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Friday, November 4, 2011
John Lackey gets a mulligan

By Johnette Howard
ESPN.com

John Lackey
Did John Lackey pitch through pain to help the Red Sox? Boston fans have a year now to decide.

Someone needed to tell Red Sox pitcher John Lackey how lucky he is even before he got out of that hospital gown he was wearing this week. Can you imagine if Bill Buckner had another chance to get his glove around that damn ground ball in 1986, or if the long drive to left by Aaron (Freaking) Boone that sent the Yankees to the 2003 World Series had curled foul instead and Tim Wakefield was able to throw another pitch? What if Carl Crawford had reached that sinking liner on the last play of Boston's 2011 season instead of stumbling around in left field as if he were on roller skates, making yet another epic Red Sox collapse complete?

You think any of them wouldn't welcome the unexpected do-over that Lackey is about to get?

Now let's see what he does with it.

There hasn't been a stat invented yet to rank the happiest Tommy John surgery in baseball history. But in a lot of ways, that's what Lackey underwent on Tuesday this week when he drifted off to sleep in a Los Angeles operating room and woke up to the news that Dr. Lewis Yocum had successfully repaired his damaged right elbow.

Major surgery rarely seems like a welcome thing for anybody. But Lackey was a pariah and in danger of getting the ax in Boston until he had to go under the knife.

John Lackey
How will John Lackey be remembered? Courageous pitcher or lousy teammate?

He'd become the player the crowd loved to boo at Fenway.

Now, everything people thought they knew about him last season might need to be recast, or at least challenged after what we learned on Friday.

That's when just-promoted Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington sat down at his introductory press conference and made what the Boston Herald correctly termed the "bombshell" announcement that Lackey needed Tommy John surgery.

Until then, Lackey had been derided as a big-money bust, a chronic complainer, a combative contrarian and worse. He was accused of being a cad after TMZ reported he filed for divorce from his wife of three years this summer, just a few months after she underwent a double-mastectomy for breast cancer. And he was pilloried as being a lousy teammate in Boston -- in part for being fingered in this Boston Globe report as part of what might as well be called the Bud Lite Three, along with fellow starting pitchers Josh Beckett and Jon Lester.

Lester eventually confirmed that on nights they didn't pitch, he, Lackey and Beckett sometimes sat in the Red Sox clubhouse drinking "rally beers" and/or occasionally sent a clubhouse boy off to Kenmore Square for Popeye's chicken during the season as games were going on -- even as the Red Sox were folding in September.

But, Lester added, that doesn't necessarily make them "bad people."

Yeah, well, try telling that to the folks who wanted all three of them run out of town. Try telling that to Curt Schilling, the former Red Sox postseason hero who scolded the pitching trio for their lousy performances down the stretch, and blamed it on their failure to stay in top shape. Boston went from leading the Tampa Bay Rays by nine games in the wild-card race to missing the playoffs as Beckett, Lester and Lackey combined to go 2-7 in September with a 6.45 ERA.

Lackey seemed the most likely player to go in the offseason purge that's already seen Francona resign in disgust and Theo Epstein leave to run the Chicago Cubs.

Lester is Boston's young ace, after all.

John Lackey
John Lackey isn't adept at hiding his emotions on the mound, and that costs him with fans and some teammates.

Beckett helped the Sox win the 2007 World Series.

But Lackey slid to a 12-12 record and 6.41 ERA in 2011, far less than the Red Sox were expecting when they lured him away from the Los Angeles Angels with a five-year, $82.5 million free-agent contract two years ago.

And he didn't endear himself to people in Boston with his other stunts, either, like showing up his fielders when they didn't make plays behind him, or his frequent tin-eared remarks to the media. An example? In spring training, Lackey argued that criticism of his 14-11 record and 4.40 ERA for Boston in 2010, his first year with the club, was "overblown" because, if anyone took the time to notice, he'd always been pretty much a 14-win-a-year pitcher, except for that one year he won 19 for the Angels.

That ain't exactly the kind of leadership anyone wanted to hear from a $16.5 million-a-year veteran who was supposed to give the Red Sox one of the best rotations in the majors. Where was Lackey's urgency or sense of responsibility?

He heard even louder catcalls at Fenway when he slumped even worse this year.

But Cherington's announcement that Lackey needed surgery recasts at least some of all that, doesn't it?

It now looks like Lackey might have actually been gutting out the 2011 season with a bum elbow, unbeknownst to everyone else.

And there are indications that although he came to the Red Sox with a history of elbow trouble, and it was a big enough concern that Boston negotiated an option clause into his contract in case he missed significant time, he might have actually hurt himself worse by pitching this season through the tenderness that Epstein admitted the team was "monitoring" once Lackey had an MRI and spent 20 days on the disabled list from May 16 to June 5 with what the club called a "strained" right elbow.

After a game in late June, Lackey testily denied speculation by NESN's Peter Gammons that he might need Tommy John surgery at some point this year, saying Gammons "straight made that up" and defiantly adding "What did it look like tonight?" after he threw 7 2/3 innings of two-run ball in a 2-1 loss to the Phillies.

Still, when asked that night how his elbow felt, Lackey was evasive.

John Lackey
This Sept. 14 scene was all too familiar for Red Sox fans down the stretch.

"Pretty good," he said. "Probably not as good as some, better than others."

So was Lackey a good teammate, or a bad one? Is he a lousy pitcher and a whiner who can't handle the crucible the Red Sox play in, or a man whose 2011 performance can be explained away by personal problems that none of us would wish on anybody and a barking elbow he might have pushed to the breaking point because he knew the team was in a pennant race?

On Friday, Cherington knew where he falls on the issue. He chose to praise Lackey, saying, "John Lackey pitched through circumstances this year that I don't think any of us can fully understand, and he got beat up for it a little bit. This guy was dealing with stuff both on the field and off the field that was very difficult, and he showed tremendous toughness pitching through that."

On Tuesday of this week, the Red Sox issued a brief statement from a team spokesperson terming Lackey's surgery "successful," but the update got only scant play in the media.

There have been no sonnets written about his toughness, and no apologies for the character broadsides that flowed his way earlier.

Barring some miracle, the 32-year-old Lackey will miss the entire 2012 season. The usual recovery time from Tommy John surgery is a minimum nine to 12 months.

That means he won't be back on Opening Day to face the music like Crawford will for his own subpar 2011 season. But he won't have to wait decades to see if he can make peace with the Red Sox faithful like Buckner did, either.

The stakes are different in Lackey's case because, among other things, the denouement to his story is still open-ended. So much is still in play.

Lackey didn't just get Tommy John surgery the other day.

He gets a mulligan.

He gets the sort of gift second chance most people would do anything not to blow.

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.

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