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.