"Well, I don't want to sound like an a--hole," Jon Lester said near the end of spring training, rolling with a question about sky-high expectations and where the bar will be set now that the Cubs are the defending World Series champs.
"But that bar's always been there for me. I came from Boston, where it was if you didn't make the playoffs, all hell breaks loose. So I love that. That's why I wanted to come here."
Lester riffed the same way last October after his final start in a regular season where the Cubs won 103 games and he finished second in the National League Cy Young Award voting: "I don't want to sound like an a--hole or anything, but we haven't really done anything yet."
For years, people around the Cubs always talked about changing the culture. Lester actually did it, bringing that win-or-else intensity he felt with the Red Sox, being a dependable 200-inning workhorse at the front of the rotation and delivering a championship in Year 2 of that $155 million megadeal.
Now what? That's the wrong question for a guy signed through at least the 2020 season, or prime years for Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez, Willson Contreras, Albert Almora Jr. and what might ultimately become a dynasty on the North Side.
After an offseason that saw an unforgettable parade down Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue, perhaps one of the largest gatherings in human history at Grant Park, a trip to the White House, and Cubs all over Disney World, "Saturday Night Live" and the talk shows, it's fitting that Lester's no-nonsense, get-over-it personality will come through on Opening Night against the Cardinals at Busch Stadium.
"I wanted to be a part of this," said Lester, who will start opposite Carlos Martinez and a rebooted St. Louis team that last year missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010 and could feel the balance of power shifting in this rivalry. "I wanted these young guys to experience this, because once you win, you don't want to go back the other way.
"Baseball's so funny and fickle about things where you have unexpected years and people get hurt. That's just part of the game. But that bar still needs to be there. And I think the accountability and the responsibility of having that bar is important. It makes you show up every day being ready to play."
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Lester deflects credit for helping create that sense of professionalism, saying those blue-chip prospects had already been wired that way and expecting Theo Epstein's scouting-and-player-development machine to keep rolling out hitters like Ian Happ and Eloy Jimenez.
"As you get older, it's fun to see these young guys come up and do well and not be surprised by the moment," Lester said. "I just remember my first big-league camp. You get up there and you face your first big-leaguer and it's like: ‘Oh my goodness, I'm facing this guy?'
"You see these guys and they don't care. It's like: ‘Who are you? I'm just trying to get hits.' It's really good to see that, because their transition now is easier when they get to the big leagues. It's still not that awe moment where I'm facing this guy.
"I remember facing the Yankees for the first time. You're just standing on the mound and it's Derek Jeter, Johnny Damon, Alex Rodriguez, Jorge Posada, the list goes on.
"You're just like: ‘Oh my God, I used to watch this guy. This guy's awesome,' instead of worrying about trying to get him out, so it's really impressive to see how these guys handle it."
The Cubs signed Lester, now 33, with the idea that the lefty could age gracefully like Andy Pettitte, who pitched into his early 40s (and also admitted to using human growth hormone). Pettitte had been a big-game pitcher for the last team to defend a World Series title, the three-peat Yankees (1998, 1999, 2000).
The Cubs trusted Lester to start Game 1 in all three playoff rounds last October and will have him start the first game of the rest of their lives.
"It should be fun," Lester said. "Great ballpark, one of my favorite ballparks, going up against one of our rivals. What better way to start off than with the Cardinals?"