If we’re being honest with ourselves, it’s not fair that a tenure marked with the loudest of roars and the biggest of accomplishments could potentially come to an end in an empty stadium, but that’s exactly the possibility we’re staring at after Chicago Cubs pitcher Jon Lester made what could be his final start at Wrigley Field on Wednesday night.
Lester, who is playing through the final season of a six-year pact he signed with the Cubs prior to the 2015 season, pitched five innings and gave up just two runs for the Cubs Wednesday, and while he didn’t figure in the decision, the talk after the team’s victory was about the impact that he has had on the franchise during his time in Chicago.
After the game, Lester spoke to reporters at Wrigley Field, and he summed up his Cubs career, and honestly life, in a succinct fashion.
“I didn’t think six years would go this fast,” he said.
No one ever does.
While Lester’s career with the Cubs may be drawing towards its end, it’s worth reminiscing, even if it’s just for a moment, about what that career has meant not just to the team, but to the fans who grew old waiting for a winner on the North Side.
When Lester signed his contract with the Cubs in 2014, things were certainly looking up, but it was far from a certainty that the Cubs would be potential contenders in 2015. Sure, they had some of the young talent in place, with Anthony Rizzo in the big leagues, Kris Bryant tearing up the minors, and with other players like Javier Baez waiting in the wings, but the team was still in the lower-tier of the National League standings, just another club hoping for big things but preparing for the possibility that everything could go catastrophically wrong.
With one big decision, and several strokes of a pen, Lester changed all of that almost overnight.
The Cubs went from a potentially interesting story to a team to look out for almost overnight. Lester’s decision to sign with the Cubs opened many eyes in both the media world and the baseball world, and it gave the Cubs’ rebuild an air of immediate legitimacy that made people take notice.
Yes, the addition of Joe Maddon in the offseason helped matters significantly too, but it was the decision by Lester to come to Chicago that signaled the real turnaround from rebuilding club to serious contender, and the dividends came fast and furious for the Cubs.
When the pressure amped up in the second half of the 2015 season, the young Cubs didn’t shirk from the challenge. Instead, they rose to the occasion, winning 97 games, beating Gerrit Cole and the Pittsburgh Pirates in a one-game playoff, and then knocking off the St. Louis Cardinals (the holiest of grails short of winning the World Series for Cubs fans) in the first round of the playoffs before falling to the New York Mets in the NLCS.
While Lester may not have won Cy Young Awards and dazzled baseball pundits with his statistics, his spirit and his dogged determination to give it his all any time he was on the mound rubbed off on his teammates, and he infused the team with a spine of steel and heart as big as the city that they represent.
Those qualities were on full display throughout the 2016 season, as the Cubs swaggered their way to an incredible regular season and to their first World Series appearance in more than 70 years.
Even in that Fall Classic, where the Cubs found themselves down three games to one, Lester’s spirit and bulldog approach were readily found in each and every player in the Chicago clubhouse. Lester went out in Game 5 of that series and pitched his guts out, helping the Cubs to a key victory and helping to slowly turn the momentum back toward the North Siders.
In Game 7 of the series, Lester, and the Cubs, had their fair share of gut-check moments. It was Lester’s wild pitch that allowed the Indians to score a pair of runs in the middle stages of that game, but Lester simply did what he always did: gritted his teeth and pitched his very best, delivering multiple innings of quality relief and pushing the Cubs closer to that World Series ring that had eluded the team for more than a century.
Of course, we all know how that series ended, as the Cubs got the victory, got the trophy, and got the satisfaction of winning the World Series that Cubs fans around the world had been waiting for their entire lives to witness.
Now, four years after that triumph and with another playoff berth in sight, it is entirely possible that Lester has made his last start at the Friendly Confines, but if this is indeed the last hurrah for Lester, then his legacy is secure in more ways than one.
He is, without question, one of the top, if not THE top, free agent signings in Chicago sports history. His arrival made everything that followed possible, and it inspired a generation of Cubs fans to believe, and inspired a group of players to believe that their time was right now, not some distant time in the future.
He has only been with the Cubs for six years, but his place in history is secure, as is his place in the hearts and memories of the fans who had waited their entire lives for a winner on the North Side.