Jon Lester's awkward adventure


BOSTON -- Jon Lester's awkward (and not so excellent) adventure to the ballpark -- the one in which his starting assignment was scratched in anticipation that he could be traded at any moment -- commenced with hushed whispers from a smattering of early-bird fans. (There he is. Poor guy. He's gone. They won't pay him. Ssshh. He might hear you.) His usual stroll into the Fenway clubhouse was met with squeamish stares, the kind you get when you have spinach in your teeth, or spaghetti sauce on your cheek.

Should we tell him? Should we not?

"I heard he's going to the Orioles," said one of the team attendants, shortly after Lester changed out of his street clothes into his Sox uniform, likely for the final time. "I wasn't sure if it was true. I didn't know if I should ask ... "

Lester's arrival coincided with the official news that Red Sox pitcher Felix Doubront had been sent packing to the Chicago Cubs, baseball's current version of Major League purgatory.

Doubront, unhappy with his demotion from starter to reliever, sealed his fate Monday night with an underwhelming performance in which he coughed up six runs on six hits. Doubront appeared alternately disinterested and indifferent as the self-inflicted damage he caused continued to mount.

And that is one of the many reasons the Red Sox clubhouse was churning with tension and discontent Wednesday as Lester reported for work on Yawkey Way amid a swirl of uncertainty.

The malcontent Doubront, who said all the wrong things, who flapped his gums and flaunted his misery and asked for a trade, was granted his wish.

The consummate veteran Lester, the one who wants to stay, who even offered a "hometown discount," soldiered on, knowing his days were numbered in spite of doing and saying all the right things.

It remains confounding to Lester's teammates that he is the man who headlines the team's fire sale. He should be untouchable. Equally galling to them is the realization that no matter what Lester did this season, it wasn't going to make any difference. Never mind the 2.52 ERA (on track to be a career best), the 1.12 WHIP, the 9.38 strikeouts per 9 innings.

The only number that seems to be relevant to the front office is 30: his age.

"I just don't understand it," said David Ortiz.

Lester has stoically accepted his fate with the grace of a professional, thanking fans for support via Twitter and refusing to serve up even a smidge of bitterness to reporters who are hungry to document his sentiments.

His growth as a player and a leader has been slow, steady and commendable. The days when one bad pitch would quickly unravel into a catastrophic outing have faded to black. Lester was once a card-carrying chicken-and-beer comrade, but, in the wake of it all, he stood up, accepted responsibility for his role in that distasteful chapter of Red Sox lore and vowed to be a better teammate.

No wonder it is so excruciating for the guys who have won a championship with him to imagine life without him.

"It's hard to watch it happen to a guy who is homegrown, who worked his butt off," said Shane Victorino. "I've been other places where players have gone on tirades saying, 'I deserve this. I need that.' All Jon said was, 'I want market value.' He's handled everything correctly.

"If he [goes], it will be sad. Whatever happens, Jon will be fine. I hope he stays here so we'll be fine too."

Shortly before his daily pregame news conference, manager John Farrell surveyed his sagging clubhouse and acknowledged the stress the multiple trade rumors had caused among his team. John Lackey, Andrew Miller, Jonny Gomes, Stephen Drew and Mike Carp are among the other Sox players who are wondering what the future brings.

"We just need this deadline to pass," Farrell said.

It was a sad, poignant scene two and a half hours before the game to watch Lester and Farrell conversing in the infield as the Red Sox took batting practice. The two appeared almost wistful as they carried on their private conversation while balls soared over their heads.

Farrell has matched Lester's stoic stance, yet it's obvious to everyone around the manager that he does not want to part with his ace.

It was Farrell, the Sox pitching coach at the time, who objected vociferously behind closed doors back in December 2007 when the Red Sox contemplated a Lester-for- Johan Santana swap.

We can surmise he's expressed his objections this time around, too, but this decision is over his head. This is about dollars and cents, not common baseball sense.

There is some merit to the thinking of owner John Henry. He's right when he spews the numbers of players (especially pitchers) over the age of 30 who signed long-term deals and were unable to perform throughout the length of the contract. You need look no further than the confines of the Evil Empire, where 34-year-old CC Sabathia has been shelved for the season with knee surgery. Last year, his season was cut short with hamstring troubles after he posted a career-high 4.78 ERA and gave up 112 earned runs in 211 innings. Peruse the numbers for Johan Santana and Barry Zito and a similar pattern emerges. Even Justin Verlander is experiencing an alarming drop-off in performance and velocity since turning 30 and signing his megadeal.

But, as with any analytic trend, there are always outliers who beat the odds and skew the numbers.

Lester is worth the gamble that he could be That Guy. Aside from his frightening cancer diagnosis, he has been consistently healthy, takes care of his physique and has refined his pitching approach. He's a proven postseason winner and has absorbed both the scorn and the admiration of the Fenway Faithful and seems nonplussed by both.

You'd think after the horrific Carl Crawford experiment that Sox ownership would know not to underestimate the value of that.

Someone will overpay for Jon Lester. The Boston Red Sox can afford to be that team -- don't ever believe they can't -- but they appear ready to begin anew with the prospects they accumulate.

Maybe one will turn out to be a tough-minded lefty who beats cancer, becomes a leader and evolves into a World Series hero.

Or maybe not.

When the first pitch was thrown at precisely 7:06 p.m. Wednesday night, it was hurled by Pawtucket call-up Brandon Workman, not Cy Young candidate Jon Lester.

Workman promptly walked the first two batters, spotted the Toronto Blue Jays two runs, then strode to the dugout shaking his head after already throwing 36 pitches.

Boston lost 6-1 with Lester, in uniform, cheering from the dugout for all nine innings.

Jon Lester's awkward (not so excellent) adventure at the ballpark finished the way it started: with hushed whispers, disappointed teammates and a future that is murky save for one gnawing reality: He probably has worn his Red Sox jersey for the final time.