There is that narrative out there, the one that suggests that Jon Lester was only expressing his unbridled desire to remain a member of the Red Sox as a public relations ploy.
Take fewer years and money to stay in Boston? Why would any top-tier free agent, just months away from a ginormous payday, contemplate that?
There is an answer. There is a reality.
Yes, Lester actually means it. What that results in at the end of the day, nobody knows. But he does mean it, just like Mike Lowell meant it almost seven years ago when he took a full year less in the open market to stay with the Red Sox.
"For me it was no doubt I loved playing in a real energized baseball atmosphere every day," the former Red Sox third baseman said. "I loved [that] the city was into the team every single day. All of the stuff that people play in Boston that some guys didn't like, the non-stop talking baseball, that's what I crave. Maybe it is similar somewhere else, but I hadn't seen it. Don't get me wrong, my family was comfortable. My family loved being in Boston. But that baseball atmosphere, it was so overwhelming positive for me. I knew a good contract was coming either way, but I wanted to be in the situation where I enjoyed playing baseball the most, and it was there."
In Lester's case, perhaps the most telling comments the pitcher made were expressed to WEEI.com's Alex Speier less than a week before he was dealt to Oakland:
"I think sometimes you can get blinded by success. Especially you come from here, right now, we're not playing so good -- you get traded to a contender, we're back on the winning trail, everybody is happy when you're winning. It's always roses. You can never see the bad when you're winning. I wouldn't say never [to signing with the team that traded for him], but it would have to be ideal -- you would have to fall into a perfect, perfect scenario. But my ultimate goal would be to come back here. That would be, like I said the other day, I know that's hard to do. I know it doesn't happen very often. But I understand it. I get it.
"I think there's something to be said for [what Cliff Lee did]. Mikey Lowell did it -- there's been plenty of guys who have done it. Obviously not the trade and come back thing, but leaving a year, leaving money on the table. Money doesn't buy you happiness. There's some guys that drives them. That's great. It drives them.
"For me, I want to be happy. I want to be comfortable. I want to be in a place that wants me and appreciates what I do. If that means leaving a little bit of money on the table, then that's what that means.
"For whatever reason, if this [Boston] isn't making you happy and something else is, you take less money and go there. That's I guess the joy of being a free agent. You get to pick your friends. That's the comment I always like."
He's correct: taking less money to go somewhere in free agency doesn't happen a whole bunch. But it does happen. And, as Lester pointed out, there is perhaps no better example of someone taking such a path than Lowell.
After the 2007 season, one in which Lowell put up perhaps his best season and won the World Series MVP, the third baseman was presented with a four-year, $48 million deal with the Phillies. This was after the Red Sox, who waited until season's end to negotiate with their free agent, came right out of the gate with three-year, $32 million offer.
During the negotiations, Lowell had gotten some inkling from principal owner John Henry the Sox might be willing to go to four years. But then the pipeline to Henry dried up, the talks only included then-Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, and the team's offer stuck at three years.
With time ticking, Lowell was faced with the kind of decision that might just be facing Lester.
"The biggest offer was from the Phillies, more per year and more years. So that was a lot," said Lowell, who ended up with a three-year, $38 million deal from the Sox. "You look at it and it's 30 percent more for the whole contract. I looked at that and the situation was good. It's a good hitters' park for me.
"It was different situation. I liked Boston. We were winning. There were no signs that the Red Sox didn't want to compete again for another world championship. Turning down four to take three was not hard for me. If I had to turn down four to take two that would have been a major decision and I don't think I would have done it. That's where Jonny probably doesn't need seven for 150, but if the market calls for five, I don't think the Red Sox can offer four. I don't think that would be an option."
The Lowell-Lester comparison stretches beyond just their love of playing baseball in Boston. Both had life-altering experiences very early in their big league careers -- due to bouts with cancer -- that might not be defining any free agent decision, but certainly has shaped both men's perspectives.
"For me, '07 was my best year so I didn't want to focus on that because if I just kept doing what I was doing there was going to be a nice contract," Lowell remembered. "When I look at Jonny and myself, I think we both got a little dose of reality of life early on with the cancer thing. That's the biggest similariy. A lot of people view it through the baseball view of things, but I think we got a pretty heavy dose of the life thing early on.
"I didn't say I didn't need the contract because of the cancer thing. When we got it, it was so similar to the time I did because we were both rookies so he kind of had to prove himself in the league at not 100 percent. So when baseball is taken away, all you want to do is play baseball and be healthy. When you've got that, the baseball part really doesn't matter. The cancer thing made [us] realize the money thing is going to take care of itself, and you know why? Jon's good. Jon's really good. If you put up numbers, the industry is going to take care of it. It didn't add stress to me. For me in '07, contract year, I really didn't stress because it was just one of those special years with the team and I just enjoyed myself."
The similarities don't stop there.
Lowell also can offer the perspective of what it's like to negotiate with the Red Sox, and Henry in particular. That, it would seem, would be of some interest considering it is the principal owner's philosophy regarding 30-somethings that has gained a fair amount of attention during the Lester talks.
"The thing John Henry does really well is let his baseball guys do the baseball decision, and he decides of the money or the formula works," said Lowell, now a part-time television analyst. "That part of it, talking to him, I really enjoyed because I got to hear the owner of the team agree on some points and have to talk to Theo on other points. With any negotiations, it's kind of like selling a car. They're trying to go low and be fair, and we're trying to go low and be fair and prove our point, and we end up somewhere in the middle. It's hard in a big market. I wanted to keep it as private as possible, some things are let out, and I just think it's just part of it.
"Jon was on with us on MLB Network and he we talked about negotiating. He said, 'It's not easy, and we're talking,' which means he was thinking about it. It was refreshing to hear that it wasn't easy because you're talking about tons of money and he wants to focus on the baseball. It was a good human moment where you're reminded you're talking about a lot of good things but it's not easy. You still have to maintain focus and do your job. Like he said, it's hard. I'm proud of him in the way he's handled everything because he hasn't let it affect him."
In the end, however, it is looking more and more like Lester will be forced to make a decision in line with what Lowell faced.
"Financially he made it already," Lowell said of the lefty. "He made it with the first contract. The numbers are going to be staggering, so what can he do with $130 million that he can't do with the $75 million. Jonny isn't a guy who has four Ferraris. He's a down-to-earth guy. So he's looking at the situation for himself, where he's going to be comfortable. He's a competitor, so he's going to want to be in a competitive atmosphere, and then what his family likes. For me in '07 all three of those came down to Boston. Don't get me wrong, I think there's a line you're not going ... You want to be treated fairly in the market. For me the line was three years. Did I want four? Yeah, I really wanted four. But if the Red Sox would have been adamant at two I don't think I would have signed. The third year was what I was sure of.
"What he is going to look for in the offseason is comfort for his family, because the baseball is going to be there no matter where he goes. He's going to get the ball every fifth day no matter what. I think he's going to go to a place where the baseball is a comfortable situation, meaning the city."