By Jason Keidel
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Nary a note was written or recorded when Joba Chamberlain signed a simple contract with the Detroit Tigers, ending one of the more morbid epochs in Yankees history. It would be quite understandable if the Bronx Bombers didn’t want to make much of his departure, as they are the sole proprietors of his destruction.
He landed on the mound like a missile. Like Superman, rising from an anonymous Midwestern cornfield, massive and mysterious, a hulking man who threw the baseball with violence and startling velocity.
Joba Chamberlain threw two dazzling pitches – a high-90s fastball and low-90s slider that bent just before the plate. He was appearing to be the impossible, the heir to the immortal Mariano, young and strong and impervious to the bright lights of Broadway. His signature move was his fist-pumping pirouette after yet another bewildered batter limped back to the dugout, arms numb from lunging at another lightning bolt.
Joba had the world dangling from his divine right arm, with a 0.38 ERA to show for it. Then came the surreal, the sad, and the swan song…
On an oddly warm night in October, Joba entered a playoff game in Cleveland to close the door, so Mariano Rivera could lock it. Then there was the biblical swarm. Out of nowhere, Joba was smothered by insects, his face little more than a black mask of bugs.
Midges, we were told, spawned by Lake Erie. Eerie. He swatted, sprayed, and we prayed. Nothing could get those creepy, winged dots of his body. Nothing could keep the Yankees from losing. Metaphors abounded that night, from the black cloud of larvae to the bizarre ending to that playoff game.
Little did we know that not only would a game end, so would a season, and an era. Joe Torre left the Yankees a few weeks later, and with him went the dynasty, and with that went our prerogative as the sport’s preeminent franchise and the feel-good decade that was the Torre epoch. Gone were the aura and the sense that the Yankees were not only popular but beloved by America.
The Core Four were comfort food, proof that the Yankees didn’t just purge free agents and poach other rosters. They actually built a team the right way, spawned by a fertile farm system, dotting the roster with selfless veterans.
Thus Joba Chamberlain, if anything, was the symbol of their spiritual collapse. He and Phil Hughes were the twin pillars of their (supposedly) pitching-plenty organization, evidence that the Yankees didn’t just flex their wallets every November to find their requisite golden arms.
Then, inexplicably, Chamberlain was fired. Brian Cashman, bitten by the Moneyball bug, snagged by the sabermetricians, decided he would remold the Yankees in his newfound, Geek Squad ethos. No need to waste the prodigy’s talent in the eighth inning when he could stretch the the kid out over 200 innings. Make him a starter. Mess with perfection. And the results were atrocious.
Then came the Joba Rules. Five innings or 100 pitches, whichever came first. And too often, the former came last. Joba lost his moxie, his might, and his mojo. He struggled to find the plate. He melted into a middling starter, booed off the very mound he once made his temple. He was bewildered, and eventually beaten, never returning to his flawless form.
Then came the away games. He was busted for DUI. He got fat. He got hurt. He began to refer to himself in the third person. He mangled his ankle in some bizarre trampoline accident. It was over.
His best – and only full season – as a starter was 2009, when he was 9-6, with a 4.75 ERA, and 76 walks in just 157 innings. His WHIP doubled (1.544 compared to 0.750 in 2007) and his strikeouts per nine innings was seriously shaved (7.6 compared to 12.8 in ’07). He did, however, lead the AL in a very valid category – hit batsmen (12).
No matter your vocation, you need some support from your boss, a distinct direction, or just a plain old plan. And when one performs their job with Joba’s splendor one doesn’t expect to get fired, which is essentially what the Yanks did to the formerly untouchable and unhittable prospect.
For a transitory enchanted moment, Joba was the best relief pitcher on the planet. He was the Linsanity, long before Jeremy Lin had the frozen five boroughs so spellbound for those two winter weeks. Joba was like a firefly in Central Park, carelessly drifting through the woods, free and aflame just long enough to charm an entire city, and just short enough to leave us forever frustrated.
Even among the most gifted athletes the game is mental. When parsing the particulars, when to throw what pitch, how to throw it, only works with the when he is confident with each throw. Without his hubris fueling his fiery quiver of pitches, he was just an obese, oblique afterthought.
Phil Hughes was pulled from his second major league start – a no-hitter, no less – with an injury. It was the closest he ever came to greatness. Like his Bronx Bomber brethren, he was a Bronx Bomb. Like Joba, his glowing future quickly became a blinding failure. At least Hughes came by it honestly, imploding all on his own. Joba can thank the Yanks for his fate.
Is it a coincidence that the Yankees lost their famed Aura and Mystique when they took a wrecking ball to the very place that nursed the ghosts? Yankee Stadium, at least some form of it, exists across the street, but the apparitions didn’t follow, thus evaporating with the dusty wreckage from their only true home. And now with this limestone martini bar they call a ballpark, the Yankees have absolutely zero young, homegrown bucks ready to bust down the doors to the House that, well, Who Built.
Is it a coincidence that the Yankees are no longer feared? Is it a coincidence that the Yankees are struggling in large part because they haven’t produced a sublime starting pitcher since Andy Pettitte? Because they haven’t produced a renowned reliever since Rivera? Because they haven’t produced a marquee position player since Robinson Cano?
Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain are gone now, footnotes in the endless archive of America’s pastime. But we will always remember them, especially Joba, who had New York City at his fingers, until the Yankees cut them off.
A few days ago, Joba signed a microscopic contract with the Detroit Tigers, for a sum not quite commensurate to the talent we beheld that Summer of ’07.
He used to be worth a lot more than $2.5 million. Just ask 2.5 million New Yorkers.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel
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