Professional baseball player
B orn Justin Chamberlain, September 23, 1985, in Lincoln, Nebraska; son of Harlan Chamberlain; children: Karter. Education: Attended University of Kansas—Kearney and University of Kansas— Lincoln.
Addresses: Office—c/o New York Yankees, Yankee Stadium, Bronx, NY 10451.
P itcher, West Oahu CaneFires, Hawaiian Winter League, 2006; drafted by New York Yankees, 2006; played for Single-ATampa, Double A-Trenton, and Triple A-Scranton/Wilkes Barre, 2007; joined Yankees bullpen, 2007; relief pitcher for the Yankees, 2007—.
Awards: Third-Team All American, 2005; First-Team All Big 12, 2005; Big 12 newcomer pitcher of the year, 2005; Second-TeamABCAAll-Midwest Region, 2005; Big 12 pitcher of the week, March 1, 2005; Collegiate Baseball national pitcher of the week, March 1, 2005; First-Team Preseason All-American, 2006; pitcher of the week, Florida State League, May 14, 2007 and May 28, 2007; fan choice for athlete with biggest future impact, ESPN: The Magazine, 2007.
J oba Chamberlain did not have the typical background of a star baseball player. He was not a varsity player in high school. He did not begin college immediately with a full scholarship on a team. It took Chamberlain time to hit his stride as a player and as a pitcher, but once he did, he moved up from the minors to the majors with a speed that surprised even him. Chosen as the 41st draft pick by the Yankees in 2006, Chamberlain began his year on the winter league in Hawaii, then moved into the Florida State League, the Eastern League on the Single-A team the Atlanta Thrashers, the International League, and up into the Yankees bullpen, from where he began a pitching career that had him labeled by the press as a phenomenon poised for stardom.
Chamberlain was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, the son of Harlan Chamberlain, a security manager at a state penitentiary who had suffered from polio in his youth. When Chamberlain was just a boy, Harlan progressed to a secondary stage that many polio survivors suffer, and his left side was mostly paralyzed. Chamberlain learned early on the value of determination, watching his father live the lessons he strove to teach. Despite his weaknesses, Harlan worked with Chamberlain on baseball drills, using a box full of used equipment that they had found at a yard sale for three dollars. Harlan would position himself on the stoop of their small home and have Chamberlain throw him balls—any that were inaccurate enough for Harlan not to catch from his scooter, Chamberlain would have to run after and retrieve.
During high school, Chamberlain was not accepted on junior varsity as a sophomore, and instead was picked for the reserve team. He might have given up then, but Harlan encouraged him to serve as a role model for the younger players, as well as broaden his horizons. Chamberlain performed in high school musicals and learned to hoop dance. The hoop dance was not the only part of his Winnebago Indian heritage Harlan encouraged: Chamberlain attended powwows and spent time on the reservation with his extended family and his mother (his parents divorced when Chamberlain was only three). Harlan also encouraged Chamberlain to stay involved in the sport he loved by working as a ball boy, picking up after star players, and staying active in the team’s environment.
From high school to college, Chamberlain shed his extra pounds and grew taller, learning how to better use his body in the sport. He started pitching his senior year of high school but was passed over by recruiters due to only average performance. Rather than going to college immediately, Chamberlain worked maintenance on ball fields, earning extra income and staying close to the sport. He was recruited from a baseball camp for Division II college University of Nebraska—Kearney and given a scholarship. By working out on his own as well as working out with the team, he dropped the extra weight that had plagued him, and the speed of his pitches increased enough that University of Nebraska—Lincoln recruited him as a transfer. His 2005 season had him poised for a top ten pick in the majors, but after the 2006 season, during which he underperformed due to a triceps injury, his status was less certain. He made the overall draft at 41, and was selected by the Yankees—a move that some thought was meant to sweeten potential trades for the team. But the Yankees held on, and Chamberlain leapt from the Class A league in Tampa all the way to the Yankees bullpen, moving in as a relief pitcher in the last two months of the Major League season.
Some questioned the quick move, but fans cried for Chamberlain to be moved up when Kyle Farnsworth, the pitcher who had been the Yankees’ best bet for setting up their closer Mariano Rivera, surrendered two runs in one inning in a game against the Baltimore Orioles. Chamberlain had been trained as a starter in Nebraska, but soon after he moved into the bullpen, the move was considered a success, albeit with rules. Because Chamberlain had not had as much experience in the league, he was not to pitch back-to-back days, and he would not pitch for two days any time he pitched two innings. Called the “Joba Rules,” they were consistent through most of the season, holding until the final games of the playoffs.
