While acknowledging that he and other Red Sox starting pitchers did drink beer in the clubhouse during games last season, Jon Lester strongly condemned what he called a "witch hunt" that has followed the team's September collapse.
"This is a good group of guys who want to compete and win, and that's getting lost in all this hoopla of finger-pointing and getting reports blown out of proportion," he said in an interview with The Journal on Monday. "People are on a witch hunt to try to find out why the second-highest-paid team in baseball lost. It's not one particular reason. It was a group effort. We didn't play good baseball at the end of the season. I hope people can understand that we care and that we're going to do better next year. … We're going to make it right."
The Boston Herald reported within days of the regular-season finale that Red Sox starting pitchers had made a habit out of drinking in the clubhouse. Lester said Monday that he and other starting pitchers would drink what he called a "rally beer" in the ninth inning of close games.
"When the original report came out, it was made to seem as if guys were just sitting in the clubhouse with a 12-pack of Bud Light in front of them and drinking it until the game was over," he said. "That's not the case. We'd do the occasional ninth-inning - if we were tied or down by one - rally beer. We'd be sitting up there and drink one beer and come back down. We're always watching the game. We're always paying attention to what's going on. We're not sitting up there getting hammered."
When did the "rally beer" tradition start?
"One hundred years ago when baseball started," Lester said. "This isn't something that's new. We didn't invent something here nobody else has ever done. This has been going on in baseball for 100 years. Is it right? No, it's probably not the best thing to be doing during the game. That being said, this isn't the first time that's ever happened."
The Boston Globe reported last week that, along with drinking beer, Red Sox pitchers would play video games and order takeout fried chicken. Lester denied the former and downplayed the latter.
"Video games never happened," he said. "I don't even know where that came from."
"The report that comes out says we're eating fried chicken every day and we're drunk in the clubhouse between starts, and that's not the case," Lester said. "Out of a six-month season, we ate fried chicken maybe three times."
The conditioning of the players - particularly the underachieving pitching staff - also has become a hot topic in the last two weeks. Even Red Sox majority owner John Henry has made public his dissatisfaction with the conditioning level of his team.
"Everything is structured," Lester said. "As a starting pitcher, you know every day what you have to do from day one. But that also is getting blown out of proportion a little bit."
"I don't think conditioning was an issue. We didn't play good baseball. People are looking for reasons to be able to point a finger at one area - conditioning, because they were drinking in the clubhouse, because guys didn't get along - but none of those things matter because they're off-field issues. When it comes down to it, you have to perform on the field, and we flat-out did not perform in September."
With the many disclosures in recent weeks following the team's poor performance down the stretch - Henry last week called it a "media riot" - sentiment has grown stronger for a complete overhaul of the roster. A team that looked like a lock for the playoffs on Sept. 1 went 7-20 in the final month and missed the playoffs on a dramatic final night of the regular season.
Former manager Terry Francona said on his way out that he felt like he no longer could reach some of the veteran players he previously could reach.
"Tito has been great to me and great to my family, and I've thanked him many times for what he's done for me - off the field more than on the field," Lester said. "But there comes a time, like in any business in the world that's run by somebody, that you need to step back and let a fresh face step in. Tito got burnt out. Eight years in Boston, it's a tough place to be a manager - or be a player. Night in, night out, he's got to answer questions about his job and about every else's job. He was burnt out. He was ready to go."
“In the clubhouse, yeah, it could have been more. But that was the luxury of having a manager like Tito. He trusted as far as controlling the clubhouse. He knew things would take care of themselves and that he didn’t have to have an iron fist. Guys respected him for that.”
Calls for a clubhouse shakeup have abounded. Josh Beckett and John Lackey, the other two pitchers who have been primarily implicated in the reports of clubhouse beer-drinking, have been at the front of the firing line.
Beckett finished the month of September with an ERA of 5.48 in his four starts, and Lackey with an ERA of 9.13. Lester's September ERA was 5.40.
But talk of shipping out Beckett and Lackey, Lester said, is premature.
"Those two guys are two of our bigger leaders on the team," he said. "If you get rid of those two guys just for the sake of getting rid of them, that tears us apart, period. Josh is a very influential person in that clubhouse, and so is Lack. Guys look to them for advice. Guys look to them for leadership - and people are making these guys out to seem like the devil."
In all likelihood, the core of this year's Red Sox team will return intact. That will include Beckett, Lackey and Lester as well as Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez. Whoever the new manager is - the replacement for Francona will not be named until the situation with Theo Epstein and the Chicago Cubs gets sorted out - will have to figure out how much the lack of clubhouse discipline affected the subpar performance on the field.
"Me, personally, I feel like we were prepared to be in the position we were in going into September," Lester said. "When we went out in September, we just didn't perform. I don't think that's a conditioning issue. I don't think that's a skills issue, as far as swinging the bat or executing a pitch. But it's something that's going to help us. For guys that went through that, you're going to see some [ticked-off] individuals coming into spring training, ready to go."