Jon Lester began his career with a record 67 consecutive hitless at-bats and compiled a measly .115 average with just four homers, but he somehow managed to become a legend just the same. I’m sorry, what’s that? He was a pitcher? Oh, that changes everything.
The lefty was at the core of World Series titles in both Boston and Chicago, the latter of which came in 2016 (people forget that). More than any other move Theo Epstein made, signing Lester alerted the rest of Major League Baseball that the Cubs were about to be a problem. And while their dominance was short-lived, the legacy of that team, and of Lester in particular, will last forever.
If you have any reason to doubt that, just look at how long the Bears have been riding out that Super Bowl win.
In addition to his exploits at the plate, which include a magnificent walk-off bunt and a double that nearly killed David Ross, Lester racked up a 200-117 record with a 3.66 ERA over 451 starts and a single relief appearance (2 innings in 2007, and yes, he came into a clean inning). He spend the first eight-plus seasons of his career in Boston, then a trade to Oakland in 2014 opened his eyes to what other possibilities were out there.
Had that deal not taken place, Lester likely would have signed an extension with the Red Sox and Cubs history as we know it would be entirely different. Instead, he was lured by his old bosses to lead the final stages of a rebuild that saw the Cubs win it all. Their parting last year was sweet sorrow, as Lester headed to Washington when Jed Hoyer wasn’t able to scrape up the $5 million or so it would have taken for one more season.
With the Nats out of the playoff picture in July, Lester was traded to St. Louis, where he experienced a late renaissance after what had been a disappointing campaign to that point. Fittingly, the last two games he started came against the Cubs. So whether that provided the necessary cherry on top or if it’s just that having to pitch for the Cardinals sapped his will to keep playing, Lester has announced his retirement.
“It’s kind of run its course,” the lefty told ESPN. “It’s getting harder for me physically. The little things that come up throughout the year turned into bigger things that hinder your performance.
“I’d like to think I’m a halfway decent self-evaluator. I don’t want someone else telling me I can’t do this anymore. I want to be able to hand my jersey over and say, ‘Thank you, it’s been fun.’ That’s probably the biggest deciding factor.”
Good for him.
As Jesse Rogers pointed out, Lester is one of only nine southpaws in the modern era to boast 200 wins, a .600 winning percentage, and a sub-4.00 career ERA. Six of those men are already in the Hall of Fame and another, CC Sabathia, isn’t yet eligible. I’ve long held that Lester feels like more of a surefire member of the Hall of Very Good, but the fact that he won with both the Red Sox and the Cubs should garner lots of votes from BBWAA members.
And since he was never implicated in any sort of scandal, PED or otherwise, he won’t end up being left off by some doofus like Dan Shaughnessy.
I’d love to continue on waxing poetic about Lester’s accomplishments and what he meant to the Cubs and their fans, but it’d be little more than eyewash because his whole vibe is something that can hardly be captured by some rube blogger. He always gave the outward impression that he had zero effs to give, but then he got on the mound and poured out his soul effusively.
There could not have been a more perfect fit for a Cubs team that was otherwise so ebullient and goofy and fun, at least for a few seasons there. That said, Lester became the life of the party once you got a couple beers in him and put him in front of a microphone. His impact can’t be quantified, not even by the distance of his mammoth homers, though I’m willing to say Red Sox and Cubs fans alike would list him among the most important players in each franchise’s history.
Best of luck in the next stage of the journey, Mr. Lester, I hope you can enjoy it even more than the last one.