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Yankees' Joba Chamberlain’s Inspiring Story

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There are certain jobs for which fearlessness is a big plus: tightrope walker, police officer, Naomi Campbell’s assistant.

Relief pitcher for the New York Yankees also qualifies—just ask Joba Chamberlain, who said, “No hitters scare me."

That was his immediate response when asked which major-league hitter scares him the most, an answer that was—like most of his 95-mph fastballs—a quick strike. The burly 6-foot-2, 240-pound Chamberlain (Winnebago) is one of just three American Indians playing in the big leagues —Boston’s Jacoby Ellsbury, (Navajo); and St. Louis’s Kyle Lohse (Nomlaki) are the others—a fact that puzzles him.

“It’s a question I’ve been asked since I got [to the majors],” said Chamberlain, who has averaged more than a strikeout an inning over his four-plus big-league seasons. “You really can’t pinpoint what’s lacking to get these kids to play baseball. I know Jacoby takes pride in being Native and having his family be involved with baseball and [tells kids] that you can play no matter what size, shape, color or nationality you are. … There aren’t a lot of Natives in sports in general, so as Natives ourselves, we need to give these kids the opportunities that some may not have.”

Since electrifying Yankees fans in August 2007 with his blazing fastball and wicked slider, Chamberlain has adapted seamlessly to his new lifestyle, even as the team constantly tinkered with him, moving him from the bullpen to the starting rotation, and now back again. There were the infamous “Joba Rules” that at various times limited his pitch count, innings and games pitched in an attempt by the team to preserve their prized arm. Some argue that the rough spots in Chamberlain’s career were attributable to the team’s incessant meddling, but Joba doesn’t buy it. “My first four years with the Yankees were special—all the ups and downs, and whatever the 'rules' may have been,” he said, displaying the calm optimism that makes him sound wise beyond his 25 years. “It made me who I am today. I’ve learned everything from starting to relieving, and I’ve even closed a couple games, so I’ve kind of been in every situation. I took that and embraced it this year, knowing that this was going to be my first year where I was going to be in the bullpen from spring training till the end of the season. Knock on wood, it’s been a great start.”

After appearing in just 18 minor-league games, the then-21-year-old Chamberlain was called up by the Yankees in early August of 2007. He was an instant hit with fans and teammates, not allowing a run until his 12th appearance—a span of 15 innings—and that run was unearned. He finished the season with 34 strikeouts in just 24 innings with a microscopic earned run average of 0.38. With the Yankees needing wins to secure what would become their 13th consecutive playoff appearance, Chamberlain was a New York phenomenon during those two months, and fans and pundits were already anointing him as the successor to legendary Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. But despite the brilliance of his regular season, Chamberlain’s rookie year will forever be remembered for what happened during Game 2 of the American League Division Series in Cleveland, when he was swarmed by bugs.

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With the Yankees trailing the series 1-0 but leading the second game 1-0, they turned to the phenom to start the 8th inning. As the inning began, a huge cloud of gnat-like critters that were later identified as a type of midge descended upon the mound. They seemingly affected Chamberlain—he was constantly swatting them away and spitting them from his mouth between pitches. He walked a batter, hit another and threw two wild pitches, allowing Cleveland to tie the game, which it eventually won in the 11th. Did he consider telling the umpires that he couldn’t pitch under such conditions?

“You know, I never thought about that,” said Chamberlain, who didn’t use the bizarre incident as an excuse, even in the post-game interviews. “It was something I thought I could get through. I didn’t do my job. Bugs or no bugs, there’s no excuse for that. I didn’t realize how bad the bugs were until I saw the video. Derek [Jeter, the Yankees shortstop) came to me later and said, ‘Man, I wanted to come to the mound but the bugs wouldn’t get away.’ And they were attracted to moisture, so spraying Off on me made it worse. Now I know that if that ever happens again, it’s vinegar that works.”

Much has been written about Joba’s father, Harlan, who was born on the Winnebago reservation in Nebraska and contracted polio as a baby, which forced him into long hospital stays. Still, despite the crippling disease that left him unable to walk, deaf in one ear and with diminished use of his left arm, he raised Joba and Tasha (Joba’s sister) as a single parent. Joba has told of his dad still playing catch with him—with one arm—and of the entire neighborhood playing baseball at the Chamberlains’ home. Harlan played the part of umpire and instructor during these games, although he doesn’t offer his son much baseball advice anymore; he was once quoted as saying, “I don’t say squat anymore. What I know about pitching will fit in a thimble. What I don't know will fit in the Smithsonian.” ]

Many years later, Harlan became a minor celebrity in New York City, often appearing in his motorized scooter at Yankees games, and the local media eagerly told his story. How does a small-town kid react to going from sleepy Lincoln to the bustling Bronx? If you’re Joba Chamberlain, very well. “[New York] was a little different,” he said, maybe with a twinge of sarcasm. “You’re going down the street and people are saying your name, which is awesome, but it’s something that I never could’ve expected. The pace of life is a little bit slower in Nebraska than it is in New York…. I had to get my priorities straight, because it’s kind of a whirlwind when you get up here. Major League Baseball is special, but the New York Yankees are even a little bit more special—the pinstripes and everything that goes with it and the media coverage. The biggest adjustment for me was just trying to make sure I got everybody taken care of and get myself taken care of and get ready for the game.”

When you see how hard Joba can throw a baseball, you might assume that his destiny has been laid out for him since he was a boy—the kid with the golden arm. But he said he didn’t pitch much in high school. “I think my senior year I may have pitched 20 innings or something—I played the infield more than anything else.” But when he got to college (first at Nebraska-Kearney, then at Nebraska-Lincoln), his coaches saw the cannon shots he could deliver and knew they had a pitcher. So an former infielder has become a key relief pitcher for the most legendary team in American sports. It’s a great story that kids of any background can admire, but with the scarcity of American Indians in professional sports, it’s also a story that must be told as often as possible in Indian country. Again, why are there so few Indians in the major leagues?

“I think it’s opportunity, Chamberlain said. “And it’s spreading the word that no matter if you want to play baseball or be a mechanic—whatever it may be— your dream is your dream and nobody’s going to take it away until you take it away from yourself.” He also believes that he has a duty to go back to where they grew up and encourage kids, and help create opportunities for them. “It’s something that I take pride in—I go back to the reservation and do stuff during Christmas, and I feel this game of baseball has given me the opportunity to do even more, above and beyond.”