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Dan Shaughnessy

Happy to deliver good news on Lester

It stopped being about baseball late last August when doctors told Jon Lester he had a treatable form of anaplastic large cell lymphoma.

After that, it became about nothing other than the long-term health and well being of a 22-year-old who'd been gifted with great parents and a left arm that would deliver him to the major leagues at an age when a lot of our kids are seniors in college.

In the course of a few, scary hours, Lester went from being the luckiest kid to the unluckiest kid. The big league dream became the ultimate nightmare. Pitch counts became meaningless. White cell counts -- those mattered more than anything.

Fortunately, this is 2007 and not all cancers come with a death sentence.

My mother graduated from Cambridge City Nursing Hospital in the 1930s and she never threw away her college textbooks. In 1993, I looked up the word "leukemia" in one of her medical dictionaries and the definition began with "a fatal disease . . . " There was no allowance for hope. It was a fact of those times, and that is why people of a certain age recoil in fear and dissolve into tears at any mention of a cancer diagnosis. But it's different in 2007. Today, doctors are able to cure up to 85 percent of children diagnosed with leukemia.

And they are able to say it's OK for Jon Lester to pitch professionally; tonight he gets the ball in Cleveland against the Indians.

Sox fans politely and respectfully steered clear of Lester talk last winter and most of this spring. Perhaps owing to a half century of the ball club's Jimmy Fund involvement, or perhaps because almost every family has been visited by some form of cancer, Lester talk was off limits when looking ahead to the 2007 season. This was a time to be proud of one's membership in Red Sox Nation. When assembling their ideal pitching rotations for the upcoming season, fans put the health of a young man first, and kept Lester out of the discussion. It was a period of universal class and dignity for all who call themselves Red Sox fans.

It became harder to keep Lester out of the mental mix in February when we saw him in Florida with a full head of hair, telling us he was back to his old pitching weight. It was clear the young lefty was tired of the kid glove treatment. He didn't want to be "Cancer Boy." He wanted to be like everybody else. He wanted a chance to pitch his way back to the big leagues.

But the Red Sox kept him away from the big Grapefruit League crowds and major league hitters. Lester pitched on small fields with empty stands against minor leaguers.

"Given what we know, there's not a long track record of professional pitchers coming back from cancer," Sox general manager Theo Epstein said yesterday. "We did the best we could with this process with a high degree of caution."

Lester started the 2007 season at Single A, making three starts for Gabe Kapler's Greenville Drive. He then moved to Pawtucket, where he was sidetracked by a muscle cramp in his forearm. He went 4-5 with a 3.89 ERA in 14 starts for the PawSox. He won three of his last four, though it's a little unsettling that he fanned only three in seven innings in his last start.

Tonight will be his first game in the big leagues in exactly 11 months.

"They have my best interest in mind at all times," Lester said yesterday after working out in Pawtucket. "It was hard, and frustrating, to do the steps and the progressions that they had, but as long as I sat back and kept telling myself that they want me to be healthy and that's the main goal for my future, not right now . . .

"It's been hard getting treated like you're in a glass bottle, so it'd be nice to finally break through it and get to go pitch again."

"Trust me, anyone going through this doesn't want to talk about it," said Mike Lowell, who underwent surgery for testicular cancer in 1999. "He wants to be a baseball player rather than a cancer survivor. I'm super happy for him and I think he feels like it's a long time coming. He's answering more cancer questions than baseball questions. You'd rather talk about baseball, but with me it took about a year and a half."

Apparently trying to soften the focus on Lester and his amazing comeback, the Sox did not make Lester available to the media at Fenway after yesterday's victory over the White Sox. It's certainly convenient that he makes his first 2007 big league start on the road. The Indians lead the American League in homers, but Jacobs Field doesn't feature the media circus that is part of daily life on Yawkey Way.

"That's total coincidence," insisted Epstein. "Given what's going on with our pitching staff . . . we thought this was the right time. It's a nice window to get a look at where Jon is."

Lester was 7-2 with a 4.76 ERA when cancer put his life in danger and his talent on the shelf last season. He returns to the big leagues intent on showing he belongs, breaking out of the glass bottle that's been home for 11 months. He takes the ball representing the Red Sox and millions of families who've been touched by cancer.

"It's the ultimate human interest story and he deserves good things to happen," said Epstein.

Tonight all of us are Red Sox fans.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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