By Jason Keidel
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My old man, who’s from Western Pennsylvania, was born and raised a Pittsburgh Pirates fan. He used his fatherly influence to funnel me toward the Steelers, who won four Super Bowls before I hit puberty. It was an easy sell. He lost me on the Pirates, however, once I saw Reggie Jackson hit three homers on three pitches from three pitchers.
But he told me a gripping but galling story about Steve Blass, a young Pirates pitcher who dominated the 1971 World Series, tossing two complete games while allowing seven hits combined. (He finished second in the MVP voting because of some guy named Roberto Clemente, who had a habit of producing in big games.)
Sadly and suddenly, Blass never pitched well again, inexplicably incapable of finding home plate with his pitches. There was no physical obstacle to speak of. He simply fell victim to a bout of wildness for which there was no explanation and no cure. His lone legacy is the medical term for such maladies: Steve Blass Disease. (Some call it Steve Sax Disease when referring to infielders who can’t find first base.)
And thus I think about Joba Chamberlain, eternally cursed for different reasons. Chamberlain just dislocated his ankle while playing with his son. It’s a tragic injury for a formerly magical pitcher who just busted his large rump to recover from Tommy John surgery. We can’t parse the particulars until doctors are done examining, but it’s safe to say he won’t pitch in 2012, or perhaps 2013. Or ever.
This latest news on Joba is the last link in a chain of major mistakes over his career.
Chamberlain landed like a meteor on the pitching mound five years ago, chucking lighting bolts from 60 feet away to the tune of an 0.38 ERA. His linebacker frame lumbered in from the bullpen, hovering like a brown bear from the pitcher’s mound. He threw 99 mph fastballs and had an off-the-table slider that had bats brushing dirt as though they were raking the batter’s box. Caught in his newfound stardom, Joba shrieked, fist-pumped and pirouetted on the rubber after each strikeout.
And despite his sublime pitching and divine right arm, the Yankees fired him, removing him from his perfect role and shoving him into the rotation. Their logic was that starting pitching was harder to find than relief pitching. So rather than keep a diamond on the diamond, the Yankees tinkered with perfection.
So we had the infamous Joba Rules – an amalgam of pitch counts, pop psychology and pampering. The overreaction to the Mets’ “Generation K” was so pronounced, so exaggerated, we’ve now weaned pitchers on the notion that 101 pitches will rip their arms right out of the socket. No medic — from Dr. James Andrews to Dr. Strangelove — has explained what magically (or tragically) occurs between pitch 99 and 101. Indeed, Nolan Ryan – who knows more about pitching than all of us combined – loathes pitch counts so much that he goes out of his way to flout them. The result? His Rangers have reached the last two World Series, coming within a strike of winning the last one.
Joba bombed for the Bombers as a starter, his stratospheric confidence shredded by abstract pitch counts, inning limits, and unqualified medical and psychological diagnoses. By the time Joba was done with the dual dementia of his manager and general manager, he was never right.
Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi were too clever for their own good, bucking baseball axioms that have worked since the 1800s. In the process, they ruined Mariano Rivera’s successor. You’ll notice the Yankees have gone through a fistful of presumed replacements since they thwarted Joba’s singular greatness. First, Joba was the next Mo; then it was Phil Hughes; then it was Rafael Soriano; then it was David Robertson…
Obviously, you can’t blame the Yankees for a freak accident like landing the wrong way on a trampoline, but you can blame them for everything else; a kaleidoscope of blunders, rendering their lab rat useless for the foreseeable future. If you believe in the metaphysical, as I do, it’s clear that Joba’s karma was irrevocably botched by the Bronx Bombers. The Yankees, like most companies with the money to cover their mistakes, can move on, while Joba can only watch and wonder what could have been.
If it weren’t his ankle it would have been his back, brain, knee or neck. Nature abhors a vacuum, precisely where the Yankees plopped Joba Chamberlain for the last five years. Just as my dad told me the sad story of Steve Blass, we’ll be forced to feed our kids the legend of Joba Chamberlain, who became legendary for the wrong reasons.
Will this be the end of Joba? And if so, what will his legacy be? Sound off with your thoughts below…