Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Goosebump Nation

Last week I just happened to throw out what I thought the definition of a ‘goosebump’ moment in sports should constitute. To expand on that a bit, I maintain a true goosebump moment should have three criteria:

1: It needs to be completely unexpected or spontaneous. The moment that still gives me chills is when Mike Eruzione summoned up the entire 1980 US Hockey Team to the podium during the gold medal presentation.

2: It should have some historic significance. Ted Williams being carted out in at the beginning of the 1999 All Star Game in Fenway. Even while you were watching the players congregate around Williams for an impromptu baseball chat, you knew you would remember it forever.

3: There is an emotional undercurrent that stresses the importance of what is happening. The 2004 Red Sox World Series being the most prominent in my memories. Nearly a century of frustration, bitterness and longing wiped out in 8 glorious games.

I mentioned a few of my favorite goosebump moments as being Bird’s 60 point game, Jordan’s Flu Game against Utah, Joe Carter’s World Series winning home run, the aforementioned ’99 All Star Game, and Henderson’s steal of Magic Johnson’s lazy pass in 1984.

I have a new one now. One that, quite possibly, could top the list.

Last night Jon Lester threw a no hitter for the Red Sox. Yes, I know Clay Buchholz just did the same thing last season, but this one has more significance. Just writing the first sentence of this section gave me chills. Buchholz’ was exciting and his dazzling array of pitches awe inspiring, but I don’t get goosebumps thinking about his no hitter. It was only his second major league start and we didn't know him that well. We do now, of course, but at the time it was like watching the kid that just moved in down the street pitch a no hitter.

Lester looked phenomenal last night. His fastball was in the mid to upper 90s most of the night. His irritating habit of getting behind batters was only seen a few times and his knee buckling curve ball was in perfect form. He put the ball right where Varitek wanted it all night and – except for two walks and a horrible pick off attempt – he was nearly flawless.

Yet, it’s more than that. Just a year ago Lester was going through radiation and chemotherapy for Lymphoma. While I can only imagine the toll that takes on a person’s body (the body is basically being poisoned to kill off the cancer), one of the few people I like and respect in my office had the exact same cancer and the exact same treatment. I talked to her nearly two years after she was diagnosed and a little over a year since she had ended her chemo. She told me that she was just then feeling back to normal; that she had awaken one morning and for the first time she could remember felt ‘ok’. Not great or good or healthy, but just ok. To her that was a significant moment.

We actually talked about Lester for a bit during our chat because I told her I always think of her when I watch him pitch. The two of them will always be intertwined in my mind. Just last month I asked when she would know if she was completely free of cancer. ‘Seven years’, she said. It will take seven years of constant blood testing and monthly doctor visits to know whether she is finally free of the disease. ‘One down, six to go’, she replied, then laughed and continued on her way. Yeah, she’s like that.

Now imagine going through that and having to come back and pitch professional baseball for a living. It was emotional enough last season watching his first start since being diagnosed; his parents in the stands holding their breath for every pitch. The classy standing ovation he received from the Cleveland crowd when he departed the game. The stamina, persistence and stubbornness this kid must possess I doubt could be measured.

Yet, it’s more than that. This is another testament to how well the Red Sox organization is drafting, grooming and prepping their young players to succeed at a major league level. First Buchholz, now Lester. But look to center field where Ellsbury is thriving. Or look to first base where Youk is having another Gold Glove season. Just to his left is Pedroia aka Rookie of the Year 2007. Or look to third or shortstop where Jed Lowry already has people excited about a possible Lugo trade. Or Brandon Moss winning the first game of the season with a ninth inning homer. In Japan.

Yet, it’s more than that. By all accounts, Lester is one of the best people in baseball. Humble, gracious, professional, well liked by his peers, hard working and down to earth. The tearful hug by Francona last night; the joyful presentation of the ball by Varitek; the giddy celebration by his teammates on the field said it all.

Yet, it’s more than that. This wasn’t just another Red Sox pitcher throwing a no hitter, it was one of our sons. A member of our family. Someone we watched grow up in front of us. A kid who matured from shaky and erratic to solid starter on a world championship team to historic. We weathered the cancer like concerned friends and choked up a bit when he won the clinching game of last year’s series. While he has never been spectacular, we knew he had it in him and rooted for him. In a lot of ways, we rooted for him more than others. We had more invested in him. When rumors swirled that he may be included in a Santana trade, I was torn. Sure Johan is one of the best pitchers of our generation, but Lester is my main emotional connection to this team.

