Rozner: Jon Lester's time with the Cubs the stuff of legend

There's a certain type of athlete that passes through town - passes through your life - that has an impact on you beyond the obvious performance and achievement.

They carry a certain credibility that comes from respect within the game and within their locker room that most would never bother measuring, understood only by those who have won and lost, who have celebrated and suffered.

It's a feeling you get when you look around the room and wait for that guy to walk in the door. And when he does, you suddenly feel a whole lot better about your chances.

That's because you know the mental and physical toughness will accompany the greatness, the effort and preparation that is never lacking.

Obviously, Michael Jordan is the finest example of such leadership that you will ever see, but guys like Dan Hampton, Andre Dawson and Jonathan Toews come immediately to mind.

And Jon Lester is one of those guys.

From the minute he signed with the Cubs he brought credibility to a very young team, showed teammates the path with his actions - and often his words - as they surprised the National League and went to the NLCS in his first year here.

Of course, he will be remembered most for the 2016 World Series, when he saved the Cubs from elimination in Game 5 and saved them from Joe Maddon in Game 7.

Cubs pitcher Jon Lester celebrates after Game 6 of the National League baseball championship series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016, in Chicago. The Cubs won 5-0 to win the series and advance to the World Series against the Cleveland Indians. Associated Press

He should have been the World Series MVP, as that is precisely what he was with those last 9 innings thrown, a remarkable 55 pitches and 3 innings of relief in Game 7 on two days' rest.

It speaks to the dying breed he is that Lester didn't want to exit either game, in an era in which starters are looking into the dugout and searching for a life preserver in the fourth inning.

It's also no coincidence that Lester's six years in Chicago represent the finest period in franchise history, and while there is much he taught those around him, there are some things about sport that you either have in you or you don't.

Among his greatest attributes is that Lester - like a pair of No. 31s who pitched on the North Side - would never give in to a hitter, at least never intentionally.

Late in 2019, we had a long conversation in the Cubs' clubhouse about a sequence from a game a year or two earlier. Well, first we talked about golf for 20 minutes, and then we discussed an inning late in a close game when Lester would not give the hitter what he wanted.

Lester was not afraid of a bases-loaded situation. He was not afraid of going to 3 balls on a hitter. He was not afraid to throw a pitch out of the zone with a runner on third. He was simply unafraid.

What he was not going to do was throw a meatball down the middle only because there was no place left to put a runner.

It reminded me very much of a Greg Maddux sequence while with the Braves when he wouldn't throw a 3-2 strike to Barry Bonds, who kept fouling off pitches out of the zone until Maddux got him looking with a two-seamer that Bonds thought would hit him in the hip until it broke over the inside corner for strike three.

"I learned from veteran guys I was around," Lester said, "that you don't let the hitter dictate the situation, no matter how bad it looks."

It didn't look great when the Cubs were down 3-1 in the World Series the morning of Game 5, but I told my radio partner, Joe Ostrowski, on the air that Sunday morning that the Cubs had the right guy on the mound and that the Cubs would win that game 1-0 or 2-1, and go back to Cleveland with the pressure flipping to the Indians.

The Cubs won 3-2. You know the story of the next two games.

There is no metric to measure competitiveness or desire to win, and there's no way to quantify what one player means to another's confidence, but if there were, no one would measure higher than Lester.

"At the end of the day, it's about winning the baseball game. And if you're winning the baseball game, that's all that matters," Lester said in August 2018. "I don't care if you gave up 27 hard-hit outs. It's 27 outs and you threw a perfect game, so move on.

"I think when guys pitch well, there needs to be a justification for it," Lester said, railing against metrics. "When guys don't pitch well, they also seem to look at the numbers in front of them.

"It's funny. I've been a part of both. I'm just the old-school crusty guy that keeps running out there."

Now, it's the Nationals who will be running him out there, but Lester's time in Chicago will be remembered well for all he did to end the worst drought in sports history.

Always doing it the right way, always with everything he had, Jon Lester's place in Chicago's sports history will go down properly in the books.

It will go down as legendary.

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