CHICAGO – Cubs fans are in for a treat Monday night, when Jon Lester returns to Wrigley Field for the first time since joining the Nationals.
“Our guys are excited and I’m sure Jon is excited,” explained Cubs manager David Ross. “You are always excited to see a guy you made history with, plus there will be some bragging rights on the line.”
Lester and Ross ran into each other on a concourse and shared a big hug.
“I think I told him I would tell him good luck but I wouldn’t mean it. He laughed,” Ross noted. “He looks great. … I love the guy, so it’s just good to see him.”
A laughing Ross said it was “extremely, extremely awkward” to game-plan for the pitcher.
Asked what Lester brought to Chicago that remains with the team today, Ross joked about Lester’s fondness for Miller Lite. Then Ross, Lester’s former catcher, turned serious.
“I think he brought a championship mentality and a preparation and hard work that he expected every day, that he held himself accountable for and that he was brought up knowing how to do, he brought that here,” Ross said, “and winning followed.”
Anthony Rizzo wore Lester’s signature 34 Cubs jersey to the ballpark Monday, paying homage to one of his favorite teammates of all-time.
“It started when I was 18, diagnosed with cancer, and him just giving me the advice and the challenge to rise above the challenge. He helped me through that time,” remarked Rizzo. “Everything he did here, he kept that old school mentality. He’s the most generous person I ever played with.”
Lester’s expecting plenty of trash talk when he takes the mound, especially from Rizzo, who he would love to strike out.
“I don’t care about who it is. I want to win the game,” Lester said. “It kind of goes back to me and Lack [John Lackey], when we pitched against each other. I pitched well, but at the end of the day I lost. So, it really doesn’t matter. He won, so he comes to my house, drinks all my beer and rubs it in that he won the game. At the end of the day, we win, that’s all that matters. I hope for a perfect game, strike out all 27 and move on.”
Moving on to D.C. wasn’t easy for Lester or the Wrigley faithful that rooted for the crafty lefty for over half a decade.
“Yeah, there’s emotions involved. The hard part about this game is the business side. You have to separate your heart and business. Sometimes that can be difficult. Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes your heart makes decisions for you,” Lester said. “The fan and the people sometimes don’t understand what we do and what we invest in the places that we’re at. Chicago was home for six years. We have a house there. My kids have grown up there. You invest in a city – your heart, your mind, your soul.”
The Cubs invested $155 million into Lester.
It might have seemed like a lot at the time, but he’s now regarded as one of, if not the best, free agent signings in Chicago history after helping lead the North Siders to their first World Series title in 108 years.
“To get there and have everything click from day one was awesome. It really helped the younger guys. It helped me, personally. Coming there, you have all this stuff on your back. You’re the guy that’s suppose to come and help win a World Series, carry the team, and all that. That can be a lot. That can be a lot of anxiety and a lot of pressure,” Lester said. “It was nice to win in the first two years, for me personally. It took a lot of pressure off of me. It was kind of like we fulfilled the contract.”
Lester gave Cubs fans a parting gift before leaving town – $47,000 worth of free beer, which was a bit more than he was expecting.
“God almighty, no. I realized that Chicago likes beer. So, that’s good,” Lester said. “But to see the response has been awesome. I’ve actually run into a few people that just so happened to take part of it. They ended up buying me a beer.”
He might get offered a few more rounds while he’s in town. But for now he’s focused on getting a curly W for the Nats, regardless of how extensive the Cubs scouting report is.
“I might have to invent something out there. Pretty much inventing things as I go as it is. Maybe throw a knuckleball or two or mix something in like that. I’m sure there will be some smiles and laughter out there a little bit. But, you’ve got to separate the friendships. When you step between the lines, now I’m trying to win the game. It’s go time. If I got to hit you, I’ve got to hit you. But, I’m looking forward to it,” Lester said. “I always talk about how intimate Wrigley is. It’s so on top of you that you really do feel the energy from the fans. I’m just excited for that. The biggest thing for me is making sure I walk into the right dugout or right bullpen. That’s going to be the weird part. Not turning right off the mound, you’ve got to turn left.”
When he does, a standing ovation is sure to follow.