In the middle of a sit-down interview near the end of spring training, Theo Epstein noticed John Lackey and called out: “I’m just saying nice things about you.”
“Oh Jesus,” Lackey said, stopping for a moment in between the Cubs clubhouse and the weight room at the team’s Arizona complex.
Epstein kept talking: “You don’t give a f--- what people think. And that’s why…”
“That’s a good point,” Lackey said with a smile. “That’s a fact.”
Epstein laughed and turned back to the reporter sitting at a patio table: “Ask any clubhouse he’s ever been in — he’s beloved by the other 24 guys.”
The last time he pitched at Wrigley Field, a raucous crowd chanted “LACK-EY! LACK-EY!” after he gave up a thunderous three-run homer to Javier Baez in the National League divisional round, the Cubs eliminating the St. Louis Cardinals in their first-ever playoff matchup in a rivalry that stretches all the way back to 1892.
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Lackey should get a warmer reception on Wednesday night when he faces the Cincinnati Reds and makes his first start in a Cubs uniform at Clark and Addison. If not, hey, he’s not angling for a media gig in his post-playing career or worrying if the bleacher bums will boo him.
“I just think it’s irrelevant,” Lackey said. “Who cares? As long as the guys in here feel a certain way about me, I’m good.”
The Cubs wanted an edgier personality to push their pitching staff and enhance their clubhouse chemistry. Lackey called Chicago his favorite city as a visiting player and knew enough people inside the organization that he didn’t even string his free-agent decision out to the winter meetings.
As president of baseball operations, Epstein has autonomy over scouting, player development and the big-league product, the aura that comes from the two World Series teams he helped build for the Boston Red Sox and the expectation that he will soon become the highest-paid personnel executive in the game.
In Chicago, seemingly every waiver claim, trade throw-in and faded Red Sox prospect became a chance to look at the roster churn and find deeper meaning in The Plan. Like the T-shirts said after he arrived in October 2011: “In Theo We Trust.”
That made the mixed reactions to the Lackey signing on Twitter so interesting. Even Epstein noticed the hot takes on social media after closing a two-year, $32 million deal that looked very reasonable in an overheated pitching market.
“He’s someone who doesn’t spend any time whatsoever trying to manicure his reputation anywhere besides inside the clubhouse,” said Epstein, who had put together a five-year, $82.5 million contract for Lackey in Boston. “He doesn’t care what the media thinks. He doesn’t care what the fans think.
“So that combined with his intense demeanor on the mound, I think he’s perceived — as someone from the outside looking in — as like this big brute who must be a tough guy to get along with.
“And the reality is — ask anyone who’s ever played with him — he’s beloved inside the clubhouse.”
Lackey pitched Game 4 for the Cardinals on short rest last October, and teammates appreciate how he always wants to take the ball. It’s the way he made 28 starts and accounted for 160 innings with the Red Sox in 2011 — and then had Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.
Manager Joe Maddon — the Anaheim Angels bench coach when Lackey beat Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants in Game 7 of the 2002 World Series — compared the 6-foot-6 Texan to John Wayne.
“He’s a fun guy to have around, actually,” veteran catcher Miguel Montero said. “He’s a guy that you hate when you played against him. I never thought he was a nice guy. The way he is, I mean, I never thought he was a really good guy. I didn’t really like him. And (I find out) he’s a great teammate.”
Some of this is inevitable when you pitch almost 2,500 innings in The Show, perform in 15 playoff series (8-5, 3.11 ERA) and have that snarling demeanor on the mound.
Just ask Jon Lester, Lackey’s close friend through the turbulence in Boston who also helped the 2013 Red Sox go worst-to-first and win a World Series title.
“Lack sometimes gets a bad rap,” Lester said. “I would imagine I’m not liked too much on the other side. I think when you compete against guys — and he’s been around a long, long time — you just end up getting that kind of stigma.
“Listen, when we’re pitching, we’re grinding. We’re yelling and spitting and screaming and hollering. Just like in life, you have different personalities when it comes (to) playing (the game).
“Jake (Arrieta) doesn’t show emotion. You never see him show emotion. I actually envy guys like that. Their face never changes and it’s just hard for guys like me and (Lackey). We wear our emotions on the sleeve.”
The Angels drafted Lackey with the 68th overall pick in 1999 — or five years after shortstop Addison Russell was born. Lackey made his big-league debut in June 2002 — against a Texas Rangers lineup that featured Alex Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez and Rafael Palmeiro.
“When you’re on the other side – especially when somebody’s good — you want to beat them,” Lester said. “When somebody has a name and they’ve established themselves, you always watch them a little bit more.
“Once you have a name and (some success), guys start nitpicking at things that stand out and bother them. But I would put money on it: There’s not one person that he’s ever played with that would have a bad thing to say about him.”
If Lackey doesn’t obsess over his legacy at the age of 37, he’s still aware of how he will be remembered if he’s part of the Cubs team that finally wins the World Series for the first time since 1908.
“Coming here was a chance to make history,” Lackey said. “Choosing to do something special was a factor, for sure. It’s something I thought about. Hopefully, we get it done.”