Perhaps the most important thing new Cubs lefthander Jon Lester said during his introductory news conference Monday afternoon was one of the last things he said. As part of a discussion of whether it would have been tougher to leave the Red Sox if he hadn't been traded and whether it was tough to come to a team that finished fifth last year, he was asked if he thought the Cubs could contend in 2015.
His response: "I wouldn't be here if I didn't think we could win it all in 2015 -- everything, the division, the league, the World Series."
That's the kind of attitude that hasn't been part of Cubs baseball since... well, probably since they last won the World Series, and you all know how long that's been. Lester stumbled a bit early-on in the presser when he called the Cubs a team that has "never" won, but I think he can be forgiven a little misstep. He's not his manager, Joe Maddon, who had a virtuoso performance in his introductory news conference a month ago. Seated next to Theo Epstein and in the presence of his wife and family, Lester seemed a bit nervous, but warmed up as he continued to answer questions, and certainly won the "cute factor" when he called one of his sons up to sit on the podium with him. He told the boy he needed to be quiet, but as little kids sometimes do, the boy (I'm not sure which of Lester's sons that was) couldn't resist whispering "Hi" into the microphone.
The conference began with the usual thank-yous, with both Lester and Theo thanking Jon's extended family, his agents, Crane Kenney and the Ricketts family. Theo said that Lester is the "perfect pitcher" for what the Cubs want to do doing forward and praised his work ethic, character, work in the community (his "Never Quit" foundation) and said he'd be a great guy to have in the clubhouse.
To that last point, Lester said that he's not a "vocal" leader but tends to lead by example. He said he goes out and does his job and hopefully shows the other players that he's there for a singular goal -- to win. But he also mentioned "having fun" while doing it, and if that's true he ought to get along great with Maddon, who often introduced offbeat "fun" events for his players while in Tampa Bay. Lester said he was quite familiar with Maddon from their days in the A.L. East and said he was "excited" to be with Maddon and to work with many of the young players currently on the Cubs, specifically mentioning Anthony Rizzo, with whom he has a special bond since they both are cancer survivors. (You can read more about Lester and Rizzo in this 2009 article that talks about their first meeting in spring training.)
Lester made a point of saying that belief in Theo's plan was one of the biggest factors in coming to the Cubs. And Theo praised Lester for his "maturity and being comfortable in his own skin" as reasons he saw Lester as "up to the challenge" of playing for the Cubs. Of course, you're going to have these kinds of praises sung at an introductory news conference, but in listening to the two men speak you could see the connection between them, one that's lasted more than a decade (Lester was chosen by the Red Sox in 2002, the year before Theo was named Boston's GM). It was evident that Lester was, in fact, torn between Boston and Chicago, especially when he talked about how many phone calls Dustin Pedroia made to him trying to get him to come back to Boston.
But Lester seemed clearly energized by being part of Theo's plan and though he was mostly low-key about the thought of being one of the guys who breaks the Cubs' World Series drought, he's surely up to that challenge. It certainly helps to have a pitcher in his prime who's already been on two World Series winners leading the Cubs' rotation. As noted, the Cubs probably haven't had anyone with those sorts of qualifications on their pitching staff in over 100 years.
Since the uniform number Lester has worn throughout his big-league career (31) is retired by the Cubs, he had to choose a new one to wear for his six years in Chicago. (And thanks to him for not asking for 31 to be "unretired." Retired should mean forever, in my view.)
No. 34 is Lester's choice. Except for seven games' worth of Jeff Gray in 2010, that number hasn't been worn by anyone except Kerry Wood since 1997. Wood is a Cubs franchise icon, but didn't have anywhere near a career where you'd think about retiring his number. I'm glad Jon Lester chose it, not only because it will now adorn the back of the Cubs' best starter, but also because it's a number that has been worn by other great pitchers, including Hall of Famers Rollie Fingers and Nolan Ryan.
It's certainly been a whirlwind month for the Chicago Cubs, with a new manager, two new rotation starters and a new catcher in the fold. More acquisitions are likely to come, and I want to close with the words of Theo Epstein, who concluded his news-conference remarks by thanking the Ricketts family for their commitment and his entire baseball staff for doing the work that culminated in the signing of Lester, saying, "It's been a quick rebuild... but it's not over."
Keep building, Theo. But now, as Jon Lester said, 2015 can be the time to win, too.