Every once in a while, a player comes along who seems to possess a intention to commit baseball suicide. And when that is put together with a series of events that are mostly beyond his control, you then have the makings of a career that becomes a train wreck. This is the story of one those players, a first round draft pick by the New York Yankees a full decade ago, Joba Chamberlain (today) is looking for a job.
Joba Chamberlain was born Justin Chamberlain, in Lincoln, Nebraska, his father an American Indian; he changed his name after his little cousin, unable to pronounce his name, called him Joba. A big ole farm boy, he could as Springsteen likes to say, “throw that speedball by ya and make you look like a fool”. He played baseball at the University of Nebraska-Kearney, leading the team in ERA, strikeouts and complete games, and taking the Cornhuskers to the 2005 College World Series.
From the beginning of his career with the Yankees, Joba Chamberlain was their poster boy and every step of his progress was tracked religiously by New York media, as well as the Yankees themselves. He arrived at Yankee Stadium at the unripe age of 21 in 2007 and immediately created a buzz, appearing in 19 games and striking out 34 batters in 24 innings. He was also immediately indentifiable by the number of tattoos that seemed to be on every visible part of his body, a characteristic that was noticeably overlooked considering the stoic nature of Yankees tradition.
Joba Chamberlain: A Complex Individual And The Tattoos
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Whether in or out of baseball, most did not think of Chamberlain as having a introspective side to him, but Jeff Seidel, writing for the Detroit Free Press got Chamberlain to open up about those tattoos and come to find out, virtually every one of them has some inner personal meaning.
For instance, “he is proud of his heritage — on his right arm, Chamberlain has a tattoo that says, “Chunk Pride.” Chamberlain is a descendant of the Ho-Chunk tribe, the Buffalo Clan. “I’m half Native America”. He also displayed a great sense of humor by taking the scar on his right elbow from ligament-replacement surgery and turned it into a smiley face.
But there were also signs that things just weren’t quite right and something was “off” about the way his career was developing with the Yankees, even though he was a key contributor to their 2009 World Series Championship. And most of the problem can be attributed to the Yankees who couldn’t seem to come to any consistent or logical agreement on how to handle their prize pupil. Was he a starter, reliever, closer – they never seemed to decide and all we can surmise is that the confusion eventually hurt Chamberlain in his development as a major league pitcher.
Jake Elman, writing for Sportsblog for instance recounts how they came up with the so-called “Joba Rules”, which he describes this way:
"The “Joba Rules”, which former Yankees skipper Joe Torre created in 2007, were really quite simple: Chamberlain would get a day off for every inning he pitches, and at the same time, he could only pitch two innings only if he’d gotten two days of rest. Torre tried explaining it in August of that year by saying, “You have to make plans accordingly, and when you get caught up in bringing him into a game when we have a big lead, I’d rather do without him than not pitch him for five days and not know what you’re going to get,” but the Joba Rules were nothing more than a mistake in the end."
Having said that, Joba Chamberlain was not above shooting himself in the foot either. Perhaps the most serious of these incidents occurred when he suffered an open dislocation of his right ankle in 2012…by bouncing on a trampoline. A ball player bouncing on a trampoline! That one played for weeks in the New York media with words like “stupid and idiot” being thrown around freely, even though his ankle bone broke through the skin and he almost bled to death before help arrived.
And what made matters worse is that Joba Chamberlain suffered the “normal” injuries for pitchers as well. In fact, exceapt for his abbreviated rookie season he never made it through a year without landing on the DL for extended periods of time.
Joba Chamberlain: A Career Accented By “Unusual ” Incidents
There were other incidents surrounding Chamberlain that were almost comedic, except that one of those had a pronounced and possible effect on the outcome of a game and some say even the 2007 ALCS between the Yankees and the Indians. Ted Berg, writing in For The Win recalls what happened this way:
"“In one of the strangest and silliest moments in recent baseball history, a swarm of midges descended on Game 2 of the 2007 ALDS between the Yankees and Indians in Cleveland. Yankees reliever Joba Chamberlain had been more or less unhittable to that point, but the bugs proved his kryptonite: The Yankees erroneously drenched Chamberlain in a deterrent spray that actually attracted more midges, and the righty walked two batters, hit another, and threw two wild pitches in the eighth inning to allow the Indians to score the tying run in their eventual 2-1 extra-innings victory.”"
Chamberlain’s career with the Yankees came to an abrupt halt in October 2013 when he was granted free agency. Signing with the Detroit Tigers , it would be the first of five times that he would be a free agent in the span of only three years. He would appear in 69 games for the Tigers in 2014 putting up decent numbers, only to have his season marred by one appearance in the ALDS in which he surrendered five runs in just one-third of an inning.
Joba Chamberlain last signing was with the Cleveland Indians last year. After appearing in 20 games with no record he was given his unconditional release at the age of only 30 in July and of course would miss the team’s run to the World Series.
Now 31, there was a brief flurry of talk in November about the possibility that the Yankees might be interested in bringing him back, but that went nowhere as the media rehashed the past with an accent on the negative. Of special interest in that rehash seemed to be the incident that occurred in August of 2014 when Chamberlain was with Detroit in which he plunked Derek Jeter in the side with a 95mph fastball. Joba Chamberlain couldn’t apologize enough, although he tried in vain to do so on a number of occasions.
For Joba Chamberlain, that single incident, which was supposed to signify his triumphant return to Yankee Stadium, seemed to sum up everything about a career in which all that could go wrong – did go wrong. Chamberlain is still without a job for 2017 but stays in shape hoping to catch on with another team……