MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Lester has become accustomed to role as inspiration

Justice: Lester accustomed to role as inspiration

Jon Lester sees it in the faces of the people who want to tell him their story. He reads it in the cards and letters they send by the hundreds. He's uniquely equipped to understand their fear and uncertainty, and he finally is able to accept that he's a symbol of hope to many.

It was a long time getting there. When this journey began, in 2006, he simply wanted to get as far from cancer as he could get.

"I just want to be a baseball player," Lester said during the spring of 2007 upon returning to the Boston Red Sox after being treated for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a blood cancer. He was 22 at the time of the diagnosis.

He wanted to be normal.

Only he couldn't.

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That's one thing he can never be. He has come too far and accomplished too much. His was a public fight, no matter what he would have preferred. So his victory was a public victory, too.

"I was beaten down all that first winter just dealing with cancer," he said. "The last thing I wanted to do was come to Spring Training and be asked about it. I just wanted to get away from it."

That first spring, his emotions -- fear, resolve, you name it -- were still too raw. He had no perspective, because his future was as uncertain as any of the people who saw him as inspirational.

Over the past six years, he has done more than just beat cancer. He's also established himself as one of baseball's best pitchers.

Lester went 65-32 in his first four full seasons back, won the clinching game of the 2007 World Series and was twice named to the American League All-Star team.

Along the way he started to get it.

He meant something to people, and not just because he'd helped the Red Sox win a World Series. If he could come all the way back, why couldn't they?

"Being immature at the time and not understanding how people viewed me, it took me a few years of settling down, getting married and hearing stories from people," he said. "You know, when people have been through the same thing you've been through, you really don't have to say much. It's nice to be able to say something that might lift their spirits, but sometimes it's enough to shake their hand."

It was about this time last year that Lester and his wife, Farrah, decided they wanted to do more. They'd helped dozens of charities through the years, but they decided the time had come for another step.

"We just didn't know which direction to go," he said.

Then they met an Atlanta advertising executive named Rob Quish. Eight years earlier, Quish's 11-year-old son, Will, was diagnosed with cancer. Will would survive. His father would have a mission.

Quish became involved in the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation. Its motto is "Never Quit," which has been shortened to NVRQT (NVRQT.org). The Lesters had found their mission.

"There are a lot of adult-oriented research foundations, but not a lot for children," Lester said. "After meeting with Rob, we sat down and said, 'This is it.' This first year was a collaboration with Rob. Now it's just me and my wife, and we're going to take it and run with it."

A summer event at House of Blues in Boston raised $200,000 for pediatric cancer research. Lester also befriended a couple of young patients who were guests at a camp that Nike helped him run this summer.

"Obviously, it's a little tough trying to do an event during the season," he said, "but my teammates turned out. The biggest thing we can do is figure out new ways to beat this disease. That's what this is all about."

It's funny how things work out. At a time when Lester was fully at peace with the idea that he'll always be more than a baseball player to some, he was dealing with his first losing season (9-14).

There were times this summer when he was tempted to feel sorry for himself and his rotten luck. Then he'd remember all that had happened the last few years.

If he could survive the needles and chemicals and doubt and fear, he could handle anything a baseball season threw at him. In the six years since that original diagnosis, so much has happened, including his marriage and the birth of a son.

"It feels like a lifetime ago [that I was diagnosed]," he said, "and I try not to think about it. But I did use it to get through some of my personal struggles and how I pitched this season. I wasn't going to let myself start thinking, 'Woe is me.' It certainly helped keep things in perspective."

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.