I have never really liked John Lackey.
I hate his demeanor on the mound, the way he mopes around after a bad inning or throws his hands up in the air after an error is committed behind him. I dislike his somewhat flippant attitude towards the press, even if some members of the media don’t deserve much more than flippancy.
I didn’t like his contract when he signed it. Obviously I like it less now. You shouldn’t sign bad-bodied pitchers to contracts into their late 30s. Especially when they’re already in decline.
I don’t like that he and his wife split up while she had cancer, though I know that’s not fair and I’ll never know the whole story. Part of me hates myself for bringing it up here., but it is the kind of information that sticks with you.
I don’t care that he ate chicken and drank beer, but I do care that he was part of what clearly seemed to be a clique with an heir of entitlement last year. Perhaps Josh Beckett was just as guilty, and Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are grown men who should know better as well. But Lackey was certainly involved, and that’s another black mark on his tenure in Boston.
From the moment he’s put on a Red Sox uniform, there hasn’t been much to like with Lackey. And yet when I saw him clutch his right arm last Saturday, clearly scared and in pain after a long awaited return to the mound, my heart sank.
If we’re being honest, I’m not really sure why.
Perhaps it’s as simple as I like a good comeback story, even if the person behind that story isn’t all together likable. Lackey made the “best shape of his life” angle more than just a lazy narrative for once. It was clear he put a ton of effort into his recovery and his rehab, and that should count for something.
I know too that one of my worst habits as a sports fan is to glorify and lionize players who play through pain. Because of that, I don’t think it’s fair that no one seems to remember how Lackey ended up here in the first place. He pitched hurt, possibly for a long time. And no, the numbers weren’t there for him in 2011, but it was clear he wasn’t himself and it was clear he was trying.
Maybe that’s partially why — despite the narrative constructed by some that Lackey is a horrible teammate — that he’s widely reported to be a favorite among his actual teammates. He’s the one who takes the rookies out and buys them suits. He’s a jokester in the clubhouse. He is, by many accounts, popular.
Then there’s perhaps the most obvious reason I’d still hope for Lackey to do well: he pitches for my favorite team. It’s why I hope Alfredo Aceves gets out. It’s why I rooted for Julio Lugo, despite his ugly past. It’s why we all put up with Beckett for so long, overlooking surliness for on-field performance. We want our team to win, and we’re willing to overlook a lot of personal flaws in order to achieve that goal. It’s an ugly part of fandom, but it’s something that’s true for most of us.
It’s incredibly difficult to reconcile all of these factors as a Red Sox fan. Is Lackey the overpaid, surly, somewhat aloof character who’ been among the biggest busts in Red Sox history? Yes. Is he also a human who’s played hurt for this team and worked hard for this team and been cast in somewhat of an unfair light by the press? Yes to that description, too.
After seeing so many Red Sox leave on bad terms in recent years – be it Terry Francona or Beckett or Nomar Garciaparra or Johnny Damon or many others – I guess part of me wanted to see the path reversed for once. Instead of the fan favorite falling out of favor and getting smeared on the way out of town, how cool would it have been to see the villain turn into someone we can all root for?
Lackey certainly looked the part for the four-plus innings on Saturday. He wasn’t just getting by: he was dealing to a very good lineup, largely flawless save for one hanging curveball. Perhaps this is exaggeration, but it’s difficult to remember a time when he’s looked better in a Red Sox uniform.
It doesn’t seem fair that all of that was over in a flash. It’s good that Lackey avoided re-injuring his elbow, and it’s good too that he seems relatively optimistic. But when a biceps tear is “good news,” you’re already in trouble, and I have no idea when we can expect to see Lackey again.
Yet when he does next take the mound, against somewhat considerable odds, I think I’ll be rooting for him.
UPDATE: About an hour after this was posted, the Red Sox announced that Lackey does not have a biceps tear and just has inflammation instead. Early indications are that this is a good thing.