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No (no) comparison

Posted by Eric Wilbur, Boston.com Staff May 20, 2008 08:19 AM

We can only begin to imagine what all this means to Anthony Rizzo.

What went through the Red Sox prospectís mind last night as he watched history unfold at Fenway Park? Diagnosed with limited stage classical Hodgkin's Lymphoma just last week, the 18-year-old Greenville first basemanís career dreams have been placed on hold, a setback that comes as he fights for his life in a challenge that canít even be compared to any significant difficulty the game of baseball might bring.

Then, something like this happens, and ...

Not that the inspiration of the moment wouldn't have been welcomed anytime, but the fact that Jon Lester's no-hitter came just three days after the Red Sox announced that another member of their extended family had contracted a form of cancer is all the more fitting.

Less than two years ago, the Red Sox lefty -- then a rookie -- sat in the Fenway Park interview room, his green polo still etched in the minds of those who remember the moment, announcing that he intended to win his battle against analaplastic large cell lymphoma. He did.

Then, he won the deciding game of the 2007 World Series.

Then, last night, he went and threw a no-hitter, the first by a Red Sox lefty in 52 years and the fourth by a Boston pitcher this decade.

Yet none of the preceding no-nos can hold an edge over what Lester did last night on the Fenway mound. Far too often we equate the game of baseball with a great amount of importance and significance, romanticizing the sport to the point of elevating the particulars involved to idol status. We figure them for heroes based on how far they can swat at rawhide and how fast they can hurl a ball 60 feet, six inches. Their likenesses are taped to bedroom walls. Living room shrines are dedicated to them; all for their athletic prowess, ignoring any number of infidelities that might ruin our determination to see them as icons of our lives.

But then a moment like Lester's 2006 announcement comes along, and we're all reminded of the even playing field we actually share.

Maybe Lester took a little bit of Rizzo to the mound last night against the Kansas City Royals. In one of the greatest moments in Fenway Park history, the lefty pitched the best game of his career. It was the first complete game of his career, allowing just two walks, striking out nine. After going 36 years without a no-hitter, the franchise has watched four of them in seven years, two of them in the past nine months. This, though, was the greatest of them.

The best moment of last night's game wasn't the final out, it was what followed afterward. Watching Lester mobbed by his teammates, each of them taking the time to deliver a meaningful embrace. Those weren't quick man hugs, they were emotional releases after some tense moments in the Red Sox dugout, hoping, praying, that of anyone, any pitcher, that this kid could finish the job. Are you surprised that he did?

Anything that Jon Lester accomplishes from here on out shouldn't really surprise anyone. His story of survival and triumph transcends the playing field.

The first thing that went through my mind while watching Red Sox manager Terry Francona greet him -- the player he later referred to as, "my other son" -- in a poignant moment by the first base line was, "Thank God Santana isn't here." Imagine not getting to experience that moment. Imagine Lester's Boston teammates not getting to experience that moment.

We're not going to sit here and debate which is the better pitcher, for it's a foolhardy argument. But as great as he is, Johan Santana can never match Lester when it comes to inspiration and human incentive. Every so often we're reminded, that can be more important than consistent domination on the mound in the grand scheme of things.

What Lester means for the Red Sox, Boston, and cancer patients around the world is something special. Surely there are survivors in other ways of life, movie stars, teachers, family members, who serve as motivation for others. But athletes seem to carry that torch a bit more prevalently in the spotlight, using their body to make a career, the same body once feared to have failed them in life.

When we're kids, swinging away in the backyard, we dream of three things mostly: Hitting a World Series-winning home run, striking out the final batter in the World Series, and throwing a no-hitter. Lester has come as close as any other pitcher to the trifecta.

Jon McGrath of the Tacoma News-Tribune, Lester's hometown paper, writes:

Before any given game, the odds that fans will witness such a momentous event are about one in 780. The odds of any given pitcher throwing a no-hitter are twice that: one in 1,560.

The odds of a no-hitter produced by a 24-year-old who'd never thrown a complete game in 35 previous major-league starts, who last spring was recovering from treatments for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma -- and who this spring was rumored to be on the trading block -- well, those odds are off the charts.

That's perhaps fitting, as it's difficult to equate Lester's overall value sometimes in terms of wins, losses, and ERA. Nobody is going to enjoy the Jon Lester story if he's 5-11 with a 5.45 ERA year-in and year-out. Most of all, Jon Lester.

