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IT'S LATE SUMMER, nearly 1 a.m. at Coors Field in Denver, and Cubs players are wandering around the visitors clubhouse. Food is being served in the back, and guys are showering and getting ready for the team buses that will soon leave for the hotel.
Rain had delayed the start of the game by two hours. Then it went into extras, where an ill-timed two-base throwing error led to an 11th-inning walk-off for the Rockies.
After taking the loss, closer Aroldis Chapman is stretched out on a couch in the middle of the locker room, bags of ice on his left shoulder and elbow. A couple of players huddle around a table as they eat. A few others talk to reporters.
Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs' first baseman, exits the shower with one towel wrapped around his waist and another draped across his shoulders. He ambles through the room, sits on the padded folding chair in front of his locker. He drops his head and checks some texts.
Jon Lester emerges from the back a few moments later. He won't pitch for two more nights, so he's eager to leave, already dressed in a white polo shirt, blue jeans, cowboy boots and a camouflage backpack. As he makes his way toward the clubhouse door, he pulls himself a little closer to the lockers where Rizzo is sitting. Lester's chin is slightly tilted toward his chest, his eyes straight ahead, intense, as if he's looking out the top of his eyelids. He's walking right toward Rizzo.
Lester is a couple of yards away when the first baseman finally looks up from his phone. Rizzo gives a lopsided grin and silently watches his teammate brush past-a little clubhouse humor. Unless you were looking for it, you'd never notice their camaraderie. You'd never know the story behind it.
MAY 16, 2008, Fenway Park, gloves and bats in lockers, the nameplates fixed overhead: David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, Manny Ramirez. Rain is falling outside, the game between the Red Sox and Brewers delayed.
Anthony Rizzo enters the clubhouse with his father, John, and his older brother, John Jr., an offensive lineman at Florida Atlantic. The Rizzo boys are built like square blocks of concrete. Anthony is barely out of high school, 18 years old, 6-foot-3 and a solid 215. Boston took him in the sixth round of the 2007 draft as a 17-year-old--but paid him third-round money because of that body. This kid from Florida, people around the club think, could become a superstar.
Right now, he's a scared teenager. A couple of weeks ago, his ankles started swelling. He stuffed his feet into his spikes before games for the Class-A Greenville (S.C.) Drive. A teammate told Anthony's father he thought something was wrong, and John took Anthony to a doctor in South Carolina. They called Theo Epstein, the Red Sox's general manager, who said the Rizzos needed to get to Boston. A couple of days later, the kid was sitting in a doctor's office, hearing the words for the first time: Hodgkin's lymphoma. You have cancer.
The concept had been foreign to Rizzo. He used to think chemotherapy was cancer. Then he sat in a chair and watched the poison drain into his body.
On May 16, he is Epstein's guest at Fenway. When the general manager sees Rizzo, he fights back tears. We're family, Epstein says, and he wraps the teenager in a hug. We'll take care of you. He introduces Rizzo to Terry Francona, the Red Sox's manager. Just last week, Francona buried his mother-in-law after her battle with cancer, but he wants to know about the kid tearing up the minors. Thirty-one hits in 21 games; .373 average, .402 on-base percentage. How are you feeling? Keep your spirits up.
Epstein spots Lester in the clubhouse. Two years earlier, the pitcher, then 22, survived his own fight with cancer-anaplastic large cell lymphoma-then came back the next year and started the World Series-clinching game against Colorado. Epstein had told Lester about the kid down in Greenville and asked the lefty if he could spare a few minutes.
Of course, Lester said. Anything to help.
Lester had gone through six chemo treatments before being declared cancer-free. Words had never sounded so liberating. The thought of an even younger kid going through this breaks Lester's heart.
Epstein brings the two together in the clubhouse. Rizzo is wearing a gray T-shirt and a zip-up hoodie. Lester is in a red warm-up sweatshirt, his Red Sox hat slightly askew. He offers his hand.
