NEW YORK – Jon Lester won two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox, but he missed out on being part of the 2004 team that will live forever at Fenway Park.
“Those guys are legends in Boston,” Lester said. “I always use the comparison that Dave Roberts stole one base — and this guy hasn’t paid for a meal or drink since.”
Lester couldn’t legally buy a beer in 2004, spending most of that season with a Class-A affiliate, making the steady climb toward Boston that would turn him into a three-time All-Star and one of the best big-game pitchers of his generation. Still, those Red Sox championship teams in 2007 and 2013 will never be remembered like the “Band of Idiots.”
The Cubs appealed to Lester’s ego and sense of history when they signed him to a six-year, $155 million megadeal last winter, selling losing and 1908 to a proven winner.
“It’s got to end sometime, right?” Lester said Friday at Citi Field, a little more than 24 hours before he would start Game 1 of the National League Championship Series against the New York Mets.
Four wins away from the franchise’s first World Series trip since 1945, this is the absolute best-case scenario the Cubs painted when Lester made his recruiting visit to Chicago last November.
Cubs president Theo Epstein, the former Red Sox general manager, knew which buttons to push during a presentation that involved multiple departments. The Cubs explained what the organization could do for Lester’s charitable foundation, how Chicago’s a livable city for young families, when Wrigley Field’s renovations will take shape and why all this young talent would create a perennial contender.
But after five straight fifth-place finishes, Epstein also didn’t want to overpromise in Year 1 of that symbolic contract. If everything broke right, maybe the Cubs could get into the playoffs as a wild-card team and get hot at the right time, like the Kansas City Royals team that made it to Game 7 of last year’s World Series.
“We spent a lot of time talking about 2016 and beyond,” Epstein said, “and what we would look like and how we thought at that time we would be consistent contenders.
“He kept bringing the conversation back to 2015. He said: ‘Hey, I’ve just been through a season in Boston where we tried to break in a lot of young players and it got me in last place and got me traded. I’m not looking to go through that again.’”
As advertised, Lester made 30-plus starts for the eighth year in a row and put up his seventh season with at least 200 innings, but this would be a team full of unknowns, X-factors and unique chemistry that could never be measured by numbers.
Internally, the Cubs predicted between 84 and 86 wins this year, though a critical mass of potential big-league talent created a bigger variance than usual in those preseason projections.
“It didn’t take much for (Theo) to convince me about these young guys,” Lester said. “He sat there and gave me highlight after highlight and number after number on these guys and what they projected them to do.
“The biggest thing that sold me (on) the whole organization was just how arrogant he was about it. And I mean that in a good way. He was very confident in what he (had done) to that point to get this team to the next step. (That) was the most impressive part — just how confident he was (that) these guys were not going to be failures.”
[NBC SHOP: Get your Cubs postseason gear here]
Kris Bryant — a slam-dunk choice for Rookie of the Year — has now played almost as many games in the majors (151 plus a third playoff round coming) as the minors (181). Kyle Schwarber — already a playoff legend in Wrigleyville — had been in instructional league at this time last year. Addison Russell (21), Javier Baez (22) and Jorge Soler (23) should just be getting started.
“They weren’t going to be a bust when the scouting report gets out (or) get exposed,” Lester said. “You really understand now what he saw. It’s not just baseball players — they’re good kids. They compete. They show up every day to play.
“The hardest thing for me to learn at a young age was (how) to be prepared to do my job (every) day. They do it day in and day-out (and) bust their butt.”
If the young Cubs live up to the hype, Lester will never have to buy dinner or pay for a drink in Chicago for the rest of his life.
“It’s fun to think about,” Lester said, “but we’ve got some games to go before we get there.”