Jon Lester never got to have his farewell moment at Fenway Park, that final walk off the mound accompanied by a roar from a crowd that knew this was his last appearance there in a Red Sox uniform, because he was traded to the Athletics on July 31, 2014, an off-day for the team.
Nor did he get to have that kind of moment at Wrigley Field last fall, even though he knew his contract was ending and the Cubs might not re-sign him, because there were no fans in the stands anywhere in 2020.
So excuse Lester for already feeling the emotions welling up as he prepares to experience the scene that will play out tonight in Chicago when the veteran left-hander starts for the Nationals against his former team, with fans in attendance.
“I knew as soon as I signed and saw the schedule,” he said over the weekend during a Zoom session with both Nationals and Cubs reporters. “You pick out certain road trips that are always fun, and obviously that was one that stuck out for me, for a lot of different reasons.”
Lester is the rare star ballplayer who attained legendary status with two franchises. He won a pair of World Series with the Red Sox (2007 and 2013), then signed a $155 million contract with the Cubs and in year two of the deal helped lead them to their first championship in more than a century.
To say his return to Wrigley tonight - along with fellow former Cubs favorite Kyle Schwarber - will be a major event is to undersell it.
“I think Wrigley is so unique, and to end there last year with no fans, it will be nice to go back there and see that,” he said. “I’m looking forward to that. It’s such a unique place. I’m excited to get back on that mound.”
Lester, who signed a modest $5 million contract with the Nationals in January, is off to a strong start with his new club. His season debut delayed when he was one of nine players who landed on the COVID-19 injury list, he has now made three starts and posted a 2.25 ERA along the way.
He’ll be facing a Cubs team loaded with familiar faces, from Anthony Rizzo to Kris Bryant to his former catcher-turned-manager David Ross. Lester joked that lineup knows him so well, he might have to break out a knuckleball or two just to keep them guessing.
He’ll have fun with it, but all the while he’ll have one goal in mind.
“I want to win the game,” he said. “I don’t care about who it is. I just get bragging rights afterwards. ... At the end of the day, we win, that’s all that matters. I hope to throw a perfect game and strike out 27. That would be great.”
That’s probably a bit too much to ask from Lester. The Nationals will happily take a quality start from the lefty, who is admittedly a little worried about getting confused with the surroundings.
“The biggest thing for me is just making sure I walk into the right dugout, or to the right bullpen,” he said with a laugh. “That’s going to be the weird part. Not turning right off the mound. You’ve got to turn left. You’ve got to go to the other one. So I’ve got to make sure I do that.”
Lester wanted very much to stay with the Cubs, but after a disappointing 2019 and 2020, he recognized the writing was on the wall. The same may hold true for some of his good friends on the roster who are approaching free agency and could be counting down the days until they’re employed elsewhere.
Whatever happens, Lester will forever be hailed as a champion in Wrigleyville. As one reporter suggested during the Zoom call, many in Chicago believe he should be considered the best free agent signing in the history of any of the city’s major sports franchises.
“That’s a huge compliment,” Lester said. “With the history in Chicago, a lot of great teams that have played, great seasons, great guys that have come through there, that’s a huge compliment. I don’t know if it’s true, but I really don’t know how to answer the question. All I can say is, it’s flattering. I just go back to (former Cubs president Theo Epstein) saying that I was going to live up to the amount of money they paid me. I feel like I was able to do that, and that’s kind of all that really matters.”