Jon Lester and his wife, sitting around the kitchen table recently, turned the conversation to the Chicago Cubs’ upcoming postseason, and Farrah had a few questions about this wacky World Series drought.
There are myriad reasons, Lester tried to explain, and began giving his wife a brief history lesson in the bizarre world of Cubs jinxes and curses. There was the Billy Goat in 1945. The black cat in 1969. Leon Durham’s error in 1984. The Steve Bartman play in 2003.
Whoa, whoa. Farrah stopped him right there. She needed details.
“So tell me,” she said, “what’s this Steve Bartman story?”
“Well, it’s kind of a big deal here,” said Lester, who proceeded to talk about the most hated fan in Cubs history.
“Wait,” Farrah said, “so the player trying to catch the ball was Steve Bartman?”
“No, that was the fan,” Lester said, reciting the story to USA TODAY Sports. “Bartman was the one who got in the way of them catching the ball. He had to be escorted out of the stadium. He got death threats. He had to get a different name, I think. He lives somewhere else now. He’s just kind of disappeared.”
Farrah: “Wow, that’s just terrible.”
Lester said to her, “Well, that’s what we’re dealing with right now.
“Welcome to Chicago.”
And welcome to the Cubs’ 2016 postseason, where Game 1 of the National League Division Series is Friday (9:15 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1) vs. the San Francisco Giants at Wrigley Field, with Lester taking the mound.
Lester, lured here a year ago with a $155 million deal and the chance to help end this century-long angst, is the one being asked to squelch the fears of their loyal fans, making them believe this really is the year.
“The whole thing with the curse and all the other stuff is kind of humorous to some of these young guys in here,” Lester says. “They laugh at these curses and superstitions. Some of these guys don’t even know what it is.
“They don’t really know, but I do, and it’s why I’m here. That was the selling point to me. To bring a World Series back to Chicago.”
Lester, the marquee pitcher on the 2014 free agent market, could have easily been pitching for the team he’s facing in Game 1. The Giants offered more money than the Cubs. The Boston Red Sox, who had traded Lester to the Oakland Athletics that summer, also made nearly a comparable offer.
It was nothing personal, Lester says, but after talking to Cubs President Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer, both of whom he knew from his days in Boston, and finally manager Joe Maddon, he was convinced this is where he belonged.
Sure, he won two World Series rings with the Red Sox that are never displayed and kept stored in a safe. He was proud to be on that 2013 team that went from last to first, producing one of the greatest postseason performances, going 4-1 with a 1.56 ERA.
Yet despite all the glory and everything he accomplished, it gnawed at him that he wasn’t part of history, the 2004 team that will forever be remembered in New England for ending the Red Sox’s 86-year drought.
“That was a big thing for me coming here,” said Lester, who was with Class A Sarasota (Fla.) that season, reaching the big leagues two years later. “That’s why I want to be so bad to be part of the first one here.
“We’ve got a chance to do something no one still alive has ever seen. I get goose bumps just talking about it.”
Yes, an honest-to-goodness Cubs World Series title, so they can become cult heroes, just like that ’04 Red Sox team. It doesn’t matter whether it’s David Ortiz, Pedro Martinez, Kevin Millar or even Dave Roberts, they all are legends throughout New England.
“I tell these guys all of the time,” Lester said, “Dave Roberts didn’t even have an at-bat in that postseason. But Dave Roberts stole a bag. One bag. The biggest in franchise history. And the dude is a legend.
“This is not to take anything away from Dave Roberts’ career, but he can walk into any restaurant he wants to in Boston and get a free meal and be taken care of for life.
“Can you imagine what it would be like here?”
Feeling much more acclimated to his surroundings, Lester was sensational this season, going 19-5 with a 2.44 ERA, including a major league-best 1.46 ERA in the final two months of the season. He became the first pitcher in 40 years to have 21 starts in which he didn’t give up more than one earned run. He also became the first Cubs pitcher to have a quality start every time he took the mound at Wrigley Field, pitching at least six innings and yielding three or fewer runs.
He certainly put himself in the Cy Young Award conversation and is expected to finish among the top three finalists with Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals and teammate Kyle Hendricks.
“It would definitely be a huge honor, especially at this stage of my career,” Lester said. “The way people were talking about 30-year-old pitchers, I thought I would wake up and my arm would be detached from my body.
“To win it, I’d be the happiest guy in the world.
“But at the end of the day, I was brought here to win a World Series, not a Cy Young.”
Lester, catching himself a bit, truly thinks this is the year. This team is too talented. It has too much heart. Too much soul and character.
For all this to suddenly vanish, just because of some silly curse, makes no sense.
“This year just feels special,” Lester said. “For me last year, especially early on, you just didn’t know what people wanted. I know I kind of put everybody at a distance, the fans and even my teammates to a certain extent. It was like everybody was guarded, especially early in the year, and really weren’t themselves.
“This year is just different. We’ve got a bunch of knuckleheads around here that just enjoy playing baseball and being around each other, hanging in the clubhouse.”
And, yes, they’ve learned how to party together, making sure to celebrate each victory and becoming perhaps the first team in baseball history to hire its own clubhouse DJ when they clinched the division.
“These guys are having too good of a time to stop now,” Lester said. “And you know something? So am I.”
This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter @BNightengale