Many sing the praises of new Red Sox pitcher Lackey, serious on the mound, easy-going off it
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. - The first thing John Lackey does after entering his two-story condo is grab the football sitting on a side table in his living room. Then he picks up a remote. Flipping the football in one hand, he points the remote at a large painting that dominates one wall of the room, a scene of the ocean splashing against the rocks. It’s not there for long, sliding by command into a recess to reveal the prize of the room: Two large flat-screen TVs, one on top of the other.
It is the perfect viewing space for football - college football, pro football, even high school football.
“To understand him, you’ve got to go back to the roots, where he grew up in west Texas, in Abilene, Texas,’’ says his agent, Steve Hilliard. “You’re the quarterback of the football team, it’s Friday night lights. That was his life.’’
Hear him talk, watch his eyes wandering to the predictions for that night’s BCS national championship game, listen to the references to running backs on long-forgotten teams from a decade ago. Football is still his life. Lackey says that he’s had multiple Drew Bledsoe jerseys, including one from the Patriots days. When he was a quarterback, his mobility was a lot like Bledsoe’s, says the Cowboys season ticket-holder.
“Inside that pitcher, there’s a quarterback,’’ Hilliard says. “There’s a football player. There’s that mentality and he brings that to the mound with him to this day.’’
It’s there, on the mound, that Lackey stands with intensity in his eyes, fire on his lips, with a reputation for never wanting to leave, for performing at his best in the biggest games. That’s not all of him, though. There’s the part spent anywhere else, where he’s as different from his mound presence as one could imagine.
The 31-year-old Lackey leans back on his sofa, all California casual in a white polo shirt and jeans. He laments having to put on anything more formal for his father-in-law’s birthday celebration later that day, the one that he has convinced his wife can take place in the bar area of the restaurant so he can watch Texas take on Alabama. He laughs often as he sits there (or anywhere), most sentences punctuated by chuckles. The football remains attached to his palm.
His easy cadence, easy way with strangers, translates into a strange picture. This cannot be the man last seen hollering at manager Mike Scioscia from the Angel Stadium mound. “This is mine!’’ he said then, believing as he always does that he was capable of finishing the game, the fifth of an American League Championship Series the Angels would drop to the Yankees.
As Scioscia said Monday by phone, “He’s very mild-mannered for a guy who would chew your head off out there on the field to win.’’
“I was like, actually, I’m kind of unemployed right now,’’ said Lackey, who will be in Boston tomorrow for the Baseball Writers annual dinner. “They still let us have it.’’
He laughs again. Lackey finds this response hilarious. Krista, less so.
But it’s fitting. Lackey hardly seems cowed by anything, not by free agency, not by the move across the country to Boston, not by the prospect of playing in the AL East. Nor does he seem intimidated by the atmosphere in New England, where he already has experienced the effect of the Sox fandom in a brief trip for his physical and contract announcement.
“It’s going to be different, but it’ll be cool,’’ Lackey says. “I get along with people fine. Whatever. I’m not opposed to having a beer with a guy.’’
“When you’re with John off the field, the dichotomy strikes you right away,’’ Hilliard says. “He is very laid-back, very relaxed. You don’t get this sense that he’s wired really tight, a super intense guy. But when he puts the uniform on and walks out on the field, it’s a 180-degree swing. He becomes the most intense competitor.’’
It’s something that even his fellow players don’t realize, an aura that Lackey cultivates. As he says, “When you’re competing, you’re competing. I’m not there to be your friend at that time. I’m not a big fan of talking to other team’s hitters. You want them to be a little bit unsure of how you are.
“When I first broke into the league, Tim Salmon told me that I shouldn’t talk to hitters ’cause the more comfortable they are with you, the more comfortable they are in the box.’’
So Lackey makes sure they can’t quite get their footing. When Gary Matthews Jr. joined the Angels after playing for the Rangers, he thought Lackey was the same off the field as he is on. Lackey smiles as he recalls the misconception.
