It’s hard to say whether or not Joba Chamberlain has been the biggest disappointment in Yankees history. They have certainly been apart of some disappointing games and had some disappointing seasons, but as far as players go, he’s got to be right up near the top of the biggest disappointments in the team’s history. Or at least in my lifetime anyway.
There have been others of course. My father is still heartbroken over the way Mickey Mantle handled his life after his playing days and has a hard time talking about him to this day because of that. Brien Taylor was the No. 1 overall draft pick with limitless potential that he ruined in a bar fight. There are a ton of players who came here with promise only to fail, Ed Whitson, Kenny Rogers, Jeff Weaver, Javier Vazquez, all disappointments in their own rights.
Then there is Joba.
AMAZING DEBUT: He’s a bit different from the rest. The Yankees were considered lucky when they drafted him with the 41st overall pick in the 2006 draft. He rocketed through the system and because they were desperate for relief help, he was called up in August of that season and what a debut he made.
If you missed it, Joba came up and pitched in 19 games that year, most of them close, and he was outstanding. He came out of the ‘pen to pump in some 100 mph fastballs and the stadium literally rocked as everyone chanted, “Joba, Joba.” Nearly every game was close and the Yankees were 17-2 in games he pitched. It was like something I’d never seen and still haven’t seen again.
INDECISION AND TENDINITIS: The following season was a weird one. Joba had a lot of success as he put up a 2.60 ERA over 100.1 innings that year, but the Yankees jerked him back and forth as they tried to figure out how to develop him as a major leaguer on the fly. He showed flashes of brilliance, like the time he struck out nine in seven innings against the Red Sox, but he finished the season in the bullpen he dealt with a bout of shoulder tendinitis.
THE DUI: As Yankees fans, I think a lot of us wanted to see Joba take his rehab seriously and show up to camp the following season ready to build off what he started. Instead he was hit with a DUI on October 18, 2008 after leaving a strip club in Nebraska and he showed up to camp a few months later looking like he had not worked out or thrown a ball in months.
What happened next was probably a combination of things – the Yankees continued to flip flop on how they were going to handle him, he might not have been fully recovered from shoulder tendinitis, and answering for the DUI was probably a huge distraction too. Whatever it was, Joba was not the same in 2009.
LOSING HIS ROTATION SPOT: In 2010 he lost his rotation spot for good to Phil Hughes in spring training. Joba played the happy soldier though and never said made a big deal about it. His K/9 and BB/9 improved that year more in line with what he showed early in 2008, he even brushed 99 mph a few times, but luck got the worst of him and he finished with a 4.40 ERA. It wasn’t great, but there were solid signs of hope.
LACK OF COMMITMENT: 2011 seemed like it could be a big year for Joba. He had started getting his velocity back the year before, and hopefully he would show up, impress everyone, and get his rotation spot back. Instead, he showed up to camp overweight and GM Brian Cashman not only wouldn’t give him back his rotation spot, but he warned that Joba might not even have a spot on the major league roster.
TOMMY JOHN: Joba obviously made the team that year as Cashman’s warning was more about trying to light a fire under his butt than a real threat. He pitched out of the bullpen and did a fine job until an elbow injury required Tommy John Surgery and he was shutdown for the remainder of the year. It’s impossible to say what caused his elbow injury, to that point the concern for Joba was always more about his shoulder than his elbow, but it is not impossible to imagine that his lack of conditioning played a role.
THE TRAMPOLINE ACCIDENT: Joba had really done a great job rehabbing his elbow following TJS. It was actually impressive. When a typical pitcher has TJS it takes 12-18 months to recover. Joba was talking about coming back in 10 and was serious about it. Unfortunately this was derailed when he suffered an open dislocation while playing on a trampoline. This latest injury means that his 2012 season is likely done for and it is possible that we will never see the same pitcher again.
WHY WE’RE SO DISAPPOINTED: It was just the latest in a long line of disappointments. Professional athletes often have many things they are prohibited from doing in their contracts. If you remember back to 2003, Aaron Boone had his contract voided when he was playing pick-up basketball. Getting on a trampoline might not be explicitly prohibited, but was certainly an unwise decision given the accident prone nature of trampolines. Further, a man whose weight is near 300-pounds probably shouldn’t be getting on a trampoline no matter what his profession is.
Reflecting on Joba’s career now it is hard not to be disappointed. Starting with the DUI, then him not taking his conditioning seriously, and then not taking his duty as an athlete seriously. It certainly seems like he never had the commitment it takes to be a truly great athlete.
While a lot of what happened to him in his career was beyond his control, the poorly planned “Joba Rules”, his shoulder tendinitis, losing his rotation spot to Phil Hughes. How he responded to those events shows a lot about his inconsistency and his lack of commitment.
Quite a few people were sticking up for Joba following his tragic trampoline accident, but athletes I’ve spoken to have across the board said that it was irresponsible and dumb. Particularly, two former high school football players I spoke with who got multiple D-I offers but because of freak injuries had their careers cut short took it the worst. They couldn’t believe that they had their potential careers stripped away from them while Joba was so cavalier with his health that he would even dare step on a trampoline.
That’s what this is about. Joba had a unique opportunity. A young player who was gifted with a 100 mph fastball and an amazing slider that continually squandered his opportunities. One right after the next.
Now he might not get another one. His contract is non-guaranteed meaning that the Yankees could cut him loose right now if they wanted to. They probably won’t though. Instead, they’ll probably wait until next offseason and if he hasn’t made significant progress they’ll non-tender him then. Meaning that we very well could have seen Joba’s last pitch in Pinstripes.
That’s really disappointing considering how excited we were when his career first started. When I think back I can still feel the grandstand shaking in the old stadium.