The Yankees Make a Myth of Joba Chamberlain

Sixteen different New York Yankees played in a dramatic 4-3 loss to the Cleveland Indians April 26. None of their

Sixteen different New York Yankees played in a dramatic 4-3 loss to the Cleveland Indians April 26. None of their names were at the top of The New York Times’ game story the next morning. Instead, The Times led with the news that Joba Chamberlain had not appeared.

Ross Ohlendorf, the pitcher who gave up the winning run in the bottom of the ninth, didn’t appear till paragraph three. It took six paragraphs for The Times to mention any of the Cleveland players by name, and nine to identify catcher Victor Martinez as the one who got the hit.

Those heroics raised the Indians to .500 and lifted Martinez’s batting average to .373, but so what? What mattered was that Martinez had gotten the hit off Ohlendorf, which mattered because Ohlendorf was not Joba Chamberlain—because Joba Chamberlain did not play—possibly because Joba Chamberlain was nursing a sore leg. Joba Chamberlain’s leg.

Everything about the Yankees begins with Joba. This might seem a bit peculiar, if you look at the plain facts. Chamberlain is 22 years old and his total major-league pitching experience adds up to less than four full games’ worth. Brandon Webb of the Arizona Diamondbacks threw more consecutive scoreless innings last year than Joba Chamberlain has thrown innings, period.

But the Yankees are a hermetic realm, like North Korea, where nobody wants to focus on the actual. Joba is their heroic legend. In real life, the Yankees are off to another tepid start. The hitters aren’t hitting; the pitching looks thin and watery. They have been outscored by their opponents this season and seem unsure, if not baffled, about how to catch up with—and that is the operative phrase, not “hold off” or “pull away from”—the Boston Red Sox.

This is why Hank Steinbrenner and the fans want Joba, right away and plenty of him. It’s early still, naturally, and these Yankees are supposed to be built—and, more specifically, to be building—for the long haul. But in the longer haul, they have not won a World Series since the Clinton administration.

What Yankee fans crave, and the owner craves even more, is immediate gratification that never ends. The Yankee dream is of relentless perfection: 162 wins, a pennant and a World Series sweep—this year and last year and forever. The dream is that no one can ever even touch the Yankees.

When Joba lets go a 100-mile-per-hour fastball, for four-tenths of a second that vision comes true. The ball is not hittable. It will not be hit. The guy from the other team with the bat is a marker. They might as well put a coat rack in the batter’s box.

Thus far only the hand of God can stop him: a plague of insects swirling in his face in Cleveland in the playoffs last year, a rain-wet pitcher’s mound in Chicago last week. The Chicago game was his first major-league loss, and Google flagged it above my e-mail inbox as the most noteworthy news item of the moment. Take away the Joba part, and the story would be “Twenty-Two-Year-Old Middle-Relief Pitcher Loses Game.”

Hank Steinbrenner, standing in the knee-deep footprints of his father, can’t afford to have his Yankees shrink to merely life-size. So the New Boss fixed on Joba as the subject of his first defining outburst, telling The Times that “you have to be an idiot” to keep Chamberlain cooped up in the bullpen as a setup man.

The original Steinbrenner could hardly have done better. By claiming Joba as his own—the Pride of Hankenstein!—Hank Steinbrenner put his handpicked manager and his inherited general manager in a box. Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman had already planned to try developing Chamberlain into a starting pitcher over time. Steinbrenner endorsed the organizational goal, but absolved himself of any responsibility for how to get there.

Now every move Girardi or Cashman might make with Joba—into the rotation, out of the rotation, down to the minors for more work—is a matter of obedience or disobedience to the owner (and his uncompromising desire to win). If Joba does become an ace starter, it was Hank’s idea, and it should have happened sooner. If Joba doesn’t make it, it’s because somebody messed up.

Under these theatrics, the Yankees are wrestling with some long-standing problems of baseball philosophy: What’s the right thing to do with an arm like Joba’s? And how do you make that happen?

Part of the problem is practical. What Chamberlain brings to the mound is extraordinary, but it’s all physics and meat. Throwing 100 mph is rare, and throwing 100 mph on target is even more rare. The hardest part, though, is doing that over and over again without anything falling apart. That was the concern behind last year’s Joba Rules, which kept the Yankees from calling on Chamberlain too often or for too long.

The Yankees Make a Myth of Joba Chamberlain