They kept looking for him Wednesday night, calling his name, chanting his name, louder and louder and louder, until Chicago Cubs pitcher John Lackey finally emerged.
The Cubs, who had just clinched the NL Central title with a 5-1 victory over the rival St. Louis Cardinals, kept the celebration relatively tame until Lackey’s arrival, clearing a path for him into the middle of the clubhouse.
Lackey slowly walked towards the middle, and with every step he took, they chanted his name, dousing him with beer, spraying him with champagne, until he stepped into the circle, where teammate Jon Lester was standing.
Lester, his teammate of nearly eight years, with the two of them winning two World Series championships together with two different organizations, asked the room for quiet.
The clock now reading 9:25 p.m., Lester began to toast not only one of his closest friends, but perhaps as fine a teammate he’s ever had in his career.
“He didn’t come here for no bleeping haircut boys,” Lester began, stealing Lackey’s infamous line of a year ago. “I know we got the playoffs going guys, but I’ve had the pleasure of calling this guy a teammate for eight years. I’ve learned a lot about the game from this guy, and I’m sure you guys have too.
“Here’s to one of the best teammates and one of the best people I’ve ever got to play with.
“Tonight is probably his last regular-season start. Here’s to one hell of a career.”
Lester and Lackey embraced, and as his teammates screamed even louder, Cubs bench coach Davey Martinez grabbed a bottle of Crown Royal. Lackey tipped his head back, and Martinez poured it down his throat.
Lackey, chugging it down as if he were at a fraternity keg party, then yelled out: “This is for the boys on the bus!”
And the Cubs screamed again, pausing long enough for Martinez to give his own speech:
“We’re not stopping here boys. We got 11 more. Eleven more. Eleven bleeping more. So keep it going. Keep it rolling. I’m proud of every one of you guys. Eleven more. Eleven more. Let me hear it.”
The Cubs, their T-shirts soaked with beer, all began chanting: “Eleven more! Eleven more! Eleven more!”
The Cubs, only the second World Series champion in eight years to return to the postseason in the ensuing season, won’t be the favorites to win it like a year ago, not with just 89 victories, but they know they’ve got a chance.
“That’s all you can ask for,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said. “We’ve got an opportunity. That’s all you want. I’m sure people aren’t picking us to win the whole thing again. But it doesn’t really matter. It’s opportunity.
“Our guys love the opportunity. They love big games. They love competition at the highest level. So it’s an opportunity to make some history.”
Certainly, there are few active pitchers who have taken advantage of their opportunity, thriving on baseball’s biggest stage, more than Lackey. He was a rookie in 2002 when he stepped onto the mound for the Los Angeles Angels in Game 7 of the World Series, and became the first rookie to win Game 7 since Babe Adams in 1909 for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He won the clinching Game 6 with the 2013 Boston Red Sox, celebrating their first title at Fenway Park since 1918. And again last year with the Cubs winning their first title in 108 years.
It was likely the last time that Lackey (12-11, 4.56 ERA) will ever start a game. He will be on the Cubs’ postseason roster, but he’s expected to pitch out of the bullpen. But if this is really it, and that was the final start of his life, he sure went with a beauty, one that will forever be remembered in Cubs folklore.
He will be remembered as the first Cubs pitcher to win a clinching game in St. Louis since 1938.
He dazzled the Cardinals for six innings, giving up just two hits and one run, suffocating the same offense that scored seven runs a night earlier. He was still losing 1-0 when the Cubs broke the game open in the seventh on Addison Russell’s three-run homer. Just like that, Lackey was the winning pitcher for the 188th and, perhaps, final time of his career.
“It was a good feeling,” Lackey said. “The boys stepped up. They’ve always been there for me.”
And, of course, Lackey has been there for them, too.
Lackey hasn’t publicly discussed his likely retirement and has shared his plans with only his closest friends and family, but Lester wanted to make sure to put the spotlight back on Lackey, wanting him to treasure this night forever.
“I wanted to do that as a repay for everything he’s done for me,” Lester said. “I think this is it for him, but if he does end up pitching somewhere, he owes me some beers.”
Lackey has spent 15 years in the big leagues and all but two months with Lester since 2010.
When they each were traded away from the Boston Red Sox in the summer of 2014, it was Lester who convinced him to join the Cubs as a free agent after the 2015 season, allowing the two of them to share history together when the Cubs won their first World Series since 1908.
“A lot of my friends have retired and moved on,” Lester said. “I got to be with him the longest, playing with him, being a part of two World Series teams with him. It’s been a fun ride.
“I remember watching Game 7 of the World Series when he pitched against the Giants when I was in instructional league in 2002. He’s been, in a roundabout way, part of my life since he got into pro ball. He’s had a great career. Really, he’s family to me.”
If this were Hollywood, the Cubs would win one more time, with Lackey going out on top. But this is baseball. All that really matters to them is that they will be together for this final ride, this last postseason together, cherishing every last moment.
“It’s not a rallying cry, but I know he wants to win as much as everybody else where,” Lester said. “And it’s something you can’t teach. You can’t teach competitiveness. You can’t teach that fire. You can’t teach that.
“I’ll always have respect for what he’s done in this game, what he’s done for me personally. I hated him with the Angels. Hated him. We went toe-to-toe a couple of times. But as a teammate, as a man, you don’t have many guys like that in the game.
“If you took a survey, whoever has played with this guy, 99.9% of the guys would say they love him.”
Lackey may have a perpetual scowl on the mound and be cranky with the media, but Epstein has never been around a player whose public perception is as vastly different as the respect and admiration he has in the clubhouse.
It was no different Wednesday night, with Lackey declining several times to address plans to retire, saying it will remain private.
Besides, he had whiskey to drink, champagne to spray, and a whole lot of cold beer to finish before the end of the night.
“You always celebrate like it’s your last one,” Lester said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen or what’s in store for you. I know people get mad about all of these celebrations, but I’d rather go all out than regret it not doing it when you had the chance.
“It’s the same with Lack. We are going to celebrate. And we’re going to celebrate together.
“This is what it’s all about.”
A final rodeo to remember.
This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook.