CHICAGO — Now that Jon Lester has called it quits on his 16-year career, the Chicago Cubs need to pick a good day in 2022 to retire his No. 34, assuming there is a season.
The organization already has retired five numbers: No. 14 (Ernie Banks), No. 26 (Billy Williams), No. 10 (Ron Santo), No. 23 (Ryne Sandberg) and No. 31 (Fergie Jenkins and Greg Maddux).
The last number the team retired, in 2009, was the 31 worn by Jenkins and Maddux, both Hall of Famers who played for several other teams but made their names with the Cubs.
Lester would be the first — and probably the last — of the 2016 champions to have his Cubs number retired. He’s virtually a shoo-in to make the Hall of Fame, even if it’s not on the first ballot, and his legacy in Boston and Chicago was secured when Lester led those respective teams to drought-ending titles in 2004 and ‘16.
“Looking at Jon’s career in full now, he made an incredible impact on the history of the game, two great franchises, millions of fans, hundreds of teammates and many young kids fighting cancer,” former Cubs President Theo Epstein said Wednesday. “That’s a true Hall of Fame legacy.”
The tricky part for the Ricketts family, the Cubs owners, is that No. 34 also was worn by Kerry Wood. While not a Hall of Famer, Wood is a franchise legend, and his record-tying 20-strikeout day on May 6, 1998, is celebrated annually by many Cubs fans.
Wood gave Lester his blessing to wear No. 34 when Epstein signed the free-agent starter in 2014, saying it would be “an honor” to share it with the All-Star pitcher. Lester wore No. 31 in Boston, and said during his introductory news conference he chose 34 because of Wood, Nolan Ryan and former Bears great Walter Payton.
“Obviously the Chicago tie of Kerry Wood — I remember watching him as a young pitcher,” Lester said that day. “I don’t want to date him. I’m sure he’ll appreciate that. And obviously there’s the Walter Payton aspect. And for me, the personal aspect of watching Nolan Ryan, or not necessarily watching him but studying his career and being a part of that. It’s always been one of my favorite numbers other than 31.”
Lester played only six years with the Cubs, which is much less than Maddux or Jenkins (10 years) in their two different stints on the North Side. And Lester’s 77 wins in a Cubs uniform rank only 32nd in franchise history, well below the top two — Charlie Root (201) and Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown (188). Lester is even well below more contemporary Cubs starters such as Rick Reuschel (135) and Carlos Zambrano (125), and Lester’s 13.2 WAR with the Cubs ranks 43rd, just ahead of Jon Lieber (13.0).
Lester’s .636 win percentage with the Cubs is tied for 10th in franchise history, for what it’s worth.
But the thing that matters most about his Cubs career can’t be measured in numbers. His signing arguably was the single biggest moment of the rebuild. He helped bring the Cubs their long-sought championship. And he saved the 2016 season with his Game 5 start in the World Series and Game 7 performance out of the bullpen.
When looking at Lester’s bona fides, you have to look at the total package. Spending $47,000 to buy beers for fans (including a $16,000 tip to the bartenders) after his final Cubs season in 2020 may not be relevant, but the show of gratitude was unprecedented and can’t be discounted when discussing his legacy.
There will be those who believe Lester needs to get in line, and that’s fair. Andre Dawson, a Hall of Famer who won an MVP award with the Cubs after signing as a free agent in 1987, has yet to be honored with a number retirement.
Dawson also played only six years with the Cubs, but spent the bulk of his 19-year career (11 seasons) with the Montreal Expos. But the Ricketts family has had plenty of time to retire Dawson’s No. 8 and haven’t, so it probably is a moot point.
Ditto Sammy Sosa’s No. 21. The Cubs won’t be retiring that number any time soon, and never have mended their broken relationship with the former star, let alone honoring him.
Retiring Lester’s number could put the Cubs’ owners in a quandary over what to do with Anthony Rizzo when the first baseman calls it quits. Rizzo spent 10 years with the Cubs and was the first significant piece of the rebuild. He was arguably as important to the turnaround as Lester, though Lester’s signing is widely praised as the move that signaled the team was for real.
Unfortunately for Rizzo, he’s not on a Hall of Fame trajectory. And since he was traded to the New York Yankees during the big sell-off last July, Rizzo won’t be able to build up his Cubs resume for a potential number-retirement down the road. And unless Kris Bryant returns as a free agent, he’s also a longshot to have his Cubs number retired.
Manager Joe Maddon? Doubtful, though he guided the team to the 2016 title and is second to Frank Chance in winning percentage (.581) of Cubs managers with three or more years. The Cubs didn’t offer Maddon an extension after 2016, so it’s unlikely they’d honor him down the road.
So Lester likely will be the sole representative of the 2016 Cubs to have his number retired by the franchise, if the Ricketts family does the right thing.
Whenever that happens, the beers will be on us.