We are learning more about Joba Chamberlain every day. At first, the stories ranged from, "What kind of a name is Joba?" to tracing the line of Yankees with Native American ancestry (those of you proposed the "Superchief 2" nickname last week, nice call).
Tyler Kepner informed us yesterday of the special relationship Chamberlain has with his father, who contracted polio as a child and is sometimes relegated to a wheelchair. We’ve surmised through various television interviews that he has a competitive drive with a demeanor that leads us to wonder whether he’s oblivious to the fact that he tore through three minor-league levels and is succeeding in baseball’s grandest league and with its most hallowed franchise. We’ve seen that his Clemensish body produces Clemensish pitches.
We've learned other things, too. For example, there are rules for Chamberlain’s usage. He will not pitch on consecutive days. Joe Torre won’t summon Chamberlain in the middle of an inning. We've learned that the plan is still for him to be a starter next season, but with many comparisons of Chamberlain's ascent to that of Bobby Jenks in 2005 and Jonathan Papelbon in '06 — and verbal comparisons to the 1995-96 edition of Mariano Rivera — that the Yankees would be wise to at least consider Chamberlain to succeed Rivera as the Yankees' closer.
The way he has captured our attention is not unlike the means Shane Spencer made an all-time season even better in 1998. His once-in-a-lifetime September that featured 10 home runs, including three grand slams, 27 RBIs and a silly .910 slugging percentage, led Torre to add his righty power bat to the postseason roster, where he played a role in the Yankees’ first-round sweep of the Texas Rangers. But Spencer never recaptured the ’98 magic. He shuttled back and forth between the majors and minors for the next four seasons. He did participate in more memorable Yankee moments — he started the relay that became the Derek Jeter “flip” play in Game 3 of the 2001 ALDS at Oakland — but his utility was limited. His batting average was 77 points lower versus righties (.239, as opposed to .316 vs. lefties), and when given every possible chance to win the everyday right-field job after Paul O’Neill’s retirement, he could not follow through.
Stories like Spencer's and Chamberlain's got me thinking about an old media trick: building up the “Cinderella story, out of nowhere,” and offering us every possible bit of information we could consume about the player. Murray Chass compared the effects of the Red Sox’ latest bullpen acquisition — the Quebecois Jon Favreau look-alike — to the Big Nebraskan's effect on the Yankees. (I'll cut Mr. Chass some slack; he probably didn't read this blog or our discussion on that topic last week.)
At what point is it too much hype? Will it cause the guy to crack? I don’t believe this will happen, given what I’ve seen from Chamberlain, but the name Rick Ankiel continues to pop into my mind. The buzz surrounding Ankiel as the Cardinals’ next great young pitcher in 2000 was enormous, and on a national stage, he turned into Nuke LaLoosh when he stopped breathing out of his eyelids. Luckily, and perhaps remarkably, Ankiel proved to be an excellent hitter and had a fallback option, having worked his way back to the big leagues as an outfielder.
Do you object to this kind of buildup of 20- and 21-year-olds? There is no such thing as a sure thing, so why present Joba Chamberlain, or anyone, for that matter, in such a light, regardless of whether or not it sells papers? I ask you: Do you want to read these stories for the hero buildup, to learn more about him as a person, or to learn more about him as a ballplayer?
The crapshoot element of Chamberlain’s short- and long-term success was echoed in last week’s comments. If he is lightning in a bottle, then as fans, we should make like the Metallica album and ride the lightning. It’s not as if we haven’t done that before.
HOLY @#%! THE YANKEES COULD WIN THE DIVISION
As recently as two weeks ago, when the Yankees were in the middle of their third win streak of at least four games since the All-Star break, it still seemed as if they needed to sweep their final six meetings with the Red Sox to have a chance at winning an unprecedented — for the American League, at least — 10th consecutive division crown. Now, it doesn’t look that way. They still most likely need to win four of six.
I’ve discussed this matter with our fearless Bronx Banter leader, Alex Belth, and we agree that the next six games will determine what the Yankees need to do against the BoSox. How the Yankees fare against the Angels From a City and County South of Los Angeles and the Tigers, coupled with the Red Sox’ results against the Devil Rays and Chicago White Sox featuring LOOGY extraordinaire, Mike Myers, will also determine how the media feed the monster.
What to watch: If the Yankees go on another victory run and the Red Sox’ sub-.500 opponents dutifully play spoiler, as early as this Friday or Saturday, ESPN, the national outlets, and certainly all the New York and Boston media outlets will go bats—t crazy promoting next week’s series in the Bronx. Should both teams keep winning or the series begins with the Sox holding a five-game lead or more, the pre-series commentary will be more tepid. If the Yankees tank, the Sox soar and the Yankees’ deficit is, say, eight games or more, the tone will be how the series in New York is basically the season for the Yankees, and the Red Sox’ chance to put the division away. As long as the Mariners continue to pad their win streak, the portrayal of the series for the Yankees will be that much more dramatic.
RANDOM FEATURE THAT I SHOULD HAVE SEEN BY NOW…
NYTimes.com’s “Bats,” where ace scribes like the aforementioned Kepner, Mets beat man Ben Shpigel and columnist Jack Curry give a different take on the two local ball clubs through their clubhouse observations and interviews. In this latest edition, Kepner interviews ex-Yankee reliever C.J. Nitkowski, who is playing in Japan this year and periodically answered e-mail questions throughout the year. Why am I passing this along to you? To borrow a phrase from high school global studies, it's cultural diffusion, yo.
If you’re curious about some of the Jamie Quirks of Japanese baseball, Nitkowski has some enlightening comments. And the repartee regarding Sadaharu Oh’s reaction to Barry Bonds hitting No. 756 is very interesting.
MORE FROM THE TIMES
A great interactive feature from Kepner with Mike Mussina on the art of pitching, featuring multimedia representations of how Mussina would pitch to David Ortíz and Vlad Guerrero, plus the evolution of the strike zone and how he grips many of his pitches. This is tremendous stuff for any baseball fan, and would be even better if the number of runs scored wasn't greater than the number of outs recorded in many of Mussina's recent starts.
I also found the feature amusing, because I can recall countless occasions, either in pregame or postgame interviews with Mussina where Kepner would ask a question about his mechanics or his arm slot or his pitching approach, and Mussina would smirk, chuckle and sarcastically say, “I’m not telling you that.”