Commentary

The final chapter in the Book of Joba?

Injury makes you wonder if this has been the story of a phenom destined to burn out

Updated: June 11, 2011, 10:10 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Joba Chamberlain sat on the dugout railing next to his father, Harlan, whose buggy of a wheelchair was graced by a small American flag. This was a red, white and blue story after all, a boy getting hurt in a ballgame and seeking comfort and reassurance from his old man.

Harlan was wearing the cap of the New York Yankees, the world's most famous team, his son's team, when he pulled a board game from a grocery bag.

"We were going to play cribbage, and we still will," Harlan said during batting practice on the first night of the rest of Joba's life.

"He's been playing cribbage since he could count."

[+] EnlargeJoba Chamberlain
AP Photo/Frank Franklin II"You're going to have to cut my arm off to stop me from pitching," Joba Chamberlain said after learning he has a torn ligament in his right elbow.

Harlan got the phone call in a Yankee Stadium parking garage a little after 2 p.m. Thursday, the call from Joba telling him that he had a torn ligament in his right elbow, that he would almost certainly need Tommy John surgery and that his once-promising season was done.

Three hours later, Harlan was confident enough in modern medicine and Dr. James Andrews' winning percentage to declare that his son's "best years in baseball are yet to come." He was only doing a father's job.

But after yet another setback, another interruption in a career already full of them, one doesn't have to be a hopeful Red Sox fan to suspect the best of Joba Chamberlain is now behind him.

Maybe Chamberlain was destined to go down as the modern bullpen's answer to Mark Fidrych, a one-and-done pitching phenomenon, a comet streaking through the blackness before going poof in the night.

"You're going to have to cut my arm off to stop me from pitching," Chamberlain said after receiving the grim news. "On the other hand, you have to realize this is your career. At 25, I'm still relatively young."

In fact, the unruly, zigzagging arc of Chamberlain's Bronx tale makes him appear to be the oldest 25-year-old in sports.

The Yankees should have left him alone as a reliever, of course, even if their yo-yoing of Chamberlain had nothing to do with his injury. When he emerged from the Nebraska cornfields in 2007, roaring out of the 'pen like a bull blowing smoke through his nostrils and ears, Chamberlain announced to everyone exactly what he was born to be.

Joba was Goose Gossage reincarnate, a flame-throwing intimidator with a violent delivery that wasn't built to last. On arrival he sent an explosive current of energy through the night crowds at the old place, lighting up the radar gun and silencing every gathering threat.

[+] EnlargeHarlan and Joba Chamberlain
AP Photo/Kathy WillensHarlan Chamberlain (pictured last season) was at the ballpark Thursday, insisting his son's "best years in baseball are yet to come."

His only show of weakness was his failure to pitch through a biblical plague of midges during Game 2 of the ALDS in Cleveland.

But instead of leaving Joba where he was most comfortable -- as a setup man with the requisite fire to someday replace Mariano Rivera's ice -- the Yankees tried jamming their round peg into a square hole. Hank Steinbrenner decreed that Chamberlain would become his team's Josh Beckett, and dammit, the Yanks were going to make Joba their Josh one way or another.

Chamberlain would outduel Beckett at Fenway one memorable night, but over time he had predictable troubles tempering his flame and pacing himself over seven innings. If Joba wasn't a bad starter, he wasn't a very good one, either. Soon enough he lost a rotation faceoff with Phil Hughes and returned to the 'pen, where he was so mixed up that he earned a demotion from the eighth-inning guy to the seventh-inning guy.

Joba was heading toward a journeyman's life as a near-faceless middle reliever until Rafael Soriano went down and allowed a renewed Chamberlain to step up. "The best start of my career," Joba called his 2-0 record and 2.83 ERA in 2011.

He said his Sunday appearance in Anaheim "was the best I pitched all year." But Chamberlain felt tightness and discomfort in his forearm after a Tuesday session of long toss, and the doctor ultimately delivered a diagnosis nobody wanted to hear.

"I was kind of in shock when I heard the news," Chamberlain said, his damaged elbow covered by a sleeve. "I was trying to get out of there as soon as I could, before I broke down. ... I shed a couple of tears."

He didn't feel any pain in his elbow. He could open a door, twist off a bottle cap, shampoo his hair -- all the everyday things pitchers with torn ligaments have a hard time doing.

Chamberlain dried his eyes outside the doctor's office, said a couple of prayers, and promised himself to return a better, stronger and smarter pitcher. But the Joba Rules couldn't save him anymore.

As it was, Brian Cashman didn't put those in place to restrain Chamberlain, but to restrain Joe Torre, an old horseplayer who liked to go to the whip.

The moves from the 'pen to the rotation and back to the 'pen again? Nobody can say that back and forth doomed Joba's elbow, but it certainly did nothing to advance his career.

"I don't know if that's good and I don't know if that's bad," Harlan Chamberlain said of the Yankees' handling of his son. "But looking back on it now, there's some reservations."

Reservations that sounded like regrets.

"But I entrusted these people, this organization, with one of the two most precious things I have -- my children," Harlan said. "I don't think anywhere along the line they intentionally wanted to hurt my son. Had I thought that, I would have intervened."

The Yanks wanted what was best for Joba, because what was best for Joba was best for the Yanks. But the plan failed, and failed in a spectacular way, leaving Cashman with a decimated bullpen and the likelihood of losing Chamberlain for 10 to 14 months.

In recovery, Joba's work ethic -- never considered a strength -- will be tested to the max. "He's facing what every pitcher probably doesn't want to face," his father said, "but he's going to face it with a positive attitude."

Yes, pitchers have come back strong from Tommy John surgery, just not all of them. Joba Chamberlain has been through a lot, enough to wonder whether he was a phenom who was always meant to burn out and fade away.

Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter."

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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