The place that invented the “Bronx cheer” doesn’t cotton to its baseball players easily. Yankees fans took years to warm up to the best player in the game, Alex Rodriguez. People still call up Mike and the Maddog on WFAN 660 to debate whether A-Rod is a “true Yankee.” Even the long-beloved bombers like Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera have recently been diminished in the affection of their fans.
So how did a rookie who pitched only 24 innings in the major leagues and whose most famous game featured him giving up a Yankee lead in a playoff duel with the Indians become a Yankee instalegend?
That Joba Chamberlain’s career has exploded is not disputed. Buster Olney, in a cover-story for ESPN the Magazine noted that before he even made it to the majors, “Chants of ‘Joba’ rattled through Yankee Stadium this season the way ‘Maximus’ flew around the ring in Gladiator.”
The anticipation for Chamberlain was created by the 24/7 sports-entertainment complex. Die-hard fans often know the names of their team’s youngest pitching prospects from the moment they are drafted. Why fall in love with Chamberlain?
FIRST THE NAME: Joba. Fans often repeat it like an insensible pagan chant: JobaJobaJoba. Chamberlain was born Justin Chamberlain in 1985, in Lincoln, Nebraska. But his niece was unable to pronounce the name Justin correctly for years, instead calling him “jah-buh.” Eventually Justin came to prefer the new moniker and had it legally changed.
Second, there is his biography. Born to a hardscrabble life, Joba was raised by a single father, Harlan Chamberlain. Harlan was born on the Winnebago Indian Reservation in the northeastern section of Nebraska. He contracted polio as a child and left his community for the children’s hospital in Lincoln where he stayed for over six years. He eventually had a son and a divorce and supported Joba by working 70 hours a week — 40 as a manager at the state penitentiary, 30 as a bouncer at a nightclub.
That working class do-what-ya-gotta attitude was imparted to his son. After Joba graduated high school, he stayed home and worked for the city to help make ends meet for his father. He maintained ball-fields and cleaned bathrooms before entering the University of Nebraska-Kearney. Chamberlain even looks like a working-class-heartlander standing at just over 6’1” and weighing a meaty 230 lbs.
Third, his talent. Somehow Chamberlain summons his gigantic frame forward from the mound and pushes the ball over 100 mph. His slider has a “biting” downward motion that turns major-league at bats into a laugh-reel for SportsCenter. He struck out the first major-league batter he faced last August and dominated in his appearances since then. His ERA over his short career is just 0.38 and he collected nearly three dozen strikeouts in two dozen innings.
After his second major-league start, T-shirts with his name and number on them could be spotted at the Jersey Shore, or in Cold Spring, New York. In the Bronx, they were so ubiquitous one imagined that Joba’s Army was a revolutionary movement ready to sweep away New York itself.
MOST IMPORTANT to fans was Chamberlain’s “heart.” Unlike so many of the Yankees who approached the game with starched-uniform-professionalism, Chamberlain let his joy in his success show. An inning-ending strikeout called forth a scream of elation and fist-pump that sent the jaded Bronx crowd into hysterical elation. Finally, Yankees fans had a home-grown talent they hadn’t traded for an over-priced veteran! Bronx baseball was fun again.
Even Chamberlain’s memorable, but disastrous playoff performance in the Yankees’ 2007 playoff series against the Indians added to his stature. Sent in to protect a 1-0 lead, Chamberlain and the entirety of Jacobs Field were swarmed with bugs. The cloud of insects was so thick that visibility diminished as they filled the sky like a rainstorm. Umpires and position players vainly swatted in front of their faces. Bugs got into Chamberlain’s glove, his grip on the baseball and his eye. He pitched with heart, but two wild throws allowed a run to score. Some speculate that manager Joe Torre’s reluctance to have the game delayed until the swarm dispersed cost the Yankees the win, and Torre his job in New York.
The young pitcher shrugged it off. “Bugs are bugs,” Chamberlain told reporters after the game. “It’s something you’ve got to deal with.” The performance nevertheless inspired one of the several dozen Facebook groups dedicated to Chamberlain: “Joba’s so good, Cleveland had to release a PLAGUE to take him down!”
As spring training continues, 1050 ESPN radio and all New York talk stations are still buzzing for one player: the big kid who became King of New York in just 24 innings.