He's still learning, still growing as both a man and a pitcher. Last night we got to see a grand celebration of both.

Lester may grow weary of the constant questions of cancer that he's asked, wanting surely to look ahead, not back, but never will he tire of the accomplishments he's already achieved in his career. His determination and success can't be easily quantified for those in a similar battle, seeking a little bit of a lift. Jon Lester beat cancer. Jon Lester won a World Series-clinching game. Jon Lester threw a no-hitter.

For Rizzo, that childhood dream of hitting a World Series home run still lives, as he fights to do the same. For thousands of others, dreams remain alive as they fight disease every day, a draining process that needs every bit of mental stimulation available.

Good for Jon Lester. In a town that boasts its share of illustrious sports stories, his is rising to the top.

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26 comments so far...
  1. It's so easy to become cynical as a sports fan - arrests, performance enhancing drugs, gambling, cheapskate owners, and many other unpleasant issues. Moments like last night's game are why we will always keep watching.

    Posted by Tom May 20, 08 09:53 AM
  1. I was 15 rows behind the Sox dugout last night. There was not a peep of "no hitter" chat amongst the fans. We all knew what was on the line, and all prayed it would happen. There is no better story than John Lester's, and I cannot think of a more deserving athlete.

    Posted by ADulany May 20, 08 10:07 AM
  1. Jon's a great pitcher, and only getting better. We're lucky to have him. Thanks, Theo, for not giving in.

    Posted by Jeneen May 20, 08 10:35 AM
  1. Great article Eric. This really does exemplify what makes sports great... its
    One of the few things in life that can have a perfect, storybook movie
    ending.

    Posted by JD May 20, 08 11:04 AM
  1. Eric...a moving, emotional tribute to a moving, emotional accomplishment on the part of Jon Lester. Thanks.

    Posted by Brian May 20, 08 11:23 AM
  1. great article Eric, thanks
    live in the Florida panhandle and watch most games on MLBTV
    got in late and popped on the game on around the 5th inning
    at that point, peeked at the box score to see how the first 5 runs were scored
    ... and see that, OMG, Jon is tossing a no-hitter ...
    without a word to my partner and understanding that theres still alot of game to be played, a simple wide-eyed look to the screen and a smile said it all
    the game continues ... excitement building ...
    yeah, that last pitch was pretty awesome ... but the congrats and hugs from teammates and coaches afterwards was just extra extra e x t r a special
    and extraordinary young man, Jon Lester
    thanks and much love
    GO SOX

    Posted by c & r May 20, 08 11:35 AM
  1. Eric - Great piece of writing! I didn't even think of it in terms of the Santana trade, but , as you suggest, thank God that trade did not go through. Seeing Jon out there last night is worth 20 wins.

    Posted by James Montgomery May 20, 08 11:43 AM
  1. On 8/19/06 (pre-cancer diagnosis), Kevin Hench of foxsports.com wrote this on Boston Dirt Dogs: "Jon Lester is not Francisco Liriano and he never will be." It looks like Hench got it backwards.

    Posted by Mike B May 20, 08 12:06 PM
  1. I know you probably didn't get to see this, but the article is great!

    Posted by Dennis Estes May 20, 08 12:07 PM
  1. I am thrilled that we still have Jon and were able to experience something very special last night that is bigger than baseball. Yes, we all want to win, but for me, I felt better about being a Red Sox fan last night than I did after the last year's World Series win. 2004 changed many things, and perhaps lets us cheer not only for championships, but for moments like these. While I was not at the game last night, my teenage son who recently lost his best friend to cancer was, and the look on his face when he returned home is something I will never forget. Thanks Jon and thanks to the Red Sox for making last nigh possible.

    Posted by MC May 20, 08 12:12 PM
  1. Great article Eric! What an extraordinary moment and what an extraordinary man!

    Posted by RMJ May 20, 08 12:24 PM
  1. Eric,
    What a fansastic piece. Those of us whose lives have been touched been cancer are so inspired by what we have seen Jon Lester do over the course of the past several months. As I watched the Red Sox mob Jon Lester last night I found tears running down my face tears of joy. What a marvelous inspiration Jon Lester is to all who struggle against this horrible disease. We are all blessed to have witnessed your performance last night. There are not very many on this planet who can lay claim to what you already have accomplished in just 24 short years. Eric, you did your profession proud with a fantastic piece of writing. Jon Lester you did yourself, your family, your team, and Red Sox Nation proud. Congratulations on what I'm sure will be another storied chapter in your remarkable career!

