How Lackey found redemption without even trying

How Lackey found redemption without even trying
October 16, 2013, 12:45 pm
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John Lackey’s greatest attribute is also his worst. Or at least that’s how it’s been perceived at different points along his certifiably schizophrenic four seasons in Boston. That attribute? He doesn’t give a damn. Never has and never will. But that’s OK. Right now, everything is.
In a weird way, this has been the most impressive aspect of Lackey’s unlikely turnaround. More than his weight loss, which set the tone from the start. More than his consistency, which (with help from Felix Doubront) kept the train rolling while Clay Buchholz recovered, Jon Lester found himself, and Jake Peavy adjusted to his new team. More than his not-so-trademark patience while receiving the second-worst run support in the AL East (more than a run less any other Boston starter). Even more than his performance last night in Detroit — where Lackey was as dominant as we’ve ever seen him in a Red Sox uniform; where he went punch-for-punch with one of the best pitchers in the world, at the very top of his game, and emerged (albeit, a little early and thanks to a huge assist from the bullpen) victorious, leaving Boston two wins from the World Series.
More than anything, what stands out most about Lackey’s yearlong Redemption Tour, is this: He’s succeeded without showing even an ounce of remorse for everything that left him searching for redemption in the first place. That ultimately, he’s been forgiven despite remaining entirely unapologetic about all that he’s been forgiven for.
It's like this: Have you ever done something really stupid, selfish or insensitive in a relationship? I mean pretty much anything that, for whatever reason, truly upset your significant other? Yes, I’m sure you have. In which case you know that when something like that happens, regardless of anything else you do to improve the situation, nothing changes without an honest, heartfelt apology. There’s nothing more important.
Well, Lackey found a loophole.
Is this a criticism? Nope. Like I already said, I’m not even mad; it’s amazing. It’s a testament to just how well Lackey’s pitched, and it reiterates the basic truth behind any fan/athlete relationship: Performance is all that matters. Do your job, don’t kill anyone or anything, and everything else fades into the background.
At the same time, it’s hard to ignore just how easy it would’ve been, at some point during this long, overwhelmingly positive season, for Lackey to reach out, address the past and officially make peace. To leave Sox fans with literally zero reason to harbor any weird feelings for how things used to be.
He had the chance on July 2. Lackey had just wrapped up a dominant outing against the Padres: Eight innings, six hits, six strikeouts, one walk and one earned run. It was his fourth of six straight quality starts. It dropped his ERA to 2.81. And as he walked off the mound at the end of the eighth, with the crowd sensing that he was done for the night, Lackey’s exit was accompanied by a rousing standing ovation.
It was as heartfelt and intense as it was unlikely. After all, before this season, there was a better chance of seeing a standing 'O' for Bernard Pollard at Gillette.
After the game, CSN’s Sean McAdam asked about that ovation. He basically dug a hole, threw in the hatchet, handed Lackey a shovel and said: “Here – bury this."
“The fans gave you a nice hand tonight,” McAdam said. “To what degree do you think you’ve won them back, and if you have, how satisfying is that to you?”
It wouldn’t have taken much. Hell, Lackey didn’t even have to mean it.
“Oh yeah. That was great, for sure," Lackey could have said. "The fans were great. I really appreciated that. I’m just happy to be here and a part of everything that’s going on with this team.”
Boom. That’s it. All he needed to do. Total redemption was a six-inch putt.
Instead, here’s how it played out (by the way, you can watch the video here, just skip ahead to the 55-second mark.
When the question wrapped, Lackey slapped his hand onto the side of his face, and slowly, almost painstakingly, dragged it down his cheek. He paused for a full 10 seconds, which in that scenario feels like 10 minutes. After that, a smirk came over his face, and his tongue started twitching nervously inside of his mouth. Finally, he spoke:
“Uhh . . . I . . . I don’t know. I’m going out and pitching well and I think that’s all they want to see, I guess. So hopefully, you know, that’s enough . . . but I mean . . . having to win the fans back to begin with is another . . . whatever.”
About eight weeks later, on August 17, Lackey went 6.2 innings and gave up only one run in an eventual 6-1 victory over the Yankees. As he walked off the Fenway mound, in line for his first win after a pair of hard luck losses, the fans were back on their feet for another ovation.
“It's nice for sure," Lackey said when asked about it afterwards. "It was a nice ovation for sure . . .”
Ooh, what’s this now? Was Lackey coming around?
He continued: “ . . . especially the guys in the dugout who were standing up waiting on me.”
Ahhh. So close.
But again, whatever.
And whatever.
This is the essence of John Lackey. Stubborn and defiant. Seemingly impervious to the one human condition that drives many of us more than we’d ever admit: That is, the desire to be liked. The temptation to let the expectations of others alter who we are and what we believe. In Lackey’s case, specific to baseball, it’s the act of giving even the slightest crap about what anyone outside of the 24 other guys in his clubhouse — the only guys who really know him — thinks they know about him. Right or wrong.
For the better part of three seasons, this was Lackey’s downfall in Boston. Well, it started with his poor performance. That’s obviously at the root of everything. But it was the way he carried himself in the midst of those struggles that lowered him from the ranks of “just another name” on the long list of guys who’ve underachieved under the bright lights of Fenway, and firmly entrenched him among the most despised athletes in Boston sports history.
Then again, you can argue that those same perceived shortcomings were responsible for what we witnessed last night in Detroit. The greatest and most memorable start of Lackey’s Red Sox career. The most pivotal performance of Boston’s entire season.
You ever wonder what really goes into the makeup of a big game pitcher?
Why some guys consistently fall short when everything’s on the line, while others seem to inherently thrive on it?
What was it about John Lackey that allowed him to take the mound in Game 7 of the 2002 World Series — four days after his 24th birthday, without even a full Major League season under his belt, opposite names like Lofton, Kent and Bonds — and pitch with the poise and confidence of secretly-too-old Little Leaguer at regionals?
What is it about John Lackey that allowed him to take the mound in Game 3 of the 2013 ALCS — a week shy of his 35th birthday, after all the insanity of the last three years, the most trying month of his stellar season (he had 4.98 ERA in September) and a so-so start in the ALDS against Tampa; on the road (where he’s struggled this year) in a raucous stadium, against pitcher who’s spent the last few weeks living in a video game — and do what he did last night?
There’s obviously more than one ingredient in his recipe for success, but you better believe that it includes of heavy dose of not giving a damn.
Of being a stubborn son of a bitch who, more than wanting to prove the naysayers wrong, barely cares that those naysayers even exist.
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