Despite all of the media attention, Chamberlain remained humble about his position and the excitement he caused. “I don’t get reminded of it until all of you [the media] tell me,” he said to Kat O’Brien of Melville, New York, paper Newsday. But his fellow players noticed. Pedro Martinez said that Chamberlain reminded him a bit of himself, and said in the Bergen County Record, “I wouldn’t doubt that that guy will be a dominant pitcher. Right now really from now on.” Yankees pitching coach Ron Guirdy noted in the same article, “Anybody who drives so much from his legs, when you put that together with a great arm and solid mechanics, you’ve got something pretty special.” Part of their response comes from Chamberlain’s performance, but a writer for the New York Post noted that Chamberlain’s attitude also contributes equal parts fun and work: “He can be loud and he can bust chops, but when it comes to learning his craft, Chamberlain is very serious,” the reporter wrote. Doug Mientkiewicz, a Yankee baseman, commented on Chamberlain’s attitude in the New York Post: “He gives us an attitude and an edge. He essentially says, ‘Here’s my best. What can you do with it?’”
Chamberlain’s season was not without some controversy. During an August game against the Boston Red Sox, Chamberlain threw two wild pitches over the head of Red Sox player Kevin Youkilis, which earned him a suspension. Chamberlain and manager Joe Torre said that the bad pitches were unintentional, and Chamberlain paid the fine. “A couple balls slipped,” Chamberlain told UPI News Track. “Youkilis plays the game hard, and it was nothing against him. There’s no chance I’m trying to do that.” Chamberlain’s suspension was soon over, and Chamberlain continued to play as the Yankees made their way into the playoffs. But during one of their playoffs games against the Cleveland Indians, Chamberlain was swarmed with midges, and the tiny insects interfered with his performance, allowing the Indians to tie the game. “I’m never going to make an excuse but they were bad,” Chamberlain told the Buffalo News. But not one to let himself out of responsibility, he continued, “I’ve got to do a better job executing my pitches.”
After losing to the Indians in the playoffs, the Yankees turned their focus to the next season. The owner turned over the business to his two sons, and manager Joe Torre left the team for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Chamberlain’s contract meant he would be staying, but there was no consensus on whether he would be a starter or whether he would continue to set up for closer Rivera. But while his position on the team for the 2008 season is still up in the air, Chamberlain is ready to go wherever he’s asked. Back before his position on the Yankees was certain, Harlan Chamberlain told Mitch Sherman of the Omaha World-Herlad, “No matter where he plays, he’s going to step up. That’s the way it’s been since he was four years old.”
When asked about his job by Gary Smith of Sports Illustrated, Chamberlain gestured to the ball field where he was being interviewed. “This is what I do for a living. I get to come here on a weekend day and watch a major league game for free—and maybe even get to pitch in it. What could be better than that?” He expressed his other great hope to Pat Borzi of the New York Times: Chamberlain has a son of his own back home in Nebraska. Speaking of his father, Chamberlain said, “If I can be half the man and half the father he was, I’ll be very, very happy and have a great life.”
Buffalo News, October 6, 2007.
Business Wire, December 5, 2007.
Daily Oklahoman, May 25, 2006.
News Day (Melville, NY), August 14, 2007; August 30, 2007.
New York Observer, August 13, 2007.
New York Post, September 29, 2007, p. 58; October 4, 2007, p. 107; October 8, 2007, p. 87; October 9, 2007, p. 78, p. 81, p. 99; December 16, 2007, p. 90.
New York Times, September 8, 2007, p. D5.
Omaha World-Herald, August 22, 2006; September 6, 2006; July 8, 2007; July 31, 2007; September 22, 2007.
Record (Bergen County, NJ), September 14, 2007, p. S1; January 11, 2008, p. S10.
Sports Illustrated, October 8, 2007, p. 52.
UPI News Track, August 31, 2007.
“Joba Chamberlain,” Huskers.com, http://www.huskers.com/ (February 21, 2008).
“Player File: Joba Chamberlain,” Official Site of the New York Yankees, http://mlb.mlb.com/team/player_career.jsp?player_id=501955 (February 21, 2008).
—Alana Joli Abbott