fb-pixel Skip to main content

Anthony Rizzo, Jon Lester bonded over cancer fights

Jon Lester refuses to be defined by his six-year, $155 million contract.paul beaty/associated press

MESA, Ariz. — “It’s insane,” Anthony Rizzo said when asked about playing with Jon Lester with the Chicago Cubs.

They both survived cancer as Red Sox players. They’re both leaders — Rizzo, a powerful first baseman, Lester the ace of the staff after signing a six-year, $155 million deal.

Rizzo, who has become one of the National League’s top sluggers, still remembers a rainy day in May 2008 when he had just been to Dana-Farber for treatments.

The Red Sox brought him to Fenway. During a rain delay, Rizzo went down to the clubhouse and spoke to Lester for more than an hour about his bout with lymphoma.


“He really helped me out,” said Rizzo. “I still take his message to me during that time and pass it along to kids I speak to. He told me that during treatment don’t let your world stop, go out and do things that you enjoy and make you happy.

“During my healthy times I’d go to the gym, or go out and throw a football around or shoot the basketball. And that really helped me get through a really tough time in my life and I’ll always be grateful.”

Lester has said he was just trying to pass along his experience to a younger player. He does so with people he meets all the time. Lester already has impressed new Cubs manager Joe Maddon and the former Red Sox brass now with the Cubs (Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, Jason McLeod) with his work ethic and leadership.

Rizzo started to take on a leadership role last season, when he broke through with 32 homers, 78 RBIs, and a .913 OPS.

On a team of young hitters, Rizzo has arrived. He’s gone from prospect to the real deal. Now he’s hoping to show his young teammates the way.


“I think the interesting thing here is watching these guys come up together,” said Rizzo. “They’ve been through the minors together. They’re a tight-knit group. My job is to help acclimate to the majors. It’s just like we have Kevin Youkilis over here now [as a special assistant], and the first thing I asked him, ‘How was that parade in ’04?’ I’ve asked Jon about it, and all the guys here because I’ve never been through it.”

On Dec. 6, 2010, Epstein, then the Red Sox general manager, completed a blockbuster deal, sending Rizzo, outfielder Reymond Fuentes (a former first-round pick), and pitcher Casey Kelly to the Padres for Adrian Gonzalez. At the time, Hoyer was the Padres’ GM.

Then, after Epstein and Hoyer reunited in Chicago, they acquired Rizzo in January of 2012, along with Zach Cates for Andrew Cashner and Kyung-Min Na.

Rizzo said that he and Lester have yet to talk about their Red Sox experiences “but we will. It’s a fascinating story. I know Jon probably doesn’t remember this, but he struck me out on six pitches in a spring training game.”

Oh, Lester will remember. Right now, that is on the back burner.

Lester, 116-67 in nine major league seasons, said of his leadership role with the Cubs, “I go about my business and try to have fun doing it, and that’s really it. I don’t have any magic secrets or any formulas or anything to give these guys. I put my head down and do my work, and if that in turn makes guys want to follow me, great. If that program doesn’t work for them, it’s no big deal.”


Lester had been with the Athletics before signing with the Cubs, so his Boston experience is twice removed.

“He’s really focused on the here and now, and I think we all are,” said new Cubs backup catcher David Ross, also a teammate of Lester’s with the Red Sox. “Jon looks great and he’s in a great place. He really wants to look at the traits of two championship teams he was on and bring them here. I think guys are all ears.”

Lester said the confidence he brings is the same confidence he wants his teammates to have.

“I think you have to be confident,” he said. “If you come in and go, ‘I hope, I hope, I hope,’ it doesn’t get you anywhere. There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance. If you can walk that line, you’re in the right frame of mind. If you come in here and just go, ‘It’s another year, we’ll see what happens,’ that’s not going to get you anywhere. You have to come in with the mind-set that we’re going to the World Series.”

Their cancers were different, but their fights were the same. Lester and Rizzo always will have that between them. Now they’re trying to break a curse — the Cubs haven’t won the World Series since 1908 — similar to the 86-year curse Lester helped break in Boston.


“That’s part of the reason I came here,” Lester said. “It would be pretty cool to win it all here and experience what we did in Boston.”

Lester continues to avoid talk about his contract defining him.

“My contract doesn’t justify me or represent me,” he said. “I represent myself and how I go about my business. My competitiveness doesn’t change because I have X amount of dollars in the bank. I want to win, you’ll hear that a lot. If I don’t win, we don’t win, and you probably really don’t want to be around me too much. I’m not real happy . . . you can talk to my wife about that.”

Lester forever will love Boston. He’ll forever be friends with John Henry and Dustin Pedroia. He knows he can’t shed the Red Sox. He’s got daily reminders with the Cubs, including teammates Felix Doubront, Drake Britton, Daniel Bard, Jonathan Herrera, Ross, and non-uniformed personnel such as Epstein, Hoyer, McLeod, and Darnell McDonald.

And also, Rizzo. A bond built because of cancer and how they overcame it, to becoming two of the best players at their positions in all of baseball.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.