Though Jon Lester acknowledged he isn't too knowledgeable about Tony Conigliaro, that didn't mean he was any less honored to receive the award named for the late Red Sox outfielder. Especially when Lester learned the names of some of the past recipients: Jim Abbott, Bo Jackson, not to mention teammate Mike Lowell.
And while the Sox lefthander has repeatedly expressed his desire to get past references about his bout with cancer and continue his career, he was proud to earn an honor given to a player who has, as the criteria state, "overcome adversity through the attributes of spirit, determination, and courage that were trademarks of Tony C."
At Fenway Park yesterday, Lester posed with the plaque - once it was removed from a wall - and discussed returning to the mound in 2008 with a normal offseason behind him. Except for one thing. And on this, he has Curt Schilling beat. While Schilling is trying to slim down to meet stipulations in his contract, Lester will be trying to bulk up. His offseason plan? "Eat. A lot," he said. That, and stock his new home in Atlanta with furniture.
As for the Conigliaro Award, which was started in 1990 by the Red Sox and officially will be presented by Conigliaro's brothers at the Boston Baseball Writers dinner Jan. 17, Lester's fight with cancer last offseason - and return to the major leagues this year - put him among those names he so admired. Up there with the Rockies' Aaron Cook, his opposing starter in Game 4 of the World Series, who was honored in 2005.
"I think I'm always going to have that title behind my name," said Lester, who beat Cook to clinch Boston's second world championship in four seasons. "It's going to be a question that comes up regardless. Hopefully, I can go back to being me and being a normal pitcher and go out and pitch every five days and not having to worry about that. Get questions about my pitching ability, rather than what happened last season."
Next season, Lester should start at the same point as the rest of the candidates for the Red Sox' rotation. After being brought along slowly in 2007, and beginning the season in the minors, he compiled a 4-0 record with a 4.57 ERA in 11 starts, and faced the prospect of not being able to throw his fastball by hitters, as he had done in the past.
He came into spring training at 200 pounds, and fought to build weight and strength. He's now at 215 - and, he hopes, growing.
"He would be treated and prepared for the season as any other starter," pitching coach John Farrell said. "I think the one thing we always apply to any starting pitcher, regardless of what the previous year or two have held in store for that individual pitcher, is what is the right progression, the additional number of innings that are going to be pitched. We usually put a 20-25 percent increase on that. So that would be the case again with Jon for 2008."
In speaking about Lester and Clay Buchholz, each a potential member of the rotation, Farrell said, "I think there's a lot of questions that still remain on how our ultimate five-man rotation will look coming out of spring training. Certainly they're going to be major contributors to that at some point during the season. How we get through not only spring training but as we get into the season with the health of all of our starters [will be a factor]. We feel very good with all of our starters. We feel very good about the depth that we have, and that's probably the most important thing at this point in time."
So, caught between the end of last season, something he said he hadn't yet had the chance to reflect on, and the preparations for next season, Lester could be getting his chance to cap his comeback story with the Conigliaro Award - and to start the next portion of his career.
"It's a storybook-type ending," Lester said of winning the clinching game of the World Series. "You couldn't have asked for a better ending. If you would have told me that at the end of last year, in spring training, that we would have been in that situation, I probably would have laughed at you."
Amalie Benjamin can be reached at email@example.com.