NEW YORK — Joba Chamberlain spoke softly at his corner locker at Yankee Stadium — in the unfamiliar visitors’ clubhouse — no longer the flamethrowing, up-and-coming 21-year-old pitching phenom for the Yankees, but rather the wily veteran reliever for the Detroit Tigers.
After spending seven roller-coaster years in the Bronx, Chamberlain, 28, has reshaped his career in the Motor City, serving as one of the league’s top arms out of the bullpen as the Tigers’ eighth-inning man after signing with Detroit as a free agentin December.
In his first appearance back in New York on Tuesday night, Chamberlain — sporting perhaps the American League’s most noticeable and distinct beard — was showered with a chorus of boos when he took the mound in the ninth inning of a 3-3 game and booed unmercifully once again after hitting Yankees captain Derek Jeter with a pitch, apparently unintentionally, with one out in the 10th.
“The thing is, that at-bat couldn’t have gone any more perfect until that last pitch,” said Chamberlain, who entered Wednesday night’s contest with a 2.93 ERA — the lowest among Detroit pitchers with more than 20 innings pitched this season — while averaging one strikeout per inning for the AL Central division-leading Tigers.
“The at-bat was going exactly how I wanted. But to hit him was the last thing I was trying to do in that spot. I’m not trying to put the winning run on base and extend the inning like that.
“It was the most miserable I felt as a man and the most miserable I felt as a baseball player in my career.”
Chamberlain looks at his seven years in New York as the ultimate learning experience, through all the good and the bad — and there was plenty of both during his tenure.
The consensus among most Yankees fans was that Chamberlain could have developed into so much more during his time in pinstripes, but the “Joba Rules” that restricted how much he could pitch, never settling in as either a starter or a reliever, injuries and inconsistency hindered any chance at becoming one of New York’s all-time greats.
“It’s a tough situation with Joba coming back here while on another team,” lifelong Yankees fan Fernando Colon, 32, of Rockland County, N.Y, said Wednesday night. “I think he gave us his all and I didn’t boo him [Tuesday], but I understand why people would.
“He never reached his full potential here and just got up and left. But that’s baseball. That’s the business of the sport. I think you do have to appreciate what he did give to the Yankees, though.”
Chamberlain burst on to the scene in New York in 2007 (0.38 ERA), electrifying the crowds with a triple-digits fastball and an unmatched demeanor on the mound while coming out of the bullpen.
He was on the World Series-winning team in 2009, struggled in 2010, had Tommy John surgery in 2011, suffered an ankle injury on a trampoline in 2012 and was ineffective in New York last season. He never reached the level many though was possible in the summer of ’07.
“My time here put a lot of things into perspective for me,” Chamberlain said. “Everything was awesome. Even things that some people might consider to be negative, I took them as a positive. Being here taught me patience; it taught me to be a better father, a better teammate.
“From dealing with the ‘Rules,’ to going back and forth from starter to reliever, everything was a blessing to experience it all in the big leagues with the Yankees.”