LESTER SHOWS THE Rizzos around, takes them past the lockers to the training room. They talk in a hallway, just off the coaches' offices. Actually, John Rizzo does most of the talking.
How did you deal with the chemo? Rizzo's father asks Lester. How sick did you get? How did your parents handle it? The questions pour out of John. His mother died of breast cancer when he was in eighth grade, and the loss still haunts him. The thought of his son-Ant, he calls him-dealing with this is almost too much for a father to bear.
When did you pick up a baseball again? When did you start working out? How hard was it to return? What can I do? What should I ...?
"I was like, 'Slow down,'" Lester recalls.
"I was all over the place," John says.
Lester wants to talk to Anthony like he's any other athlete, just a pro ballplayer in a tough situation. When Lester was diagnosed, he saw his cancer as a competition. It was like me going against a team, he tells Rizzo. Lester didn't want to know the survival rate, didn't want to know anything other than what he needed to do to win.
I saw this just like I'd gotten hurt, he says to Rizzo. Now what do I do to get better? Then I did it.
"It was everything I needed to hear," Rizzo says today. "I was thinking the same thing: 'I have to do whatever it takes to get this out of me.' He beat his cancer; I knew I could too."
The thing that worked best for Lester, he tells Rizzo, was that he never let his treatments stop his life. Sure, there were times he'd feel so nauseated that he wouldn't want to leave the house. Yes, his hair fell out. Sometimes, when Lester felt tired after chemo, he'd let his mind wander to bad places. Were the treatments working? Would he play baseball again? That doubt is natural, he tells Rizzo, but you have to fight past it. When he could, Lester did the things he loved: hung out with his parents and friends, hunted deer and elk, threw a baseball.
Lester turns to John. Let your son get settled into this stuff first, he says. And then see how he feels. When he feels up to it, let him go do his thing. John looks over at his son. Something isn't right. A moment later, Anthony Rizzo passes out.
HE WAKES UP on the floor seconds later.
Lester helps the kid off the ground. I'm OK, I'm OK, Rizzo keeps repeating.
"I think everything just hit me at once," Rizzo recalls today. "The weight of everything. At that moment, it all seemed very real."
His father wants to freak out, to cry, to scream. "I could see it on his face," Lester remembers.
This is exactly what I'm talking about, Lester tells John, the dad's eyes wide and scared. Don't make a big deal of this. If something happens, keep moving.
They take Rizzo into Francona's office. Rizzo sits on a couch, near his father and brother. Lester pulls up a chair. Rizzo takes a drink of water, and when Epstein and Francona join the group, Epstein tells Rizzo he'll get the best treatment. Whenever Rizzo recovers, he'll still be part of the team's plans. They won't forget him.
After an hour, they break up their meeting. Lester promises Rizzo they'll see each other again. On the way out, John pulls out a camera and asks Lester to pose for a photo with his son. Lester puts his hand on the kid's back. Rizzo smiles.
In late summer that year, Rizzo learns that his cancer is in remission. Lester hears the news from Francona. "It was like gratification," the pitcher says today, "like maybe I had something to do with it. There was a sense of relief too, because Anthony was going to get back to playing."
Rizzo has a five-day window during treatments when he feels like the old Anthony. He begs Red Sox management to get into a game. Boston has an instructional team in Fort Myers, Florida-140 miles from Rizzo's home in Parkland. In early fall, he's told he can get an at-bat.
Rizzo's parents and Epstein are there when he digs in at the plate. It might as well be Game 7 of the World Series. Rizzo doubles, and he goes into the winter replaying that hit in his mind.
Lester sees him a few months later in spring training, on the back fields in Fort Myers. Lester is throwing a minor league game when he spots the kid. Man, you look great, he tells Rizzo. They talk for a minute about how much Rizzo loves being back.
