Joba Chamberlain is sitting near his locker in the Scranton Yankees' clubhouse the other day, sipping on a Styrofoam cup of sports drink filled with crushed ice. This place, tucked in the hills of northeast Pennsylvania, is important because it's Chamberlain's third stop this year.
Joba Chamberlain is sitting near his locker in the Scranton Yankees' clubhouse the other day, sipping on a Styrofoam cup of sports drink filled with crushed ice.
This place, tucked in the hills of northeast Pennsylvania, is important because it's Chamberlain's third stop this year.
Just five months ago, Joba (pronounced Jaw-buh) Chamberlain was at Class A Tampa and most Yankees fans didn't even know who he was.
Hitters couldn't touch him there — he went 4-0 with a 2.03 ERA — so the Yankees moved him to Double-A Trenton (N.J.)
He was effective there, too, going 4-2 with a 3.43 ERA.
So Chamberlain found himself at Triple-A Scranton last week, where he blew away hitters in his first start, and has everyone buzzing about a possible call-up to the Bronx as early as this week.
"Yes, I think I can pitch for the Yankees right now," Chamberlain says. "It's not about being conceited or cocky. It's about surrounding yourself with good people that have taught me well and helped my confidence."
No, Chamberlain, 21, is not cocky or arrogant.
His blazing rise through the Yankees' farm system was born out of humility.
"I never expected this, not at all," adds Chamberlain, who was moved from Scranton's rotation to the bullpen yesterday, further fueling speculation that he will be summoned to help the Yankees' struggling relief corps. "My goal at the end of the year was to be at Double-A. To be here is humbling and awesome."
CHAMBERLAIN GOT FEW looks coming out of Lincoln Northeast High School, near the University of Nebraska. He was a good athlete with decent numbers, 3-2 with a 3.35 ERA, but Chamberlain thinks his weight might have turned off people. Chamberlain began his senior year at 270 pounds.
He tried cutting weight and that battle continued at Division II Nebraska-Kearney.
Chamberlain lost some 20 pounds at Kearney, cutting out junk foods, and running and working out regularly.
Meanwhile, his father, Harlan, a single father confined to a wheelchair with polio, began urging University of Nebraska coach Mike Anderson to look at his boy.
Joba belongs here, Harlan Chamberlain, who works security at the school, would tell Anderson after clinics. Take a look at him. Chamberlain went 3-6 with a 5.23 ERA as a freshman at Kearney in 2004.
Still, he was coming around, losing even more weight. His fastball hit 93 mph, and at 6-foot-3, he was an intimidating presence on the mound. Chamberlain put up a 1.36 ERA and 137 strikeouts in American Legion ball that summer.
He asked for his release from Kearney and, after Anderson saw him blow away Legion batters, he asked Chamberlain to come home to Lincoln. By the time the 2005 season rolled around, Chamberlain was, as Anderson puts it, a machine. Chamberlain trimmed down to 230 pounds, benefiting from Nebraska's renowned strength and conditioning program.
Anderson and his staff worked on Chamberlain's mechanics. He built his arm strength and his fastball became even more blistering.
"It comes down to a lifestyle change," Chamberlain says. "It was the toughest thing I had to do in my life. But it's nothing compared to when I come home and look at my dad and what he has to go through. He never complains."
Chamberlain — a power pitcher with a build like Kerry Wood — went 10-2 with a 2.81 ERA in 2005 at Nebraska. He struck out 15 batters in seven innings against New Mexico in his second start for the Cornhuskers, followed that up with a win over national power Rice and earned Nebraska's first ever win in the College World Series.
"He's a pretty incredible story around here," Anderson says. "His life wasn't always easy and I think he likes to prove things to people.
"He walks around with a small chip on his shoulder, he really wants to be successful."
The Yankees selected Chamberlain in the first round (41st overall) of last year's first-year player draft, the highest a Native American player has gone in the draft.
Chamberlain is a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska and his father was born on a reservation.
The kid with the powerful right arm sat out last season, negotiating a $1.1 million signing bonus, but put up a 2.63 ERA in the Hawaii Fall League.
And Chamberlain continues to mow down hitters at every level.
PRIZED PROSPECT PHIL Hughes and Roger Clemens have both pitched for Scranton this summer.
But Chamberlain's start against the Louisville Bats last Wednesday trumped them both.
He pitched five shutout innings, allowing four hits and striking out 10 batters. Chamberlain, who has 125 strikeouts in 84¤ innings this season, abused batters with a fastball that topped off at 100 mph and left them flailing with his biting slider.
"His stuff is nasty," says Scranton catcher Omir Santos while shaking his head. "If he keeps the ball down, oh my God, he's going to be tough to hit. I think he can help the Yankees right now."
It's no surprise that Scranton pitching coach Dave Eiland, who pitched for the Yankees for parts of four seasons (1988-91), thinks Chamberlain's fastball and slider are major-league ready.
"He's obviously got plus, plus stuff," Eiland says. "And his curveball, which is his third pitch right now, is better than an average major-league curveball. His change-up is going to be above average."
Still, the Yankees might be tempted to see if this kid who seems to never melt under pressure can help the big club.
Asked about a Chamberlain call-up last week in Kansas City, Yankees manager Joe Torre told reporters: "You never know. I think Cash (Yankees general manager Brian Cashman) is curious. If that is the case, we would take care of him."
Chamberlain is hoping to make a fourth stop this summer.
In the Bronx.
"I'm ready to help in any way I can," he says. "Whatever they see fit. I would look at it as a blessing, an honor to help them make the playoffs. I will do whatever I need to do to pitch in pinstripes."