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Job became more personal for Terry Francona with a young player in needMonday January 28th, 2013
Second of three excerpts from former Red Sox manager Terry Francona’s memoir, co-authored by Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, which went on sale Jan. 22.
Jon Lester, who’d been called to the big leagues on June 10, 2006, was involved in a minor car accident on Storrow Drive the morning of the big day-night doubleheader at Fenway with the Yankees. Lester shook off his back pain and started the nightcap. He gave up seven runs on eight hits and was pulled with one out in the fourth. The Yankees beat the Red Sox, 14–11. Lester could barely walk when he woke up the next morning.
That car going under my truck must have messed me up, Lester thought to himself as he struggled to get to the ballpark.
It turned out to be something far more serious.
The Red Sox were swept in the five game series at home (“Boston Massacre II”), then went to the west coast for a nine-game trip. Dustin Pedroia was called up from Pawtucket and made his big league debut when the Sox lost a sixth straight game in Anaheim. By the time Lester got the ball in Anaheim for the second game of the series, the Sox had disappeared from contention in the American League East.
Lester snapped the losing streak to improve his rookie record to 7-2, but he still wasn’t feeling right. He had night sweats, was losing weight, and couldn’t shake a cold. When the ball club flew north to Seattle, Lester’s parents sent him to see his uncle Paul, an internist in greater Seattle.
“My parents and I went to the hospital early in the morning, not thinking much of it, but we were there until four in the afternoon,” said Lester. “The emergency room doctor came out and told me I either had testicular cancer or lymphoma.”
Lester reported to Terry Francona when he got to the clubhouse.
“It’s amazing how quickly you can change gears,” said Francona. “Before then, I’d been all about how do we get him so he can pitch into the seventh inning? Suddenly, it’s all about this being a kid I care about a lot.”
John Henry arranged to have Lester, his parents, and uncle fly back to Boston on Henry’s private jet.
“We all have our complaints about the workplace, but in the tough times they’d move the earth,” said the manager.
Before taking their only child across the country for a battery of tests at Massachusetts General Hospital, John and Katie Lester met with Francona at Safeco Field.
“We will take care of your son,” promised the manager.
Lester is only a year and a half older than Nick Francona, the oldest child of Terry and Jacque Francona. The manager’s nickname for Lester is “Junior.”
While Lester was at Mass. General, things got worse for Francona and the Red Sox. They lost their final six games of the trip, three in Seattle, three in Oakland. Manny Ramirez toyed with his bosses daily, changing his injury from a hamstring to a sore knee. The Sox sent Ramirez for an MRI in southern California and announced there was no structural damage. Manny’s malady was reframed as patellar tendinitis. Meanwhile, Lester and his doctor-uncle were calling the manager to explain the fear and ambiguity of his status at Mass. General.
Francona was spitting blood into a towel when he met with reporters after the finale in Seattle. He had to restrain himself from snapping when radio reporter Jonny Miller accidently banged his cane into the manager’s knee. The Sox offense had been smothered again, and Francona spit out some truth when the inevitable Manny question was asked.
“If a guy says he can’t play, I’m not going to make him play,” he said. “Go ask him. He says he can’t [expletive] play. We were hoping a couple of days off would be enough. Where it stands now, I don’t know.”
The manager’s bloodletting was due to him biting his tongue while on blood thinners. He was supposed to keep his INR blood level between 2.5 and 3, but it spiked to 5.1 during the road trip.
“If somebody had punched me then, I probably would have died,” he said. “I bit my tongue, and it didn’t stop bleeding for days.”
A perfect metaphor for the trip, and the season.
The white flag went up Aug. 31 when Theo Epstein traded David Wells to San Diego for catcher George Kottaras.
The message was clear. There was still a month to play in the 2006 season, but the Sox were already thinking about the future. The Wells deal indicated it was all about 2007.
. . .
The day after the Wells trade, the Sox announced that Lester had been diagnosed with large-cell lymphoma, an aggressive non-Hodgkin’s disease. The Red Sox connection to cancer cure is well documented. In 1953, after the Boston Braves left the Hub for Milwaukee, the Jimmy Fund became the official charity of the Red Sox. Ted Williams befriended Dr. Sidney Farber, the godfather of modern chemotherapy.Continued...