They won't see each other again for five years. In December 2010, Rizzo is traded to San Diego in a deal that sends Adrian Gonzalez to Boston. Before Rizzo leaves for his new team, Epstein promises him that their paths will cross again. After making the majors with the Padres, Rizzo gets a call in January 2012 saying he's been traded to Chicago. New Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein finalizes the deal. Rizzo wins the fan- decided Final Vote and makes the All-Star Game in 2014. Lester, who has become Boston's ace, is there too.
Before the game at Target Field in Minneapolis, Rizzo sees Lester in the outfield. He walks out, extends his hand.
I'm not sure if you remember me ...
They talk. "He was still the same good guy," Rizzo says today. He knows Lester is a free agent at the end of the season, and he makes a brief pitch. Chicago is a good place, Rizzo tells Lester. The Cubs are a great organization. We could use you.
"Anthony's a big part of why I came over here," Lester says. "If I'd have first met him just as a minor leaguer, without our connection, it wouldn't have been the same conversation. What we shared added the intrigue to it, knowing he wasn't just talking to me like, 'Hey, we would really like to have you as a pitcher.' It was other things-deeper things."
THE TWO HAVE had their moments. Much has been made of the Cubs' clubhouse this year: the looseness, the fun. Visit enough times and you understand that these men truly enjoy one another.
But a place like this can be brutal for anyone with a thin skin. Because Rizzo is the oldest of the younger players-he turned 27 in August-he usually gets the brunt of the trash-talking from the older veterans. Lester isn't shy about making a crack when Rizzo, or any of the other young guys, makes an error. And Rizzo isn't afraid to give it back to Lester. "They jab at each other, but it's always lighthearted," third baseman Kris Bryant says. "Jon helped Anthony through a very tough time, so they have a relationship none us can have. They're leaders for this team, and their past experiences shaped that."
Teammates say they're like brothers: Lester is the serious one with the big heart; Rizzo is the fun one who doesn't want anyone left out.
When Lester hit a home run during spring training this year-his first as a pro-Rizzo was the first player to meet him at the dugout steps. He pointed his fingers skyward in mock celebration. Then Lester laughed and did the same. When Lester dropped a game-winning squeeze bunt in the 12th inning against the Mariners this summer, Rizzo led the raucous celebration, jumping and hollering, helping rip Lester's jersey off his back.
"Those two have a bond that sets them apart," Cubs manager Joe Maddon says. "None of us can truly say they know what the other guy has been through. They do."
The two don't talk much about their first meeting, but they do marvel at how the road led them here, to this place, pulling toward a championship.
"It's like everything has come full circle," Lester says. "We're in a completely different destination than where we met. It's awesome to have the two of us be part of this."
MAY 4, 2016, almost eight years since their meeting at Fenway. This time it's Lester who's in need of help.
He's pitching against the Pirates, and his 2-2 fastball to Francisco Cervelli is smoked up the middle. It's a hard one-hopper, the kind of hit that makes a pitcher instinctively drop his glove and do a little save-your-butt sidestep at the same time.
Lester shoots his glove toward the Pittsburgh grass and spears the ball. He does a half-spin, reaches into the glove ... and nothing. The ball is stuck in the webbing between the glove's index and middle fingers. If you've followed the Cubs for the past two seasons, you've seen this before. The same thing happened 11 months earlier; the two plays add to the lore of the difficulty Lester has had in making throws to first base.
But Lester isn't panicking. He bolts toward first, taking six or so strides. On the way, he tears off his glove, the ball still stuffed between the fingers. In front of him, Rizzo flashes to the bag. The glove is in Lester's left hand. He flips it underhand toward Rizzo.
Rizzo shakes off his own glove. For a split second, it's a beautiful, goofy ballet of athleticism and quick thinking. Lester's glove lands in Rizzo's arms, the big first baseman scooping it toward his body.
Rizzo gives a lopsided grin. If you weren't looking closely, you'd miss it.