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Brad White/Icon SMI John Lackey

The Beast: Being John Lackey

Perhaps no man is more hated in the AL East — or more troubled

John Lackey is a giant1 in a very small universe: It includes his wife, and it includes baseball — and even then, it includes just throwing a baseball, really. When a man defines his universe so narrowly, his own range must also become smaller. He has only two possible paths. If he achieves greatness, it will be that rare sort of greatness that only single-minded men can achieve. The risk is that not much has to go wrong for it to seem as though everything is falling apart.

This season, a lot has gone wrong for Lackey, who was supposed to be the always reliable and sometimes spectacular fourth starter for the Boston Red Sox. “Everything in my life pretty much sucks right now, to be honest,” he said after losing to the Toronto Blue Jays, 9-3, on May 11. He caught himself before he spilled out much more onto the locker room carpet, but his brief confession still made the rounds. Baseball players don’t often open themselves up like that, especially not baseball players in Boston. And worse, no one could tell John Lackey that he was wrong.

His wife, Krista, has been fighting breast cancer.

And now his right arm had failed him, too.

Lackey looked like a man who had just learned that all that he loved in the world was threatening to leave him. “Everything went wrong that could go wrong,” he said of the game. “It’s pretty much the story of the whole damn year,” he said of everything else.

On Saturday, Lackey was back in front of his locker in Toronto, exactly a month removed from his postgame breakdown. In the meantime, he had served a 15-day stint on the disabled list — to give his strained elbow time to rest, and with a cortisone injection to reduce the swelling in the joint — and had returned to pitch a single start, a 93-pitch, 5 2/3-inning victory over the Oakland A’s. Now he had just won again, over the Blue Jays, 16-4; Lackey threw 112 pitches over six innings, giving up four runs on six hits. For Lackey these days, that sort of start is a light on the horizon. Those numbers are measures of progress. After he got showered and dressed, including the pink bracelet he now wears on his wrist in tribute to his wife, Lackey turned toward the cameras with a very different look on his face this time around.

“I feel like I’m still building,” he said, “but for the first time in a while, I feel like I’m going in the right direction.”

Most important, John Lackey was smiling.

Across the room, Jason Varitek sat in front of his locker, with his sore knees wrapped in ice, and with a white cape draped over his iced shoulders. He looked like a broken-down superhero. Varitek, who had just finished catching Lackey, represented the game’s harder reality.

“You have to take a lot of things into consideration,” he said of his pitcher. “He’s still getting feel, getting strength, playing catch-up a little bit. I feel like he made some really good pitches early. He was good with his fastball — we were able to mix and match a little bit. But I think his overall feel for things is going to take a little time.”

When Lackey’s on, his considerable talent surfaces on scorecards in two ways. Against left-handed batters, he’ll strike them out with his curveball, usually down and in. Against right-handed batters — again, when he’s at his sharpest, and again, when he keeps the ball down — he’ll force a lot of groundouts to short.

By those twin measures, Saturday’s start against the Blue Jays was mixed. Lackey earned a season-high eight strikeouts, including three against Toronto’s pair of left-handers, Corey Patterson and Adam Lind.2

He managed only a single groundout, however. The ball was in the air too
often — including an against-the-wall catch by Carl Crawford off Jose Molina, who
was visibly frustrated that he didn’t take full advantage of Lackey’s mistake,
and a warning-track fly to center by Jayson Nix. Lackey, who finally gave up a two-
run home run to Edwin Encarnacion in the sixth inning, flirted with disaster by
letting his pitches float higher and higher. A couple of times, Varitek had to point
at his own shoulder, his way of telling his pitcher to keep himself closed, to stop
flying open like a slicing golfer.

After the game, Lackey could see reason for optimism because he was in the mood to look for it. He could find hope in his relatively decent line, in the number of pitches he threw without pain, in the six of his eight strikeouts that were swinging, in the batters he made miss. Those were all good signs.

But they were good signs only in a universe that was even smaller than it once was. They were good signs only for a man with diminished expectations.

“Sometimes the gun readings will be the same, the velocity will be the same, but the true finish on the ball isn’t the same,” pitching coach Curt Young said of his biggest rebuilding project. “You just have to find that point where John Lackey is going to give you a chance to win. Everybody likes pitching shutouts, but you do have to win a 5-4 game sometimes. He’s the kind of guy, right now, he might have to win a game 5-4.”

John Lackey is in the second year of a five-year, $82.5 million contract.3

After his start against Oakland, Lackey received a standing ovation from the crowd at Fenway. The large Boston contingent in Toronto also cheered him. They haven’t always been so kind. He’s already received the dreaded label of bust, ranked among the worst pitcher contracts in recent memory, beside such colossal disappointments as Barry Zito and Oliver Perez.

That’s one of the reasons Lackey has kept his universe so contained. “I’m not going to win that battle, either way,” he said. “There’s always going to be some people for you, and there’s going to be some people against you. I know who I am, and I know what I need to do. This is up to me.”

Apart from a single interview in February when he revealed his wife’s diagnosis, Lackey has refused to share publicly his off-the-field worries, the extraordinary stress that cancer brings with its arrival in a family. “That’s just not something I’m going to talk about,” he said again on Saturday.

That’s his right, of course. Locker room scrums don’t always make for the best confessionals, he learned only a month ago. (“My elbow feels better since then,” he said, when asked to reflect on his journey between then and now. “Other than that, I can’t really say a whole lot.”) What’s worrisome is that he hasn’t talked much about his larger-life struggles with some of the people in the best position to fix them.

“No, we haven’t talked about it, not really,” Young said. “That’s been a situation where we’ve tried not to pry, but we let John know we’re here for him. All we can do is show that we care and we have concern. If he needs us, he’ll use us, and otherwise he’s going to handle things his own way.”

Sometimes, though, a man — a grown man, even a giant man — must be told what’s good for him. Baseball and life aren’t solitary games; they can’t be won in seclusion. In the way Jason Varitek reminded Lackey to keep his shoulder closed, someone might also tell Lackey that it’s time for his universe to open.

In a strange turn, a rival, Jorge Posada, might have shown Lackey the way out. Posada — a private and serious man — let go of weeks, even months, of upset in mid-May, when he loudly bristled about his spot in the batting order and refused to play for Joe Girardi’s New York Yankees. “I think that Jorge was able to express a lot of frustration with the way that things were going that day,” Girardi said last week, after Posada collected three more hits in a win over the Cleveland Indians, part of a stretch of eight hits in 10 at-bats. “And I think it helped him.”

Posada’s and Lackey’s respective meltdowns happened right around the same time, but in more critical ways the similarities end there. Posada’s was more complete. It had both a start and a finish. It helped Posada because it meant he was no longer carrying his burden alone. By letting go, he, too, was released.

Lackey’s time on the disabled list might have helped him in more ways than one — “It’s like a reset,” Young said, “it really is” — and there was plenty of meaning in his smile on Saturday afternoon.4 He is better than he was.

But he has only started this process, and the finish of it remains outside his current range of possibility. The real trouble with John Lackey is that he’s been making his universe smaller at exactly the moment he needs for it to expand. He still believes this is all up him, that this weight is something that only a giant like him might carry, when Jason Varitek has been sitting across the room in his cape for all this time, and Curt Young is waiting to see him in his otherwise empty office, just a short walk down the hall.

Chris Jones is a Writer at Large for Esquire; he covers the American League East for Grantland. You can find him on Twitter at @MySecondEmpire.