Commentary

Joba's back, but no longer a star

The former flamethrower made his return to the mound, a shell of his former self

Updated: August 2, 2012, 10:59 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Joba Chamberlain is not the phenom he used to be, and so it was fitting Wednesday that his entrance did not summon the madness that greeted him in 2007, when the rookie would charge out of the bullpen and bring the old place down.

He's no longer that wide-eyed kid who emerged from a Nebraska cornfield, firing 100 mph fastballs first and answering questions later. Chamberlain is a heavily scarred New Yorker now, a reliever lost in the line of succession to replace the Yankees' aging and injured answer to royalty, Mariano Rivera.

[+] EnlargeJoba Chamberlain
Mike Stobe/Getty ImagesJoba Chamberlain made his long-awaited return to the mound Wednesday in the Bronx.

So there was Joba under a misty rain in the new place, standing on the warning track during a blowout game while the Stadium speakers blared a recording of "Y.M.C.A." Chamberlain was about to make his first appearance in more than a year, and yet tens of thousands of witnesses were wrapped up in the seventh-inning scene of the grounds crew performing its standard Village People act.

Chamberlain trotted across the outfield grass, and soon enough the fans caught on. As Joba approached the mound, Derek Jeter patted him with his glove before Alan Porter, the plate ump, threw him the game ball.

Paul Olden, the PA man, asked everyone to welcome back No. 62, and the fans responded with a rousing cheer. Chamberlain removed his cap behind the mound, said a prayer, and then returned to the rubber. Once considered must-see TV, Joba would throw his first pitch before a press box left half-empty by a simultaneous briefing held by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a lifelong Yankees fan who had sat among the Bleacher Creature crowd.

J.J. Hardy took the first pitch for a strike. He sent the second pitch, an 85 mph slider, beyond the reach of a leaping Ichiro Suzuki and over the left-field wall.

"Obviously not the results you want," Chamberlain would say.

Two pitches and the Yankees' 11-1 lead over the Baltimore Orioles had become the Yankees' 11-2 lead over the Baltimore Orioles. Chamberlain would throw 28 pitches over 1 2/3 innings, surrendering two runs, four hits and one walk while failing to strike out a batter or to approach the triple-digit reading on the radar gun he'd hit during his rehab.

Chamberlain topped out at 93 mph, and his stuff was ordinary enough for the slap-hitting likes of Endy Chavez to drive a run-scoring double over Ichiro's head. Joe Girardi pulled his man after Nick Markakis lined out, and a clearly disappointed Joba removed his cap as he left the field, accepted a couple of fist bumps in the dugout, and then disappeared down the tunnel to the clubhouse.

"I didn't execute pitches," he said at his locker, but his tone suggested that he had embraced the larger point, that he realized he had won just by showing up.

"I have to look at the picture as a whole," Chamberlain said, "and to see what I'd come back from the last 14 months. ... We've got tomorrow off, the sun's going to come up, and thank God for my health and everything that goes along with that."

Chamberlain blew out his right elbow in 2011, and then he blew out his right ankle in March while bouncing around a trampoline with his 5-year-old son. It was said to be a grisly dislocation, almost a scene out of a zombie film, and yet Chamberlain returned to the Yanks' spring training base to predict an in-season comeback and to start cleaning up his own mess.

"Just another thing in the book of Joba," he called it.

Just another wrong turn on the road to stardom.

Chamberlain was once so rare, so special, that the front office refused to let Joe Torre manage him the way he saw fit. The Joba Rules were meant more for Joe than Joba, and everyone understood why. Chamberlain was such a force of nature -- he struck out 34, walked six and allowed one earned run in 24 regular-season innings -- that only a plague of postseason pests could stop him.

The midges got to him in Cleveland, and nothing's been quite the same since. The Yankees made this generation's Goose Gossage a starter, a big mistake, and Chamberlain hardly helped his own cause by getting busted for DUI.

Team executives always loved his talent more than his maturity level and work ethic. Chamberlain retreated to the bullpen after losing a rotation faceoff with Phil Hughes in 2010, a result that mocked Hank Steinbrenner's claim that Joba would be the Yanks' Josh Beckett.

Chamberlain actually had it going in 2011, pitching to a 2-0 record and 2.83 ERA before his elbow betrayed him. Tommy John surgery was followed by an appendectomy, and then by the ankle injury that threatened the season and Joba's career with it.

"I really never had a worst day [during rehab] and it always went back to my father," Chamberlain said of his disabled father and mentor, Harlan. "He never complained why and he was never going to be out of his wheelchair. He was never going to miraculously be able to walk again, and I knew I was going to be able to walk again."

When Chamberlain reappeared Wednesday, he did so without the same violent motion that once defined him. He said that he'd been riding "a roller coaster of emotion the last 24 hours," but that he felt he needed to temper his flame on the mound.

Girardi would praise him for throwing strikes and for not trying to hit 200 on the gun, if only because there was little else to praise. Girardi said he didn't see Chamberlain as a righty-on-righty specialist, and agreed it was possible Joba could become his go-to guy in the seventh.

Yet if Rivera were healthy, Chamberlain would be a middle reliever stuck behind Mo, Rafael Soriano and David Robertson on the depth chart. He would be the highest-profile backup this side of Tim Tebow.

Chamberlain will be 27 next month, an old 27, and team executives no longer call him the next Josh Beckett or, for that matter, a strong long-term candidate to replace Rivera. On this day, anyway, Joba didn't seem to care.

He said he'd always remember this comeback to the new place "just like I'll always remember the first time I walked into the old Yankee Stadium." He said he stopped on the field to absorb the sights and sounds of the crowd, to take a moment "to embrace the fact that there are so many people that care and that followed my journey back here."

It was a pretty good story for a guy who might yet turn out to be a pretty good pitcher. For one rainy day, it was nice to see the former phenom named Joba Chamberlain heading places, even if his likely destination isn't Monument Park.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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