The 2010 Boston Red Sox season begins tonight with the usual optimism for New England’s favorite team.

One reason to be positive is the off-season signing of free agent John Lackey, one of the leading American League pitchers of the past seven years.

During the Red Sox news conference to introduce Lackey in December, Boston General Manager Theo Epstein made a point of recognizing Lackey’s wife, Krista, a 1998 Sanford High graduate.

Epstein thanked Krista for helping lure her husband to New England.

joining the Red Sox, Lackey moved closer to a large, extended family in Maine, a family full of Clarks, Hamiltons, Brawns, Murphys and more.

“I’ve met only a few of them,” Lackey said last week from spring training in Fort Myers, Fla. “I’ve never been to Maine, but I’m sure we’ll get up there sometime during the season.”

Lackey won’t exactly say he signed with the Red Sox because his wife was from Maine.

“But it didn’t hurt,” he said.

Joining a perennial contender with one of baseball’s highest payrolls also helped.

“If it wasn’t a good organization and a good team, it wouldn’t matter where her family was from,” he said.

Krista Clark Lackey is actually from California, although her grandparents, the late Edward and Ruby Clark, were Mainers.

Krista moved to Maine when she was 12. Initially settled in Scarborough, she moved to Sanford when her father, Nielsen Clark, bought the Oakwood Inn, which he no longer owns.

At Sanford High, Krista was an honors student and played on the basketball and tennis teams.

She attended and graduated from the University of New Hampshire, then moved back to California. She was introduced to Lackey in 2005, when he pitched for the Anaheim Angels. They began dating a year later.

Lackey, originally from Abilene, Texas, is known as a fierce competitor on the field, rarely hiding his emotions. In Krista’s presence, he is more low-key.

“That’s what attracted me to him,” Krista said. “I liked his Southern charm. He was just a quality guy, really respectful, always opening the door for me.

“He definitely didn’t have that harshness he has on the field.”

They became engaged and Krista’s baseball-crazed family became torn. The future in-law pitched for the Angels, usually a strong team and a rival to the Red Sox.

“Secretly, we cheered for John,” said Meredith Sanville, one of Krista’s cousins who lives in New Gloucester. “But, in our house, we are through-and-through Red Sox fans.”

Through Krista, her relatives now had access to a handful of Red Sox tickets when the Angels came to Fenway Park. But Krista placed restrictions on those sitting in the Angels family section.

“I had to tell my relatives they were not allowed to wear their Red Sox hats and T-shirts,” Krista said. “They were obviously still Red Sox fans. But when John pitched, they had to be neutral.”

That neutrality ended in December. Lackey became a free agent, able to sign with any team.

When Lackey competed for the Angels, he criticized antiquated Fenway Park and was once overheard saying the place should be “blown up.”

But that was apparently the competitor in Lackey talking. Epstein said he was surprised to find out through Lackey’s agent that the pitcher would consider Boston.

Krista said her husband’s dislike of Fenway was from a visitor’s perspective.

“You don’t like it when you’re on the other side because it’s very intense and the fans are very, um . . . you know?” Krista said, choosing not to go into specifics.

“John knows he’s going to like playing for them when every game is a playoff game. That gets him going. He loves that. He thrives on that.

“And when (Boston’s interest) came up, it was like why not? Why not go home where my family is?”

So Lackey joined the Red Sox, signing a five-year contract for $82.5 million, and Krista’s relatives in Maine were hopping.

“We were ecstatic, thrilled,” Sanville said. “Immediately everybody was on Facebook talking about it . . . of course, everybody was a Red Sox fan.”

And now they could cheer openly for Lackey.

The cheering began last month when the family began flocking from New England to Fort Myers. Krista scrambled for tickets — “12 at a time,” she said.

Greg Brawn, a cousin and former Standish resident now living in Shrewsbury, Mass., was one of those who watched Lackey pitch in spring training. Afterward, he joined Krista and Lackey for dinner.

“He’s really down-to-earth,” Brawn said. “You meet people like that and you expect something (else). I thought someone with that kind of stature might be a little arrogant. But none of that. He was a very nice guy.”

Lackey will find out there is a baseball tradition in his new, extended family. Among Krista’s cousins are Christian Hamilton, who plays for the University of Southern Maine, and Sean Murphy, a Westbrook High standout who has already given St. John’s University a verbal commitment to play baseball there.

The extended Clark family is talented. And it will grow by one this summer — Krista is pregnant.

“We just found out we have a boy,” said Krista, who is due Aug. 29.

If all goes according to plan, a 2-month-old baby will be in Boston when his daddy is pitching the Red Sox to a World Series title, while scores of cousins celebrate in Maine.

 

Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or:

kthomas@pressherald.com