Jon Lester managing the emotions in return to Wrigley Field
Most athletes try to play down the whole “revenge game” storyline when they face their former teams.
But Jon Lester is not most athletes and this is not like most situations.
The veteran southpaw is returning to Chicago with his new team, the Washington Nationals. He’ll start the first game of the series at Wrigley Field Monday night and it will be one of the most hyped Cubs games in recent memory.
Lester spent six seasons in Chicago and was a major force in changing the culture and ending the World Series drought.
He is a Cubs legend and has already gone down as arguably the best free agent signing in franchise history.
“It’s a huge, huge compliment that people say that,” Lester said. “And to go back to Theo [Epstein] and those guys just believing that I was gonna live up to the amount of money that they paid me, I feel like I was able to do that and that’s all that really matters.”
When Lester reached a deal with the Nationals over the winter, he immediately looked at the schedule and circled this series in Chicago.
He wasn’t able to go out the way he intended in his Cubs tenure as he pitched his final game at Wrigley Field in front of an empty ballpark due to the pandemic.
“Wrigley is so unique,” Lester said. “To end there last year with no fans, it will be nice to go back and see that. I’m looking forward to that. It’s such a unique place and I’m excited to get back on that mound.”
Lester admitted he doesn’t know what to expect in terms of a reaction from the 25% capacity at Wrigley Field for Monday night’s game.
However, David Ross has a reception in his mind.
“I hope a great one,” the Cubs manager said. “Are they passing out Miller Lites in the stands? We should give everybody free Miller Lites, right?
“Listen, the guy is super special to me. I hope the fans give him the welcome back he deserves. He’s a special human being — means a lot to me, means a lot to this organization, has done a lot for this organization and for a lot of the guys in this clubhouse. I think fans recognize that.
“I sure wish the place was packed for his sake and being able to feel the love that I think a lot of people have for him.”
What Lester does know for certain is that he’ll get to face a lot of old friends. Whether it’s his former catcher like Willson Contreras in the lineup or longtime teammates like Anthony Rizzo or Kris Bryant.
And he’s going up against a team that is managed by the person who knows more about Lester as a pitcher than any other person on the planet. Ross joined the Cubs in advance of the 2015 season as Lester’s personal catcher and spent last year as the southpaw’s manager.
So what will it be like facing a team that is so familiar with his repertoire?
“I might have to invent something out there,” Lester said. “I’m pretty much inventing stuff as I go as it is. Maybe throw a knuckleball or two or mix something in like that. I’m looking forward to my guys, my buddies.
“The trash talking started a while ago in spring training when I saw Rizz. You get to face these guys in live BPs over the years and stuff and that’s fun because you get the trash talking involved.
“That’s gonna be the hard part is separating — I’m sure there’ll be some smiles and some laughter out there a little bit but you gotta separate the friendships. When you step between the lines, now I’m trying to win the game. It’s go time.
“But I’m looking forward to it. It will be fun to see Rizz and those guys. [Rizzo] will probably be the matchup that will stand out the most to me.”
Lester will stay in his home in Lakeview and plans to have dinner at Chicago Cut at least once during the week.
There will be a lot of familiarity for the 37-year-old but he will also need to form new habits on this visit to Wrigley Field.
“The biggest thing for me is just making sure I walk into the right dugout or the right bullpen,” Lester said. “That’s gonna be the weird part. Not turning right off the mound — you gotta turn left, you gotta go to the other one. I gotta make sure I do that.”