Job became more personal for Terry Francona with a young player in need
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“Dr. Farber always told me, ‘We’re gonna find a way to save these kids!’ Williams later recalled. “And goddammit, he did!”
With the help of the Red Sox, the Jimmy Fund has saved thousands of lives. For more than a half-century, Red Sox players have visited cancer patients at Children’s Hospital and the Jimmy Fund Clinic. An annual Red Sox flagship telethon raises tens of millions of dollars. Sox pitcher Bob Stanley was a champion of the Jimmy Fund, then benefited from the clinic’s research when his own son, Kyle, was successfully treated for a malignant sinus tumor. Mike Andrews, second baseman with the 1967 Red Sox, was chairman of the Jimmy Fund for more than three decades after he retired from baseball.
In the days and weeks after the disclosure of Lester’s cancer, Francona protected Lester’s privacy furiously, admonishing any reporter who attempted to reach Lester’s family. The manager guarded the pitcher and his family as he would have protected his own family. Before starting treatment in September, Lester visited Francona at Fenway. Then, after a single treatment at Mass. General, Lester went home and was treated at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
“Tito was great with me,” said Lester. “I don’t think with any other manager I could have had that comfort level.”
The manager and the cancer-stricken pitcher cut a deal. Francona didn’t need a lot of information or detail, but he wanted to hear from Lester after every treatment.
The text messages would come every three weeks.
“Hey, Tito, just checking in,” Lester would type. “Had my treatment today. I’m okay.”
That’s the way it went until the first week of December 2006. Francona was at the winter meetings with Epstein in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., when his phone rang. Jon Lester calling. No text. The manager was alarmed. Something might be wrong.
He picked up and heard the voice of Lester on the other end.
“I’m cancer-free,” Lester told his manager. “You’re my first call.”
“That’s so great, Junior,” said Francona. “Thanks so much for calling. Now go get ready for spring training.”
Ending the call, Francona put down the phone and started crying. He’d been holding on to his emotions for months. He hadn’t talked to anybody about it.
Then, and now, Lester made it a habit to talk about Francona as a paternal presence in his professional life. The lefty was fond of saying his manager had been like a second father to him.
“That made me feel good, but I didn’t ever want to say something like that,” said Francona. “You only have one father. But you see these kids come up through the organization and you get close. You care about them. You see them grow up. You know more about them than you know about a guy you sign as a free agent who comes in to help you win games.”
“I think that phone call caught him off guard,” Lester said later. “I don’t have any brothers or sisters. I wanted the Red Sox family to know that I was cancer-free. I was ready to come back and pitch.”
“It was the most important thing that could have happened at the winter meetings,” said Francona. “The meetings were already a success.”
. . .
Francona started the ’07 spring with Lester just as he had in 2005 — telling the lefty that he needed to relax. Don’t be in a rush. Work your way back. For his spring training debut, the manager sent Lester to Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers to pitch an inning of a “B” game against Twins minor leaguers. It was a baby step. Lester threw eight pitches in a one-two-three inning, which is exactly what the Sox wanted. Lester was still 10 pounds underweight and far from baseball-ready. He was not part of the plan for the start of the season, but the manager knew the lefty was eager to get back to the majors. Francona called Lester’s dad.
“We’re going to have a meeting with your son and really piss him off,” said the manager. “He’s not ready to do this. We have to take care of him. And it’s going to be slow.”
Francona called Lester into his office.
“Jon, you’re not going to start the season with us. We understand how hard you’ve worked, and this is not an indictment on your work. But you’re going to get hurt if you try to come back right now. I don’t want you to get discouraged. You just need to go slowly here.”
Seven months later, with the Red Sox leading the Colorado Rockies, three games to zero, Jon Lester started the fourth game of the World Series at Coors Field in Denver. Coming back from lymphoma, Lester had 18 starts in the minors, pitching in Greenville, Portland, and Pawtucket. He pitched only three games for manager Gabe Kapler at Greenville, but he met his future wife while pitching for the A-ball affiliate (“Everything happens for a reason,” said Lester). He returned to the majors July 23, pitching six innings in a 6–2 win, but experienced elbow trouble and went back to the minors for a start at Portland in late August. By October, he was strong. He was not on the Sox roster for the ALDS and was used only in relief in the Championship Series against the Indians.Continued...