Still, it’s even more than that. Two years ago I had tickets to a Sox game and promised my then 5 year old we would go. Unfortunately, it was down pouring all night and into the following game day. The Friday night game was rained out and there was confusion about make up dates. Our game was scheduled for a 12:30 start, so we headed into Boston around 11 am with no idea whether the game would even be played. We sat and had lunch in the McDonalds around the corner from Fenway and talked about what we would do if the game was called.

I would call home to get updates from wifey and ask vendors on the street what they had heard. All news pointed to our game being played at some point. So we stayed in Boston. We walked around and checked out the shops. Five year old was a trooper and a couple of friends were kind enough to let us hang out in their apartment for a few hours while we waited for news. By 4pm, it was clear that if either of the games were to be played it would be ours. The sun was peaking through and all the weather reports were looking good.

We headed to Fenway, found our spectacular seats right by Pesky’s Pole, had to get a bunch of napkins to wipe dry the seats and hunkered in for the duration. Game time was about an hour and half away, but five year old was in his glory. We watched the outfielders warm up. Five year old was right down by the field when Trot Nixon jogged past and got a ‘Hey, kid’ and chuckle from him when my son yelled ‘Hi Trot Nixon!’ to him. I still think it’s the highlight of his young life.

While we sat watching the beautiful, blue sky emerge over the Green Monster, five year old pointed over in front of the Boston bullpen. ‘Dad, who’s that?’ I looked over and didn’t recognize the number on the jersey. ‘Not sure,’ I replied, ‘could be one of the bullpen pitchers warming up’.

Ten minutes later, he looks up at the Fenway scoreboard and asks ‘Who’s Jon Lester?’. I follow his gaze and realize Lester is the game’s starting pitcher. Injuries, delayed and postponed games forced the Sox to call him up at the last minute. I had heard of him, but never seen him before. I said ‘Hey, we get to see Jon Lester’s first professional start.’

My son mulls this over for a minute. ‘Does that mean he’s never pitched before?’. ‘No, it means he has never pitched in the Major Leagues before. He’s been pitching for Pawtucket all year’.

Another minute goes by. ‘Sooooo, this is the first time he’s pitched for the Red Sox? The first time he’s pitched in Fenway?’ Yes to both, I tell him.

Another moment of child contemplation and a grin spreads across his face. ‘Cool…’

Today’s distraction: Ways to donate to cancer charities. This is just one option and while people will point out we are no closer to a cure, Jon Lester proves we are much more capable of not just surviving, but thriving.


son pere said...

Great post, BB! I have goosebumps still. I watched every pitch last night, and I was thinking, "the only thing worse that the Celtics NOT winning the NBA Championship would be John Lester NOT getting this "no hitter". I was giddy when the last batter struck out! Hell, even my wife, who normally doesn't even care about baseball, was giddy! It couldn't have happened to a nicer guy, gentleman, really. What a great accomplishment for him at this point in his life.

Congratulations, John Lester!

Let us not forget about "'Tek", who made history last night by becoming the only catcher in MLB history to catch 4 no-hitters. As you stated in your post, "Lester put the ball exactly where Varitek wanted it", proving how great a pitch-caller he is behind the plate.

Again, thanks for a great post.

Hammen said...

Put that shit on ESPN.com

BeachBum said...

Yes, Varitek and I completely forgot about Papelbon when talking about home grown talent. Whoops!

Varitek could be one of the most under appreciated players of our generation. Even Sox fans tend to take him for granted.

son pere said...

Speaking of "home-grown" talent, I had dinner and a couple of beers with French last night at Amrhein's in Southie. He left for LA this morning - actually, his flight is just leaving @ 7:05AM. We caught the first couple of innings watching Justin Masterson. He looked pretty good last night. Got a few called third strikes as part of his 8 K's.

I'm hoping that Colon can keep the ball rolling tonight and keep us in the "W" column, while the Yankees are slowly fading into the deep, dark recesses of the cellar.

Go Celtics!! Maybe they will have a better series against the Pistons than they've had against the Hawks and Cavs. Any prediction on this series?