Last February, in the wake of their epic collapse in the fall of 2011, Red Sox players arrived in Fort Myers, Fla., for the start of spring training, exhibiting the persona of Alfred E. Neumann (What me worry?) rather than one of penitent regret. Josh Beckett seemed more intent on finding the “snitch” in the clubhouse, while Adrian Gonzalez shrugged his shoulders, obliviously adding “People have to eat,” when asked about the infamous chicken and beer scandal that would serve as the ultimate metaphor for the failure of The Best Team Ever.
Both players are gone, but it seems their entitlement and density haven't gone too far.
You would think Jon Lester might tone down immediate defense of himself coming off a career-worst 9-14 season. But apparently, the lefty is just fine where he is. He doesn’t want to hear any talk of whether or not he can be an “ace,” because Lester apparently sees himself as one, even though he’s placed in the top five for Cy Young voting once. Instead he's seemingly content summoning Bill Belichick. “It is what it is.”
"What next level is there? That's the thing that frustrates me," he told WEEI.com’s Rob Bradford last week. "People don't consider me an ace or don't consider me a front-line starter. Well when there are two other pitchers in all of baseball who (won at least 15 games four straight seasons), what am I? That's my argument to it. What extra level is there to it? Am I supposed to win 25 games every year? It's not possible.
"You look at last year, how many quality starts did I have? (Note: He had 17 quality starts, same as Edwin Jackson and Jeremy Hellickson.) How games did I lose when I gave up three runs or less? I can't control the outcome of the game. I can only control being healthy every five days and going out there and pitching. That's what I consider an ace. I don't care if you're the No. 5 guy, the Opening Day guy or somewhere in between, if you take the ball every five days, you go out and pitch, bust your ass and you compete, to me, in my mind, that's an ace. So I don't know the next level. I don't know what people want from me for the next level. So I'm not concerned about the next level. I'm not concerned about what people want from me. I'm concerned that for the past six years I've taken the ball every five days, take pride in that, bust my ass in between each start and pitch 200 innings. That's all I can control."
Yeah. That sounds like a man striving to be his best. Combine that with what Dustin Pedroia had to say Tuesday morning in Fort Myers. “"Our goal is to win the World Series every year. I know everybody thinks that's not our goal, but it is."
Pedroia wants to strive for excellence. Lester is content with what he is, more concerned about his perception than his performance.
Lester is 28 and in the prime of his career, yet carries himself with a swagger that was thought to have flown cross country with Beckett last August. After his dazzling 2010 season (19-9, 3.25 ERA), it appeared that Lester’s career was trending upward, on his way to becoming one of the game’s top hurlers. But he’s done little but regress since then. The fact that he seems to be OK with that is frightening.
Why is it so hard for Lester to arrive in camp and simply admit that he stunk last year and that he needs to do better in order for this team to win? I don’t even care if he means it. Instead, he chooses to babble and defend himself, bringing up the fact that he had 17 quality starts en route to a 4.82 ERA. Neat. So did Bud Norris.
If Lester wants to be Bud Norris, then knock yourself out, I guess.
"The past two years have been kind of reality grabbers and knocked me back into thinking what I have to do get back to being me,” he told Bradford. “I think the offseason was a good time to reflect and figure out who I am. Just look back and say, 'This is me, and this is not me,' and make adjustments off of that."
Who is that guy? We still don’t know. We’ve seen flashes, but flashes do not make you one of the best in the game, a status we assumed Lester wanted to strive for.
Turns out, that may not be the case. It is what it is.