Commentary

Joba is NEXT ... with an exclamation point

Originally Published: December 5, 2007
By Buster Olney | ESPN The Magazine

Editor's Note: This story appears in the Dec. 17 edition of ESPN The Magazine.

IT'S 9:31 A.M. in the off-season, a time when most ballplayers are still deep in REM sleep, but I'm curious to see if Joba Chamberlain lives up to his rep as the King of Text Messaging. So I fire off a quick one to the Yankees' prize righthander.

ESPN The Magazine
Don't have ESPN The Magazine? Subscribe here.

Four minutes later, the light on my cell phone flickers. It's Joba, awake and typing, an indefatigable force of thumbs.

I text A LOT. About 100-200 a day!

Add it to the legend: Chamberlain broke into the big leagues on Aug. 7, faced 67 hitters and sent approximately 7,000 messages before allowing his first earned run. No wonder he's NEXT.

Impressed, I ask him how fast he text messages.

Probably faster than I pitch.

Is it true, I wonder, that he texted Clay Buchholz the night the Red Sox righty tossed a no-hitter? The two pitchers became fast friends at the 2007 All-Star Futures Game in San Francisco. And on Sept. 1, while Buchholz was shutting down the Orioles, Chamberlain was serving a suspension for throwing two fastballs over the head of Boston's Kevin Youkilis a few nights earlier. He was free to go home after pregame practice; instead, the 6'2", 230-pound fireballer elected to stay and watch his teammates play the Devil Rays from GM Brian Cashman's box, chatting merrily while simultaneously working his Treo.

I texted Clay that day! Before the game, actually. I just wished him good luck. Then after the game I wrote, "glad u got that out of your system."

My turn. I ask Joba which big league hitter had the best swings against him last season. It's kind of a trick question, because there were probably fewer good swings against Chamberlain than against any other pitcher in the majors in 2007. Opponents hit only .145; he struck out 34 of the 91 batters he faced.

Mike Lowell was the toughest hitter for me. Sliders and fastballs. I couldn't get him out!

In keeping with his buoyant personality, Joba loves exclamation points. They're his favorite form of punctuation, popping up in the flurry of texts he has sent to teammates such as Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Roger Clemens this off-season. He's bold like that. In mid-November, the 22-year-old punched out a text to Mike Mussina to let Moose know he'd just jogged five miles. The kid challenged the vet: One day next spring, they'll run against each other until one of them cries uncle.

All those exclamation points are fitting for a player who has already gained mythic status in the Bronx: Fans latched onto his name and potential even before he threw a pitch. Chants of "Joba" rattled through Yankee Stadium this season the way "Maximus" flew around the ring in Gladiator. Chamberlain relishes the spotlight (as long as it doesn't attract a swarm of bugs). And he has become an integral part of the Yankees clubhouse, thanks to a demeanor that's equal parts Jeter, with his transcendent confidence; Clemens, with his ability to energize everyone on the field; and Mariano Rivera, with his stoicism on the mound. Talent evaluators seem certain that, whether he's taking the ball every fifth day or coming out of the bullpen in tight situations, Chamberlain has the goods. And even though he was a starter in the minors, he's willing to accept any role -- which is good, since the Yankees haven't decided how to use him next year. "I'm just a kid from Nebraska," he often says, with no apparent ego.

Credit for that humility goes to his father, Harlan, a man who has suffered the crippling effects of polio since childhood and who raised Joba on his own after he and the boy's mother divorced. Quick story: Joba had left-knee surgery as a sophomore at Nebraska, and he spent his first hours of recovery sprawled out on the couch at their Omaha home. At 5:30 in the morning, Harlan hobbled into the living room on crutches and saw the bag of melting ice on his son's swollen knee. "We need to change that," he said. Then, taking the bag between his teeth, he labored slowly to the kitchen for a refill. At that moment, Joba understood the depth of his father's love. This season, he flew Harlan east of Chicago for the first time in the man's life, to shake hands with Clemens and Reggie Jackson, to meet "Mr. Torre" and to watch Joba pump 100 mph gas.

Father and son text "every once in a while," Joba says via text. Which reminds me: It's time for one final topic before carpal tunnel sets in. A colleague of mine claims to have seen Joba at a UFC bout the other night, so I ask the pitcher if he's a big fan. Immediately, the exclamation points start flying.

It was awesome! It def is getting bigger than boxing! Even had a couple guys from Nebraska fighting! There is so much more that goes into it than boxing. You got the martial arts aspect, ground and pound. It's just so complex in all areas of training!

It figures the training interests him. Around the Yankees clubhouse, Joba's workout ethic is known as "Roger-like." In fact, he plans to visit Clemens this winter and maintains, confidently, that he can go toe-to-toe with The Rocket in the gym. "If he can get me to throw up, it would be the first time," Joba said in September. My thumbs are tired, but I'm curious if he incorporates UFC training (minus the punching) into his regimen.

I've thought about it! You def have to mix it up.

Seven texts in a half hour, and I'm not fooling myself; like a chess master who plays multiple opponents, Joba was probably texting five other people besides me. I need a break, so I tell him I'll send more later.

Sounds good. I will be ready!

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

Buster Olney | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine