A quiet comeback
Boston's Lester resumes career after bout with cancer
Posted: Wednesday February 28, 2007 12:13PM; Updated: Wednesday February 28, 2007 12:47PM
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Here in Red Sox camp, nearly all of the early focus is on international sensation Daisuke Matsuzaka and the tardy and talented world-class goofball Manny Ramirez. That means young left-handed pitcher Jon Lester, one of the best stories this spring, is being practically ignored.
Fans were packed several rows deep behind Field No. 5 here to watch Matsuzaka's latest throwing session on Monday, while the just-turned-23-year-old Lester, who is making a heartwarming return after being diagnosed with cancer late last summer, went virtually unnoticed after following Matsuzaka to the same mound.
A majority of the massive crowd dispersed after Matsuzaka's 12-minute session was complete. But Red Sox brass is keeping a close eye on Lester. Team executives are not only surprised to see Lester in camp but impressed by how well he's looking and throwing.
Lester's exceptional grace and fluidity remain, as does the tenacity that allowed him to make it back to baseball sooner than anyone but him imagined. In terms of his comeback, the Red Sox are especially concerned about his stamina and strength. But Lester said he is happy to be doing all the drills all the others are doing.
"I feel great," said Lester. "There are some days when you feel like crap ... [but] that's just spring training."
And yet, this isn't close to just any spring training for Lester, who was diagnosed at the start of September with a rare type of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Beyond just a couple missing clumps of hair, you couldn't tell anything's amiss. He isn't necessarily celebrating his quick ride back, though.
"I expected myself to be here," Lester said, "but I don't think anyone else did."
Lester started last season 5-0 but finished 7-2 as his ERA ballooned from 2.38 to 4.76 as he began to feel the effects of his illness. Lester felt back pain following an August car accident in Boston, and the stunning diagnosis was anaplastic large cell lymphoma, a diseases so rare it represents only 1-to-2 percent of all lymphomas. Lester underwent surgery a week later, then endured six chemotherapy sessions.
He took solace in that doctors told him the cancer had not spread to the bone marrow or any organs and that they felt secure enough to wait a week to perform the surgery. Meanwhile, Lester's spirits were buoyed by those around him -- his parents (Lester is an only child), girlfriend, Roxy, and many others. "Between my friends, girlfriend and extended family, I couldn't get better support. And by extended family I mean the guys down here," Lester said.
One of those teammates, Mike Lowell, recovered after being diagnosed with testicular cancer eight years ago as a Florida Marlins rookie. He underwent radiation that caused his bat to feel like he was "swinging a tree trunk." "I have an idea what he went through," Lowell said. "I'm definitely rooting for him."
Lester's first chemo treatment precipitated three or four days of nausea, but the other five sessions went more smoothly thanks to anti-nausea drugs. Doctors told him a normal person regains strength in three to six months, yet it's only two months since his last treatment and here he is pitching alongside one of the best rotations in baseball. Others are stunned. "My goal was to get down here, it wasn't to surprise anyone," Lester said.
Now, he has a new hope. "The goal is to break with a team. I don't want to be down here on rehab," Lester said. "Come April 1, I want to go somewhere, whether it be to Boston or Pawtucket or Portland ... A-ball, wherever it is."
Gyroball: Fact or fiction
Matsuzaka is already wowing them at Red Sox camp with his fancy repertoire, although David Ortiz said to wait for an actual game before deifying him. And Wily Mo Pena said he's still waiting to see the much-discussed gyroball.
"He's got some nasty stuff," Pena raved. " Slider, breaking ball, changeup ... he's got some movement."
But where's the gyroball? Over in Yankees camp, Hideki Matsui, who conceded he hasn't faced Matsuzaka for four years, seemed to doubt its existence. "What is a gyroball?" he responded in Japanese through an interpreter to a question about the supposed pitched.
Then Matsui emphasized his skepticism by saying, in English, "I don't know."
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