Commentary

Don't worry, Joba -- gut can lead to glory

Chew on this, haters: Plenty of portly pitchers have eaten big league hitters for dinner

Updated: February 18, 2011, 7:32 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

So Yankees reliever Joba Chamberlain was already on the bubble when it comes to making the final roster, and he now stands accused of showing up for spring training this week sporting some new flab on his abs, some extra junk in his trunk and the sort of love handles that have nothing to do with celebrating Valentine's Day on Monday.

Granted, it's not the greatest career move Chamberlain could have made. But even the Jets' Rex Ryan, New York's most notable endorser of lap band surgery, is unlikely to look at the "Before" and "After" photos of Joba's physique and say the extra 15 or so pounds the 6-foot-2 Chamberlain could now be carrying above his listed weight of 230 will be a huge problem. So save the Joba the (Pizza) Hut jokes for now.

Baseball history is larded (couldn't resist) with examples of mildly chubby to downright enormous pitchers who were far bigger and yet nonetheless more successful than Chamberlain has been.

Chamberlain often is said to bear a facial resemblance to Babe Ruth, who was famous for inhaling hot dogs in the dugout during games. Rotund Mickey Lolich went on after his great Tigers pitching career (he also started 30 games for the Mets in 1976) to run a doughnut franchise in suburban Detroit. Terry Forster often was called upon to ignore "fat tub of goo" jokes, and David "Perfect, I'm Not" Wells, well, where do we start? The cases of gout? His Wimpy Burger dates with George Steinbrenner down in Tampa, Fla.? That late-night fight he once had at a Manhattan diner (where else?), or that rubber arm of his that bounced back game after game like a perfectly cooked strand of fettuccine?

[+] EnlargeDavid Wells
AP Photo/Lou RequenaDavid Wells didn't have a perfect physique, but he did pitch a perfect game for the Yankees.

If you're Chamberlain, your defense is, "All of the above." And more.

Chamberlain could note that two of baseball's Big & Tall shoppers of recent times -- CC Sabathia and Bartolo Colon -- both are former Cy Young Award winners and both happen to be in Yankees camp this spring.

He could reminisce about how former Met Sid Fernandez used to hear cracks that his uniform number (50) matched his waist size, but who's laughing now? Fernandez still has one more World Series ring than great beanpoles such as Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee.

He could cite how Deadspin.com made fun of Red Sox pitcher Josh Beckett by running this photo in 2008 when he showed up for spring training -- then emphasize how the headline of the accompanying story highlighted the bright side: "Josh Beckett Doesn't Appear To Have Been Taking Steroids In The Offseason."

If Chamberlain still is at a loss to defend how he let himself go over the winter, he always could invoke former Philadelphia outfielder and current ESPN analyst John Kruk's famous defense: "I ain't no athlete; I'm a professional baseball player."

He could mention Phillies manager Jim Fregosi's Samson theory about Kruk. According to former Phils reliever Mitch Williams, Fregosi once grew so incensed with a hitting slump Kruk was having one year after Kruk got in better shape, Fregosi finally snapped, "You're getting fat again or you're not playing."

[+] EnlargeJohn Kruk
Ron Vesely/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesJohn Kruk wasn't a pitcher, but he was a pretty good amateur philosopher. "I ain't no athlete," Kruk once said. "I'm a professional baseball player."

If Chamberlain really wanted to tug on the heartstrings, he could remove his cap, solemnly place it over his heart, and ominously retell a similar story of former Red Sox setup man and cult hero Rich Garces, an overnight sensation in '99 just like Chamberlain was once upon a time.

Garces -- whose Spanish nickname, "El Guapo," means "The Handsome One" in English -- mysteriously lost velocity on his fastball after the Red Sox asked him to lose weight one offseason not long after he performed well for them in the American League Division Series.

Before long, Garces spiraled back down to the minor leagues. The Nashua Pride eventually held a "bobblebelly" night for him.

The point is, even if the Yankees do secretly call Chamberlain into the principal's office to ask him what he was thinking this winter as his weight climbed toward 245, he needn't say it was, "Hey, CC, you gonna finish that Cap'n Crunch?" or even that he figured the vertical pinstripes on the Yankees pants would be slimming.

There's no reason for him to confess, say, that he felt there was no need to walk around snacking on pathetic little baggies stuffed with pathetic little carrot sticks like some personal trainer might have advised him to eat when he figured he could show up and work hard at spring training.

Of course, if that was Chamberlain's thinking, it carried a risk.

Chamberlain could indeed melt away those extra 10 or 15 pounds in the Florida heat -- or after the blistering dressing down he might yet get from Yankees GM Brian Cashman if Chamberlain pitches so poorly Cashman has to send him to Triple-A.

Chamberlain should know everything is different, and worse, down there.

Not just the meal money.

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