Chamberlain relieved to know his role

When the 21-year-old Joba Chamberlain arrived in the Bronx to join the New York Yankees in August 2007, he had no clothes.

In the whirlwind before he became the setup savior, Chamberlain went to the Gap near Triple-A Scranton and bought as many slacks as he could afford.

With that taken care of, he arrived in the big leagues and found out he needed a suit for team flights. He had never had bought a suit, so he asked a clubhouse attendant: "What do I do? I have no clothes."

Alex Rodriguez came to the rescue and took him to a local clothing store, Porta Bella, and they picked up two gray Calvin Klein suits. Dressed for success, Chamberlain went on to complete the Summer of Joba, in which he fired 15 1/3 scoreless innings to begin his career. It was the most impressive streak since Slow Joe Doyle threw 18 scoreless in 1906.

From his first transition from a college and minor league starter to lighting up the 2007 summer to the Midges in Cleveland to the Rules to the DUI to starting in the regular season to relieving in the playoffs to losing the fifth starter spot this spring -- are you out of breath yet? -- it feels as if Chamberlain's life had been stuck on the fast-forward button.

This brings us to now. He is positioned as the "Bridge to Rivera," the fast-forward button has finally been turned off and he is just being allowed to play. In other words, he finally knows his role.

"I know what I'm doing for the whole year, which is different than it has been since I got here," Chamberlain said. "If you want to call it settled, you can call it settled."

Though he's still just 24, Chamberlain is not a prodigy anymore. He is a veteran, and he may be the difference-maker in the toughest division in baseball. While the Yankees' recent hitting slump likely will self-correct with the antidote of Baltimore Orioles and Houston Astros pitching on deck, what the Yankees have in Chamberlain is still murky.

It doesn't help that a setup man works in a world where shades of gray are difficult to identify. How should we take this weekend against the Toronto Blue Jays in Toronto, for example? On Saturday, Chamberlain struck out three of his four outs, didn't allow a run, and hit 97 on the Rogers Centre gun.

On Sunday, he came in to protect a two-run lead in the eighth inning and immediately allowed a long double to Jose Molina and an RBI to Fred Lewis. He then forced Aaron Hill to hit into a 4-6-3 double play, and his day was over.

For Chamberlain, this weekend was a time to reminisce, because it was 2007 in Toronto that he made his debut. The Summer of Joba began with two scoreless innings at Rogers Centre. He lit up the radar gun at 100 and turned out to be the biggest X factor in the Yankees' making the playoffs.

Now, as things have slowed down, he could be the difference again, especially in a division that includes the Tampa Bay Rays, the Boston Red Sox and the Blue Jays (who are respectable until proved otherwise).

Chamberlain's biggest perception problem has always been his success. The start of his career raised the expectations to a level impossible to meet.

"In 2007, he was unbelievably good," said Phil Hughes, who, it is hard to remember now, was actually more hyped up than Chamberlain before they both came up. "I don't think anyone could maintain that."

At the major league level, Chamberlain's hype quickly eclipsed Hughes', and the Joba Rules debate has become an all-time New York argument. It will survive long after Chamberlain quits playing.

After being drafted out of Nebraska with the 41st pick in the 2006 draft, Chamberlain pitched only a few months in the minors. After his first Triple-A start, Yankees senior vice president Mark Newman told him, according to Joba, "The rumors about you getting called up as a reliever are true; we just don't know when."

Chamberlain said he went outside and "cried to myself" because he was on the verge of fulfilling his dream that began when he threw his first ball at age 4.

He didn't tell anyone until he transitioned in the minors from a starter to a reliever and it became official. When he finally called his polio-stricken dad -- who would add to the Joba narrative -- on Aug. 6, 2007, he told him he couldn't talk very long because he had to rush and pack. Chamberlain packed the clothes he did have, and the whirlwind has just started to slow down.

"I've only been here for four years, but it feels like longer," Chamberlain said. "That's a good thing."

Chamberlain says he thinks nothing has changed. Well, except for one thing.

"Now, I have too many suits," Chamberlain said.

Andrew Marchand covers baseball for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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