By Jason Keidel
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Brian Cashman has a surprising army of apologists. After Monday’s column questioning his job as GM, I was peppered with rebuttals, some quite vehement and vulgar.
No matter how many times I mention Kei Igawa, Jaret Wright, Jeff Weaver and Carl Pavano, the pinstriped Pollyanna will see no clouds in the Yankee Universe.
Then we had Joba Chamberlain, who landed on the mound like a meteor in 2007.
You recall the stats. One run in 24 innings. 0.38 ERA. His blistering fastball and savage slider that dipped into the dirt at the last nanosecond, kicking up clouds of dirt while the bat meekly missed. His robust, fist-pumping pirouette after each strikeout. If anyone was molded for Manhattan and beyond, it was Joba, who seemed summoned from those Nebraska cornfields like that comic-book character.
Fittingly, it took a biblical insect swarm to ground the Joba rocket. Midges, we learned, summoned from Lake Erie and coated his round face like living makeup. And, sadly, it was never the same after that night in Cleveland. Not even close.
And it took a carefully crafted, balletic incompetence to get him off the top of the world. Only in baseball is it wise to pluck a prince from his perch and force him somewhere else because the GM’s grand design was for him to be a starter.
The Joba Rules will go down as perhaps the least intelligent move in modern franchise history. Three innings. Or was it four? Then five innings. Then pitch counts. Then he was removed from the middle of innings because he breeched some mystical number on a chart.
He lost his colossal fastball, his control and his craft. And thus ended the Joba Chamberlain Experiment. By the time he returned to his ancestral home, the bullpen, he was a pitching carcass. He was drained of that essential element more important than any fastball, curveball or cutter: confidence.
Pitching has long been the axiom of success. Particularly now that MLB crippled the PED industry and hitters now look like the lost, anemic, black-and-white souls of the ’60s. (And to anyone who doesn’t think steroids help you hit a baseball, then please explain this epic plunge in production.)
So of course it’s tempting to test a blessed arm in your starting rotation. And it’s always easier to find someone to throw 70 quality innings as opposed to 200. But with the Yankees’ bulging budget and willingness to pour their contents on pitchers, keeping Joba in the bullpen and leafing through free agents would not have been a bad idea.
And it’s not as if the Yanks are unfamiliar with riding a white-hot middle reliever to a title. A long, bony young man threw fire from the mound in 1996, setting up John Wetteland. He went on to rack up over 600 saves and secure his place as the relief pitcher nonpareil, the last baseball player ever to wear No. 42.
On Tuesday, WFAN co-hosts Joe Benigno and Evan Roberts had an interesting chat about Joba, and whom is to blame for what. Joe was heavy-handed on the Yankees’ approach, while Evan was way more understanding, pointing to pitchers like Adam Wainwright, who was plucked from the ‘pen early and then exploded as a front-line starter. No analogy is exact, as teams, pitchers and climates are all unique. But you do wonder what would have become of Joba had he been left to the late innings.
Of course, Joba is enjoying an almost religious revival at the Tigers’ altar. Coming into Tuesday night’s action, he had a 2.40 ERA over 33 appearances since May 14, striking out 22 in 30 innings. Those numbers improved after Tuesday’s fine performance, as he allowed no hits or walks while retiring four batters, fanning two of them.
Joba may add to the familiar montage of pitchers who prospered after they fled the Big Apple. Al Leiter. Jose Rijo. Carl Pavano. Ian Kennedy. Joba was part of a pitching package. He and Phil Hughes jumped on the Broadway stage together like pitching Siamese twins, Hughes even more heralded after he was a high draft pick for the Bombers. Both left with bruised egos and microscopic salaries.
New York City is hardly for everyone. And Joba contributed mightily to his sad, second act. No doubt some strain of knucklehead runs through Joba’s veins. A DUI, a shattered ankle while going Barnum & Bailey on a trampoline. He was quick to go third-person just weeks after his star exploded over the Bronx. His waistline suggested he attacked the buffet as hard as he pitched to David Ortiz.
Sure, he’s got the beard of a bear now, in grand defiance of the hairless, Yankee Way. And he did his share to engender some of the foul feelings from the fans and the franchise. I’m not sure he earned the ornery reaction he got on Tuesday night at the stadium; indeed, we are quick to forget the fun times as soon as our stars are swathed in enemy colors.
But Joba Chamberlain fit in New York City, where we embrace character and characters. Joba had the latter by rote, but he found the former a little too elusive to make it big in the Big Apple.
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