled him.
“When you get an MRI after the season and your doctor asks what the hell you were doing pitching, you get the idea that somebody wasn’t being honest with you,” he said. “But I took the ball. That is what you do.”
Said general manager Ben Cherington: “He pitched for as long as he could because he was giving the best chance to win at the time. The last thing you want to do is a force a guy to be out there. He wanted to pitch.”
As Lackey’s career crumbled in 2011, so did his marriage to Krista Clark. It’s not a subject that Lackey cares to expand on, but it’s clearly something that still affects him.
“Nobody wants to go through a divorce,” he said. “I’m as good as I can be. It wasn’t fun, definitely not something I ever foresaw happening to me. But things happen.
“Time helps. But, you know, we’ll see. You keep moving forward. I’m trying to be true to myself and know who I am.”
Lackey now lives full-time in the Fort Worth area. He has a suite at Cowboys Stadium and attends most of the NFL and college games there, inviting teammates along.
Lackey opened his home to his sister and her family during the offseason. Having his niece and nephew, ages 3 and 1, underfoot helped him forget about baseball for a while.
And — get this — Lackey says he actually enjoys spending time in Boston.
“The city is great. One thing I love is that it’s a big city but it’s very walkable, very manageable,” he said. “I have a lot of fun there. The restaurants are awesome. I’ve met people at certain restaurants and they take care of me. We’re good.”
Lackey leaned back in a chair, looking up at the Florida sun as he talked. This spring training, he said, feels like his first.
“It’s fresh for me again. It’s a restart in a lot of ways for the team and for myself,” he said. “There’s time to change things. That’s a challenge and I like a challenge.”