Commentary

Chamberlain frustrated with debut

Originally Published: June 4, 2008
By Jorge Arangure Jr. | ESPN The Magazine

NEW YORK -- Joba Chamberlain kicked the dirt on the mound, and when he reached the first-base line on his dejected walk to the dugout after being taken out of Tuesday's game by Yankees manager Joe Girardi, he kicked that dirt, too.

In his much-anticipated debut, Chamberlain, who received a standing ovation prior to even throwing a pitch in the first inning and whose first pitch elicited a stream of flashbulbs that glared like strobe lights, fizzled in a quick 2 1/3 innings (and a mere 62 pitches) in the Yankees' 9-3 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays.

"You don't see that too often do you?" Girardi said of the standing ovation. "I've never seen it. That's the anticipation that comes with that young man."

Staring at the verdant playing field he had just exited, Chamberlain, after he had found an empty spot on the Yankees' bench, stared blankly ahead and ignored the well wishes of coach Tony Pena. He admitted he was angry at himself.

"I think Joba expects to be perfect every time," Girardi said.

Chamberlain sapped 38 of his 65 pitches, the maximum that would be allowed for the night, according to Girardi, in the first inning (21 were strikes). He walked three of the seven batters he faced in the inning, and four of those seven batters worked a full count against him. After an easy 1-2-3 second inning, Chamberlain, who ended the second inning with 54 pitches, issued a one-out walk to Alex Rios to start the third and Girardi subsequently yanked him. Chamberlain allowed two runs (one earned) on one hit and four walks, and struck out three while throwing just 32 of his 62 pitches for strikes.

"It didn't go very good, I have to be better for sure," Chamberlain said. "I've only got so many pitches and I didn't do a good job of conserving those pitches … I felt good, my body felt good, my mind felt good. I was trying to be too fine I guess. It's something to build off of."

Rarely does a Yankees regular-season game, at least not one against the Boston Red Sox, elicit such attention. An unusually large number of reporters gathered in the Yankees' clubhouse prior to the game, all to witness Chamberlain, whose not-so-subtle move to the rotation was in part mandated by Hank Steinbrenner.

"I think he's a major league pitcher and he belongs here," Girardi said of why Chamberlain is making the transition. "He can help us regardless of how many pitches he throws that day."

The experiment also makes each of Chamberlain's starts a spectacle. When Chamberlain's ailing father Harlan spoke, a crowd of reporters gathered around him, too. Harlan, who signed several autographs for a few children wearing Joba jerseys, has become quite a celebrity himself.

[+] EnlargeJoba Chamberlain
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesJoba Chamberlain walked four batters, three in the first inning, and threw 32 of 62 pitches for strikes in 2 1/3 innings.
"[Joba] has embraced this organization and this town as much as they have embraced him," Harlan told reporters prior to the game. "He's not nervous."

Harlan, whose attendance on Tuesday was not assured since he is still recovering from a hospital stint in mid-April, choked up in tears when asked if he was touched by the traditional Winnebago tribe charm his son wore around his neck for the game.

"The one from my sister?" he could barely muster. "Yes."

Those who have seen Joba Chamberlain in the past surely couldn't be surprised by his spotty debut on Tuesday. He's had a history of flubbed first starts.

"My first ones are always rough, I think," he said.

In his first start for Lincoln Northeast High School in March 2003, Chamberlain, a senior, was matched up against area powerhouse Millard West High School. Chamberlain, then a mostly unknown pitcher who had not even thrown an inning during his junior season, allowed two runs in the first, second and fourth innings, though six of those were unearned. That debut had hardly been anticipated since he was not even considered the best pitcher on the staff.

"Joba was not a prospect," said William Fagler, Lincoln's former coach who is now head coach at Nebraska Wesleyan University. "He was overweight -- about 60 pounds -- and didn't project that he would be a college pitcher or player. … We considered him an average player at best."

Chamberlain, who at that time threw an 81-84 mph fastball, a curveball and an occasional changeup (the biting slider would come later), followed his debut for Lincoln by winning three of his next five starts. In one win, only one ball was hit out of the infield. Yet, that was not enough to convince any major college program to take a chance on him.

Fagler tried to sell him to several small colleges, but even they were put off by Chamberlain's weight. Eventually Division II University of Nebraska-Kearney took a chance on him, and there he flourished. Chamberlain lost weight and gained velocity on his fastball, which earned the attention of the University of Nebraska, the school Joba always wanted to attend. Chamberlain went to several of the Cornhuskers' camps, but the school wasn't interested in him when he came out of high school.

"We couldn't take him out of high school because he simply wasn't ready," said Texarkana College head coach Will Bolt, who was a former assistant coach with Nebraska.

After his year with Nebraska-Kearny, Chamberlain pitched in an area summer league game and was matched up against Bolt's summer league team. In that game, Chamberlain, throwing a 97 mph fastball with two devastating curveballs, dominated Bolt's team.

"We couldn't get over the vision in our heads of this chubby kid who could barely throw 85 mph when he was in high school to suddenly jump 6 to 7 mph," Bolt said. "Rob Childress, who was the pitching coach at Nebraska at the time, called me to ask how Joba had thrown that night and he literally couldn't believe what I told him."

Soon after that game, Chamberlain once again called the Cornhuskers' coaches and asked if they had any interest in him. This time, Nebraska somehow managed to make room for a righty who could throw in the mid-90s with two sharp breaking balls.

Yet in his debut there, Chamberlain was also unimpressive. Against the University of Hawaii-Hilo in a mostly forgettable outing, Chamberlain allowed a run and six hits in just 4 1/3 innings and did not get the decision in Nebraska's win.

"There wasn't a lot of buildup about him taking the mound for the first time from a team standpoint because we had a very talented pitching staff and, at the time, he was just a piece of the puzzle," Bolt said. "The coaches were all anticipating it though, as we knew he was going to have a special year for us."

Two years later, Chamberlain was Nebraska's best pitcher and was selected by the Yankees with the 41st pick in the 2006 draft.

In trying to secure a playoff spot last year, the Yankees chose to make him a reliever, with tremendous results (0.38 ERA in 24 innings). To make the playoffs this year, the Yankees need Chamberlain to make the conversion back to a starter, which will likely require that he reacquaint himself with his changeup and curveball, two pitches he abandoned as a reliever. Chamberlain guesses he used only two curveballs and didn't remember throwing a changeup Tuesday night. Chamberlain will likely throw between 75 and 80 pitches in his start on Sunday.

As for Tuesday night's lesson?

"Continue to attack the zone until they prove you need to do otherwise," he said.

Moments later, he got up from his news conference seat and walked glumly to meet his father.

Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

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