John Lackey Memories


John Lackey pitches for Boise at Salem-Keizer, August 20, 1999.

 

The first time I saw John Lackey pitch, it was billed as a matchup of top major league pitching prospects.

Lackey had been selected by the Angels in the second round of the June 1999 draft, their first round pick gone to Boston as compensation for signing Mo Vaughn.

Jerome Williams was chosen by the Giants with a supplemental first round pick.

Of the two, Williams was considered the better prospect. When their Top 10 prospect lists came out next winter, Baseball America had Williams ranked #4 on the Giants’ list. Lackey wasn’t ranked at all, although Lackey’s headshot appeared in the Angels review with the caption, “Good Stuff.”

There was good reason to rank Williams over Lackey. Jerome, drafted out of high school, had been a pitcher during his amateur days. BA analyst David Rawnsley wrote, “Williams might have the highest ceiling in the organization if he physically matures as the Giants think he will and maintains his extreme athleticism.” Lackey was a quarterback in high school, and played first base on the baseball team. He’d been drafted out of Grayson County College in Denison, Texas. The Vikings won the Junior College World Series that summer, and Lackey had been an important part of that team — hitting two homers as a first baseman.

But Lackey had started pitching too, exploiting that quarterback arm, learning the rudiments of pitching mechanics. Scout Kris Kline saw something he liked, and the Angels drafted the tall Texan despite his inexperience.

Lackey and Williams faced off on August 20, 1999 at Volcanoes Stadium in Keizer, Oregon, near Salem. The Giants’ affiliate was called the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes. I had friends who lived near Salem, and the Angels’ Short-A franchise back then was the Boise Hawks, so I timed a visit to see Boise face Salem-Keizer.

It was also the first time I met Tom Kotchman, who was managing the Hawks, but that’s a story for another time.

The Volcanoes triumphed that day. Lackey worked six innings, giving up seven runs (six earned) on eight hits, striking out four and walking five. Williams pitched four innings, allowing two runs on five hits.

John finished his first half-season of pro ball with a 4.98 ERA, 77 strikeouts and 50 walks in 81 1/3 innings. (For those into WHIP, his was 1.61.)

Lackey began 2000 at Low-A Cedar Rapids, but was so dominant (2.08 ERA in five starts) that he moved up in May to High-A Lake Elsinore and in August to Double-A Erie.

It was at Lake Elsinore that his teammates hung the nickname “Hank” on him.

A Jim Carrey film titled Me, Myself & Irene was popular in theaters that summer. Carrey’s character was a meek man named Charlie who was so abused that he developed a split personality named Hank who was violent and rude.

On his off days, “Lack” was the easiest going guy you’d ever meet. He was Charlie. But on pitching days, he was Hank, and you didn’t want to cross his path, much less try to strike up a conversation.

John was on the fast track to the big leagues. He began 2001 with the Double-A Arkansas Travelers. I went out to Little Rock in May to shoot photos, and recorded an interview with Lackey. Click here to listen to the May 13, 2001 interview. (Windows Media Player required.)

John Lackey pitching for the Double-A Arkansas Travelers in May 2001, and the Triple-A Salt Lake Stingers in July 2001.

 

Lackey was scheduled to return to Salt Lake in 2002. By then, he was ranked the Angels’ #3 prospect (behind Casey Kotchman and Bobby Jenks) by Baseball America. In March, I filmed footage at the Angels’ old minor league complex in Mesa, called Gene Autry Park (commonly known as “The GAP”), for an online documentary called A Day at the GAP. I filmed Lackey in a bullpen workout with his coaches, which is part of the documentary. Click here to watch the documentary. Windows Media Player and a broadband (cable modem, DSL) Internet connection required.

(It was my first attempt at a video documentary. I got better.)

In 2002, John made his major league debut in Arlington, Texas, near his hometown. He gave up a home run to Alex Rodriguez, but then he’s not alone in that category. By the end of the year, he was the starting pitcher for Game #7 of the World Series, leading the Angels to the title.

Next spring, I was down on the minor league fields shooting photos when a big hand slapped me across the shoulders. “Hey Steve, whassup?!” It was Lack, acting as if nothing important had happened since the last time I’d seen him, but that was “Charlie.”

Once the kids reach the big leagues, we drift apart because we no longer travel in the same circles, and it was no different with John, but we would cross paths now and then.

The last time I saw him was in April, when he was on rehab assignment at Tempe Diablo for a forearm injury suffered during spring training. There was a lot less “Charlie” in John than years ago, because he’d grown up and become a multi-million dollar commodity. But he knew me and trusted me enough to let me follow him around with a camcorder, recording his bullpen session. Click here to watch the bullpen session. Windows Media Player and a broadband (cable modem, DSL) Internet connection required.

We talked a little afterwards. I knew free agency was in his future, and wanted to say goodbye if this was really goodbye, but held back because that was business and I didn’t want to let business get in the way of our relationship. So I left him to chat with Tom Gregorio, his catcher that day ten years ago in Keizer, who’s now the Angels’ minor league catching instructor.

Although I’d hoped he’d sign with the Angels, deep down I knew he’d probably go elsewhere. John is a competitor, a competitor among competitors, so I figured he’d be out there looking for the best dollar figure he could find, in the most challenging environment. My bet was on the hometown Texas Rangers, but they’re in financial turmoil so they didn’t enter the bidding.

For John’s personality, the Red Sox will do.

I’m sad to see him go, I hoped he’d retire an Angel, but that’s not how the business of baseball works.

So I’ll just say goodbye, Lack. Enjoy your new life.

Oh, and as for Jerome Williams … He was traded to the Cubs for LaTroy Hawkins in May 2005. After the Cubs, he was with the A’s, Nationals, Twins, independent ball, Dodgers, and the A’s again. He’s appeared in 76 major league games with a career ERA of 4.25. In 2009, he pitched for the A’s Triple-A franchise in Sacramento, posting a 5.58 ERA. Jerome was given his free agency at season’s end.

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