Everyone knew. From the moment in June 2002, when the Boston Red Sox made the skinny left-hander from Tacoma's Bellarmine High School their second-round choice in the First-Year Player Draft, they knew Jon Lester had a date with greatness. So that late-Monday scene in Fenway Park, as Lester made his ear-to-ear grin reach toward the first-base dugout through a gauntlet of hugs and under a shower of cheers from 37,746 on their feet, it was confirmation of the convictions of those on the outside. Everyone knew everything.
Lester didn't know anything.Twenty-one months ago, he didn't know whether he would live or die. A lymphoma diagnosis does that. A year ago, Lester didn't know whether he would pitch again in the Majors. He had been declared cancer-free after months of treatment, including aggressive chemotherapy, and he was working his way back in the Minor Leagues, but a career, like life, doesn't come with guarantees. Five months ago, he didn't know whether he was headed to Minnesota. The Red Sox wanted Johan Santana, the Twins wanted him and there appeared to be some shaky fingers on the trigger. Today, Lester still doesn't know: Do I send my glove or my cap to Cooperstown, N.Y., for the Hall of Fame to celebrate the first no-hitter by a Boston left-hander in 52 years? Of those postgame embraces, the longest and most emotional was between Lester and his affected manager, Terry Francona. They wrapped their arms around each other, until Francona had to break away. He didn't want his tears to mix with Lester's sweat. "I've been through a lot the last couple of years," Lester said a little later. "He's been like a second dad to me. It was just a special moment right there." In sports, we tend to throw around the word "inspiration" like it was rice at a wedding. Hyperbole is our impersonation of Chicken Little, and when something truly inspiring punctures the monotony of a mundane Monday evening, we have to convince people that this time the sky truly is falling. You will not come across anything more uplifting than a 24-year-old willing himself to a no-hitter in his 22nd start after getting knocked off the mound by a diagnosis of cancer. Seeing Lester's Major League comeback last July 23, with his parents cheering and eventually breaking down in their Jacobs Field seats, was enough to make you feel weak in the knees. Then, what about this? The resolve to see through the appointment with destiny after never before having thrown a ninth-inning pitch for Boston? The desire to dial up a 96-mph fastball for Alberto Callaspo to swing through for the 27th out on his 130th pitch, after never before having thrown more than 113? Well, unlike those fans at Fenway, you have to sit down. It is a bit overwhelming. So is the symbolism of Lester's gem, 80 baseball days removed from the same effort by Clay Buchholz, the 23-year-old who fired a no-hitter against the Orioles on Sept. 1, 2007. For the Major Leagues' last two no-hitters to have been authored by the junior members of their rotation makes a powerful statement about the Red Sox, for the long term as well as for the immediate future of this 2008 American League East race. Maybe you have not noticed, but the youngsters in the enemy's blueprint and in their rotation, the Yankees' Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy, have not done quite as well. Lester and Buchholz have a modest five wins between them, which is ... let's see ... five more than Hughes and Kennedy. The fascination with this continuing story extends beyond the high-pitched rivalry between those teams, of course. Both had a chance to forego the youngsters and draw for the decorated Santana and chose to keep their hands. You've got to like Boston's cards. To oversimplify, Buchholz and Lester have combined to make the grand total of 48 Major League starts, and two of them ended in no-hitters. With his feat, Lester drew comparisons to a couple of yesteryear pitchers. One is quite flattering: Nolan Ryan, of all people, is the only other pitcher to have no-hit the Kansas City Royals. The other brings a reminder not to take anything for granted, even from baseball's highest pedestal: Mel Parnell, the last previous Boston left-hander to throw a no-hitter, won a total of only four more games following that July 14, 1956, masterpiece against the Chicago White Sox. Lester will henceforth forever wear the "no-hit pitcher" label. But long before, he was both a marked man and a man earmarked for great things. It is quite remarkable, in fact, that on May 19, 2008, he would still be wearing a Boston uniform. This is a testament to the resolve of young general manager Theo Epstein, who for years has had to shoo other teams away from Lester the way you shoo flies away from the watermelon on a picnic table. Before the 2004 season, the Texas Rangers demanded Lester for Alex Rodriguez. Two years later, the Florida Marlins insisted he be included in the trade for Josh Beckett. And then came last offseason, when he was the deal-breaker with the Twins. They, too, knew.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.