by Paul Knepper
On August 7, 2007, the Yankees called up 21-year-old flamethrower Joba Chamberlain to fill their desperate need for a set-up man for Mariano Rivera. All the kid did was strike out 34 batters, while allowing just one earned run in 24 innings and help the Yankees recover from a dreadful start of the season to earn the Wild Card. Like that, Joba Chamberlain was the most popular athlete in New York.
Born Justin Chamberlain, his baby cousin called him Joba because he couldn’t pronounce Justin. Chamberlain once said that he thought the name sounded “dynamic,” so he adopted.
Dynamic, was how Yankee fans saw the 21-year-old with the rising fastball that reached triple digits at times on the radar gun. He complemented the heater with a filthy slider in the low 90’s. In addition to his nasty stuff, the rookie had swagger. He gyrated and pumped his fists on the mound after big strikeouts and though many opposing players thought he was showing them up, his emotion invigorated a veteran Yankee team that had been plodding through the season.
The man with the dynamic name was also a public relations man’s dream. Newspaper and television headlines ran with the obvious Jabba the Hut Star Wars references and the Yankees jumped on the phenomenon by selling “Joba Rules” t-shirts, a play on the innings and appearance limitations imposed on the youngster by the organization. Fans and writers began comparing him to another husky right-hander, Roger Clemens, and some proclaimed him the eventual replacement for the great Mariano Rivera.
Soon we learned that Joba was raised by a single dad, Harlan Chamberlain, who’s confined to a motorized scooter due to a childhood bout with polio. Harlan is also a Native American and has several relatives who still live on the Winnebago Indian Reservation where he was born. The TV cameras caught the elder Chamberlain, whom Joba described as his best friend, shedding tears of pride as Yankee fans serenaded his son the first time he witnessed Joba pitch in the big leagues in person.
As Joba-mania reached a level of hype not seen in New York since Doc Gooden, I grew skeptical. Sometime during his splendid run in the summer of ’07, I began calling him Steve. It was my way of staying grounded as a Yankee fan. I knew that more than likely, Joba would have fairly ordinary career; It was his name and story that were somewhat unique, and that’s what fans hung on to. I was convinced that if he were a white man with an ordinary name like Steve, instead of a Native American named Joba, there would have been much less hype.
I recognized that Chamberlain’s stuff was electric and there’s no denying the quality and impact of his performance upon being called up to the big club, but I didn’t believe his talents were as rare as many Yankee fans did. Every season several teams around the league call up a pitching prospect or two who throw in the mid to upper 90’s. The majority of them don’t develop into top line starters or closers, even among those who experience immediate success as Joba did.
Most pitchers who thrive immediately are unable maintain their production, either due to the psychological rigors of being a major league pitcher or because the hitters in the league make adjusts and catch up to them. The other major obstacle to long term success for a young flamethrower is arm trouble. For every great strike out pitcher who had an illustrious career, you can point to two who burned out early. The statistics were simply not in Chamberlain’s favor.
Another red flag was the small sample size of Joba’s success. He hadn’t been a huge prospect like fellow ’07 call-up Phil Hughes and since he’d pitched just a season and a half of minor league ball the Yankees had a limited body of work from which to evaluate him. He hadn’t pitched nearly enough innings to demonstrate that he could be an effective starter at the major league level, as the Yankees projected.
Like everything else pertaining to the Yankees, their prospects and young stars receive greater hype than those in other organizations. I’d seen way to many uber prospects and fast starters pass through the Yankee organization, only to disappear into oblivion. Over the previous two decades there was Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens, Kevin Maas, Ruben Rivera, Brien Taylor, Drew Henson, Sam Militello and Russ Davis, to name a few.
I’d also seen what the media could do with an intriguing story line. Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez had an impressive career with the Yankees, especially in the playoffs, however, it was his story that made him a compelling figure. He arrived in New York through a remarkable, if not entirely true, tale of fleeing Cuba on a raft in shark infested waters. Combine that with a classic nickname, a distinctive leg kick and an air of mystery that arose from his refusal to conduct interviews, based on his supposed inability to speak English, and you have a media sensation.
Yankee fans, starving for a young pitching prospect, were particularly susceptible to the Hollywood storyline. The last Yankee farmhands to develop into consistent contributors on the rubber were Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, both of whom made their Pinstripe debuts in 1995. New Yorkers were also wary of losing the arms race with the rival Red Sox, who had traded for Josh Beckett during the winter of ’06, signed Japanese star Daisuke Matsuzaka prior to the ’97 season and had two promising young starters of their own in Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz.
The Yankee organization also contributed to the expectations for Joba by the way they handled him. General Manager Brain Cashman made it clear that he intended to build the team around Chamberlain, Hughes and fellow hurler Ian Kennedy. Chamberlain was branded untouchable during Cashman’s trade negotiations with the Minnesota Twins for their star pitcher Johan Santana.
Cashman was afraid to blow out his prize possession’s arm, so he had manager Joe Girardi handle his young stud with kid gloves. The team announced during spring training of 2008 that Joba would begin the season in the bullpen, in order to limit his innings. In mid May, Girardi announced that Joba would join the rotation and after being stretched out in the minors he made his Major League debut against Roy Halladay and the Blue Jays on June 3rd.
Chamberlain had mixed success in the rotation before being placed on the disabled list in August with rotator cuff tendinitis. He was 3-1 as a starter with eight no decisions and finished the season with a 2.60 E.R.A. and 118 strikeouts in just 100 innings.
Following the 2008 campaign, the Yankees indicated that Chamberlain would be in the rotation in 2009, in what many in the organization expected to be a breakout year for the fireballer. But, Chamberlain’s fastball, which cracked triple digits in ’07 was topping out at 92-93 M.P.H. and decreased in velocity as his pitch count climbed. He lost control of the strike zone and his confidence spiraled downward.
To make matters worse, the Yankees instituted a low ceiling on his pitch counts late in the season in order to preserve his arm. Then Girardi moved him back to the bullpen for the playoffs in 2009, where he served as Rivera’s set-up man during the team’s championship run. Once again, Chamberlain didn’t know what his role was with the team.
Heading into the 2010 season, Girardi declared an open competition for the fifth spot in the Yankees rotation between Chamberlain, Hughes, Alfredo Aceves and Sergio Mitre. Hughes won the job and Chamberlain was banished to the bullpen once again, where his velocity was still down and control continued to suffer. His E.R.A topped out over five at the All-Star break, though he finished the season strong.
The Yankees didn’t exactly give Joba a vote of confidence by signing former Tampa Bay Rays closer Rafael Soriano in the winter of 2011, to a staggering 3 year $35 million contract to be the set-up man and eventual successor to Rivera, the role Joba was once supposed to fill. Chamberlain still hadn’t fully regained the pop on his fastball, though he pitched well early in the season, posting a 2.83 E.R.A in 27 appearances.
Then his career took another turn for the worse when he tore a ligament in the elbow of his throwing arm last week. Joba required the dreaded Tommy John surgery, which will keep him off the field for 10 to 14 months. The procedure has become commonplace in baseball and many players have returned to form a year or two later. Some have even throw harder after the surgery than they did before the injury. However, for many players the procedure essentially marks the end of their career, as they never regain their pre-injury form.
Joba burst onto the scene like a rock star and emerged as the crown jewel of the Yankee farm system, projected to be either a future number one starter or Rivera’s successor. Four disappointing years later, he blew out his arm like so many hot shot hurlers before him, and at the age of 25, his career is in jeopardy. Even if he fully recovers he’s likely destined for a career in middle relief. If his name was Steve nobody would even remember him in 20 years.