Jon Lester: We're good people

BOSTON -- Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester took the highly unusual step Monday of placing calls to several Boston media outlets, including ESPNBoston.com, to forcefully dispute the way the team has been characterized in the aftermath of its September collapse.

"I'm trying to set the record straight," Lester said, insisting he was acting on his own and not at the behest of anyone else, including the team. "It's tough to sit back and let people bash your name, and that's what they're doing.

"You know what? We didn't play good baseball. People are making us out to be a bunch of drunk, fried-chicken eating SOBs, playing video games. You can ask my wife, for the last 10 years I don't think I've played a single video game, and Josh (Beckett) and Lack (John Lackey) are the same way. But one person writes an article, and things have gotten blown way out of proportion, almost to another planet. We're getting crushed."

Lester was referring to a story that appeared in the Boston Globe last Wednesday, in which "team sources" described a clubhouse in which starting pitchers Beckett, Lackey and Lester had beer and fried chicken in the clubhouse during games in which they were not pitching.

Lester acknowledged Monday that he and fellow pitchers Beckett and Lackey had an "occasional" beer, what he termed "a ninth-inning rally beer."

"Did we drink an occasional beer? Yes," he said. "Did it affect our performance in September? No. This stuff has been going on long before September, and not only in this clubhouse, but 29 other clubhouses too. We ordered fried chicken maybe three times in six months. Other guys who were not playing that day would come in and have a bite to eat.

"But what people are trying to do is a witch hunt. They're looking for any reason to basically tear somebody's head off because we lost, and people right now are saying it's because we did this. I'm not shying away from saying I did it. I admit it, and I'm sure the other guys would say it too.

"But we lost because we did not play good baseball. We did not execute Boston Red Sox good baseball."

Lester referred to the 2004 Red Sox, and the widely told tale, first related by then-first baseman Kevin Millar, of how they shared some Jack Daniel's whiskey before Game 6 of the ALCS, and because they prevailed did so before each of the four World Series games they won in a sweep of the Cardinals.

"Those guys were celebrated as 'The Idiots,' " Lester said, "and they were drinking shots. What's the difference? They won and we lost, so we're devils, we're bad people.

"I'm not making excuses for what we did. I'm owning up to what I did. But I can honestly tell you that I was prepared every five days -- and so were the other guys -- to go out and perform. We were physically prepared to perform. But I stunk, plain and simple. I'm not going to shy away from that. I stunk."

Lester spoke with ESPNBoston.com late Monday afternoon. He was frustrated, he said, by the reaction to an interview he had given earlier in the day to the Globe, especially to comments he made about departed manager Terry Francona, in which he said Francona did not "rule with an iron fist" and "this particular team probably needed more structure. Tito was the perfect guy for this team for a long time, but I think he got burnt out."

"I'm trying to make things right and say that things were not as bad as some people are saying, and now I'm getting crushed for that too," Lester said.

Francona is the only manager Lester has played for in the major leagues.

"Tito is a great person and did a lot for me and my family," said Lester, who drew especially close to the manager after Lester was diagnosed with cancer in 2006 and went through what became a triumphant recovery. "I owe a lot to him for my big league career. The things I say about Tito, I mean them with respect.

"What I said this morning was that Tito didn't rule the clubhouse with an iron fist. That was good at that particular time. Nobody had had a manager like that. This year, do I think people took advantage of that? I do. But was it the fact that we were in the clubhouse having a beer? No."

Lester said that he agreed with Francona's assertion that the team did not have the type of leadership this season that it has had in prior years. "Tek (Jason Varitek) is not a vocal leader," Lester said. "Josh is not a vocal leader. David (Ortiz) is not a vocal leader. They lead by example and you're supposed to follow. That's great.

"But we did not have the vocal leaders that would step up and say, 'You guys are screwing up.' "

Francona, he said, was not confrontational publicly.

"Tito was not an iron-fisted guy. He liked to handle things on a one-on-one personal level. He'd call me into his office, sometimes for a confidence booster, but sometimes he'd kick you in your ass. That worked for us. That worked for us this year. There may have been times we needed to have the team addressed, but Tito doesn't work that way, and that's fine."