“I mean, don’t get me wrong, if we went to my house and played some pool or something, I’m going to want to win,’’ Lackey says. “But I’m definitely pretty laid-back off the field.
“But every fifth day - ask the guys that played with me - I’m probably not the nicest person in the world. I’m ready to get after it. I’m there to win. I’m not there to mess around, for sure.’’
“I’d never really seen John get mad until I saw him screaming on the mound one day,’’ Krista says. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I’ve never seen him get that angry. He’s just always a very calm, mellow person. Just goes with the flow. Then he was so intense. It was kind of scary.’’
“His ability to compete is what early in his career was kind of a double-edged sword,’’ Scioscia says. “But as he moved on and matured, it’s what makes him a front-line major league pitcher. I think it’s turned into one of his biggest strengths, where I think earlier in his career it maybe did as much harm as it did good for him.
“When something would happen that would tilt the momentum of the game away from what he was trying to do . . . John’s reaction to that was to try to say, ‘OK, I’ll show you. I’m going to throw the ball 95 miles an hour now and I’m going to break off this curveball even harder to get out of this.’
“I think it just kind of led to things going the wrong way for him. As he adapted and matured as a pitcher, he understood the only thing he could control was making his pitches.’’
Perhaps that came with his personality. Or perhaps that came with his short tenure as a pitcher. Lackey was mostly a power-hitting first baseman through high school and the start of college, until his coaches at the University of Texas saw that quarterback’s arm. He was throwing a bullpen the next day, and pitched his first full season the year he was drafted.
Yet even with the struggles - as in 2003, when Scioscia said Lackey’s own expectations put him at 20 wins, while his results put him at 10-16 - the constant has been his utter lack of fear. As Scioscia says, “John is not afraid to fail. He’s not going out there afraid to lose.’’
“He needed some direction,’’ says Derran Lackey, John’s father and one of his high school baseball coaches. “He wanted some direction and needed some direction during those years.
“Sometimes his composure got in the way of his competitiveness. We needed to help him with that. But obviously I think he’s gotten to the point over the last several years of managing his demeanor well and channeling that into positive things.’’
He is genuine in his response, making time for them. Because even with all his war stories, his devotion to football, this is who he is. Not the man on the mound with consternation in his eyes, who elicits a “Never’’ from his former manager when asked if Lackey ever has felt he was ready to be taken out of a game. Not the guy who is unyielding as a pitcher, unwilling to give an inch from the confidence that he can and should always win.
When he arrives at spring training with the Red Sox, he will be the new guy for the first time in a career spent entirely with the Angels. He said he will take a step back, feel his way into the fray.
He’s not afraid to pick up a tab or two, but he will shy away from giving advice until his footing in a mostly veteran clubhouse is solid.
“You’re not going to find a better teammate, you’re not going to find a better guy in the clubhouse,’’ Scioscia says. “For a guy that you would think is as competitive as you see on the field, he is really soft-spoken off the field. He is very caring. He’s in touch with the community.’’
His former manager is asked about his lasting memory of Lackey, after eight years of clubhouses and hotels and airplanes. Scioscia barely hesitates.
“When Nick Adenhart was killed in the auto accident, John was the first guy to come up and say, ‘Hey, I’m going back for the service,’ ’’ Scioscia says. “We couldn’t take the whole team back, but John wanted to go back, he wanted to represent the team.’’
That wasn’t all. Scioscia explains how Lackey hosted Adenhart’s brother Henry when the team was in Chicago. They spent time together during batting practice, right up until the game started.
There it is, after all the games won and lost, all the arguments on the mound. After learning to crook his finger toward the bullpen to summon a new pitcher before Lackey could get a word in, after trusting him and his competitiveness enough to put him in a situation few other rookies have seen or survived, this was what Scioscia was left with.
“I think that’s probably a side that a lot of people don’t see about John,’’ Scioscia said. “He won’t admit it, but he’s a really caring person. That’s what makes him a great teammate. I think it speaks volumes for what’s really inside of John.’’
Amalie Benjamin can be reached at email@example.com.