After overcoming a cancer diagnosis in 2006 to pitch for the Red Sox in 2007, southpaw Jon Lester was honored on Wednesday with the 2007 Tony Conigliaro Award. The honor is given to players who have overcome an obstacle and adversity and is named after the former Boston outfielder who was tragically struck by an errant pitch in 1967 but returned to earn Comeback Player of the Year honors in 1969. He played another full season for Boston before the effects of the pitch on his vision forced him to retire shortly into the 1971 season; however, he then made an abbreviated comeback with the Sox in 1975 and got a hit in his first at-bat on Opening Day at Fenway Park. Sadly, the East Boston native suffered a massive heart attack in early 1982 while interviewing for a broadcast position with the Sox and passed away eight years later at age 45 in 1990.
Lester, who was 4-0 in 12 starts this season and won the decisive Game Four of the World Series for the Sox, started 15 games in 2006 and posted a 7-2 record before doctors discovered a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in late August 2006 during a physical that followed a minor car crash nearly two weeks earlier that month. Following treatment, CT scans a few months later showed that the cancer was in remission, and the young pitcher joined his teammates in Fort Myers the following spring. Lester then started the season for the Greenville Drive, a Red Sox Single-A affiliate, before moving to Triple-A Pawtucket in late April. In mid-June, Boston removed Lester from the disabled list but kept him in Pawtucket to continue his rehabilitation. Nearly a month later, with his parents watching on from the stands at Jacobs Field, he made his first major league start of 2007 on July 23 against the Indians in Cleveland, going six full innings and allowing just two runs on five hits while striking out six and picking up his first win in nearly a year.
In the post-season, Lester made two relief appearances in the American League Championship Series versus Cleveland and pitched a total of 3-2/3 innings, giving up two runs on three hits. Lester was then given the ball to start Game Four of the World Series against Colorado in place of veteran Tim Wakefield, who had been left off the series roster due to back problems. He responded by keeping the Rockies off the board in 5-2/3 innings while yielding just three hits and three walks and striking out three; he eventually earned the series-clinching win for Boston as the team celebrated its second championship in four seasons.
Lester is the second Boston player to be honored; former pitcher Bret Saberhagen, who came back from serious shoulder injuries to win 15 games for the Red Sox in 1998, received the award that same season. The following year, current Boston third baseman and 2007 World Series MVP Mike Lowell was honored after being treated for testicular cancer in spring training and returning to average .258 while collecting 12 home runs and 47 RBI for the Florida Marlins over the final four months of the 1999 season.