Francona could not have been anything but who he was throughout his eight seasons in Boston, Lester said. If he had tried to become iron-fisted, Lester said, "guys would have seen right through that. But that's what makes him special. That's what makes him Tito.

"Guys loved playing for him, because all you had to worry about was playing. You didn't have to worry about a bunch of rules."

In the past when Francona had an issue he wanted addressed with the pitchers, he often relied on players such as Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez, Tim Wakefield, Mike Timlin. "Guys who didn't mind saying, 'You're screwing up, let's fix it,' " Lester said. It was the same with the position players. Lester cited players such as Mike Lowell and Doug Mirabelli, Ortiz and Varitek as those who would do Francona's bidding.

Lester insisted he believes that Francona did not know about the pitchers' beer-drinking because he was in the dugout. "If we're having one or two beers now and again, how would he have known? But if we're having a 12-pack and coming back to the bench hammered, he obviously would have known."

Lester subsequently admitted that even if Francona had known, "It probably wouldn't have been a big deal."

Such behavior, he said, "has happened for 100 years. I've been trying to say that all day. This is not something new. We didn't invent rally beers. Babe Ruth was smoking cigars and eating hotdogs in between at-bats. Some guys have done worse things than we did, some guys didn't do anything.

"Baseball is a unique sport. Stuff like this has gone on more or less for a long time because you know it's not going to get out to the public. But I don't want it to sound like an excuse, or make it seem like it's funny. We need to be accountable and professional."

Lester said he had no knowledge of Francona's use of pain medication, which the Globe story implied he may have abused, again citing "team sources."

"I never knew anything about it," he said. "Ask a lot of guys on the team, they don't know anything about it. But it ends up as part of a front-page story. The guy was obviously going through a hard time, and now they bury you?"

Lester said that when the season ended, he expected Francona would be back in 2012.

"Everybody thought he was coming back," Lester said. "When we said our goodbyes, there was no real emotion.

"But I think Tito was ready. Playing in Boston, managing in Boston, is hard. You have to be accountable for your actions every second of the day. He probably got tired of it."

Francona is not the type, Lester said, to share all of his reasons for leaving, and whether the doubts he had about ownership support was a contributing factor.

"But what aggravates me," Lester said, "is people can't accept this and move on. That's why I'm trying to squash this. We owned up to it and addressed it, but that wasn't the reason we lost. Let's move on. But it seems like I'm only making it worse."

Asked what he meant when he said he thought the team needed more structure, Lester said: "I don't really know what I was trying to say. I think we're grown-enough men to be able to police ourselves and not have rules. I mean, we had rules, but mostly little nonsense rules.

"The next manager? I don't know who they're thinking about bringing in, but I don't think we need a polar opposite (from Francona). Whoever the next manager is, is going to be a good pick. The Red Sox will do a good job. If he has a lot of rules, we'll adapt. If he doesn't, we'll adapt to that too."

Were the inmates running the asylum, as some have suggested?

"That's not the case at all," Lester said. "This was not a frat party. This was not mayhem with guys going every which way, not answering to anybody. That was not the case at all.

"When all is said and done, none of this was Tito's fault, or Theo (Epstein)'s fault, or the fault of Larry Lucchino or John Henry or Tom Werner. It was not the trainer, Mike Reinold, or (assistant trainers) Greg Barajas or Masai (Takahashi) or (strength coach) Dave Page.

"It was not their fault. It was our fault. That's the message I'm trying to get across. It's not about beers, it's not about Tito, it's not whether there were no rules, it's not anything. It's performance. And we didn't do it."

Lester said he recognizes that "is not the answer people want, especially with our payroll being the second-highest in baseball, they want a reason. I understand that. If I was a fan, I would too.

"I think a lot of guys are going to have chips on their shoulder next spring, there will be an urgency, they want to prove people wrong. I hope fans don't jump off and think, 'These guys are a bunch of idiots, not like the '04 idiots, but a bunch of overpaid babies' and jump off from our team. I hope they keep supporting us.

"We still care about each other, we care about winning. That's the main issue I'm trying to express. We care. We want to win. We want to be professional. We're all still good guys, regardless of what the public thinks of us.

"We're good people."

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.