    Posted by Josh Korin May 20, 08 12:29 PM
  1. Lester's no-hitter pitch type breakdown:
    Fastballs: 82 (5Ks) (89-96mph)
    Cutters: 26 (3Ks) (85-91mph)
    Curveballs: 16 (1K) (75-80mph)
    Changeups: 6 (82-85mph)

    Know your pitchers: http://www.60ft6in.com

    Posted by sven jenkins May 20, 08 12:47 PM
  1. Wow! Great article, Eric. Couldn't have said it better myself. Really outstanding sentiments.

    Posted by Mary May 20, 08 12:58 PM
  1. What a great moment. It's time for Boston to get behind Lester the way we have Ellsbury, Pedroia, and Papelbon. He's got the heart of a warrior.

    Posted by J-Bone May 20, 08 01:01 PM
  1. Fantastic article Mr Wilbur. Jon is an inspiration for sure.

    Posted by Krystyn May 20, 08 01:13 PM
  1. I was on the Monster. It was an incredible night. I was there when Clemens struck out 20 in 1986......THIS WAS BETTER!!! Cheers to Jon Lester and the Sox. And Jacoby Ellsbury. What a catch!!!

    Posted by Barry Brodsky May 20, 08 02:10 PM
  1. My father was a die hard Red Sox fan and Yankee hater. I have carried that tradition on since he died of cancer in 2005. We would watch Sox games as I would cook and clean for him in the last months of his life. My brother, father and I got to see the Sox win a world series in 2004 and watching him jump around and hug us like we won that game ourselves will be unforgettable. My father's birthday was on May 17th and I wanted to congratulate Jon Lester for his courage and fight to not only come back from this unforgiving disease but to give Sox fans another memory that we will tell our grandchildren. This is why I love this game. This is why I love this team! Thanks for another memory to add to the bank. Happy Birthday Dad!

    Posted by Marc R. May 20, 08 02:30 PM
  1. Great article, Eric. Way to go Jon!!! I've been a fan for 60 years and have never felt so emotional. It goes to show that there are miracles.

    Posted by lwinlc May 20, 08 02:35 PM
  1. Anthony Rizzo, our prayers are with you. Just as our prayers were with Jon Lester. As you go through treatment, I hope you will be comforted by knowing that Red Sox Nation is behind you.

    Posted by TJ May 20, 08 03:25 PM
  1. To all the professional athletes of the world who claim that they are not nor should be required to be role models, Jon Lester puts them all to shame. He is what professional sports should be about, giving one's all, without cheating or artificial stimulants, living an admirable life, one that you would like your kids to emulate and not fearing to show and express the tender side of human emotions. For many a youngster who is dreaming of athletic stardom in the future, Jon Lester's performance both on the field and afterwards last night already makes him an MVP. God bless him and the others like him for whom the game is important but not the overriding power of one's life. I am still tingling from having watched his dual performances last night.

    Posted by DanaS. May 20, 08 03:54 PM
  1. Last night's no-hitter by Jon Lester has to be one of the greatest sports moments of all time. Here is a young man who, less than two years ago was diagnosed with cancer. He beats the disease and works with great determination to get his pitching career back on track while regaining his physical strength. Then, three months after he makes his comeback on the major league roster, he pitches the game that wins the World Series for the Red Sox. Just seven months after that, he throws a no-hitter, becoming the first lefty to pitch a no-no for the Sox in over 50 years. He's an inspiration to cancer patients and others facing seemingly unsurmountable odds. Congratulations, Jon Lester, for becoming the fine young pitcher you are and for never giving up in the face of adversity.

    Posted by Kristin May 20, 08 05:16 PM
  1. I think Lester is finally showing us what kind of pitcher he can be.

    Posted by RED May 21, 08 06:09 AM
  1. We would all do well to have our sons grow up to be Jon Lesters. Amen.

    Posted by john shea May 22, 08 12:25 PM
  1. =

    Posted by Zsnostepoifs September 29, 09 05:15 PM
  1. =

    Posted by Gsnostepoifs September 30, 09 05:47 AM
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