Joba Chamberlain elicits a negative response from the average baseball fan that far outweighs his time spent as a big league pitcher. For a few years, Chamberlain was the lightning rod for Yankee-hating, embodying what outsiders disliked about the team.
The Yankees fan base, meanwhile, accustomed to a team that develops its own foundational members, asked too much of the kid. The Yankees called him up to the big leagues after just a year in the minors. In the hustle to nudge him, with Robinson Cano and Phil Hughes, up onto the Yankees pedestal once occupied by the four horsemen, Yankee fans made him Joba before he was Chamberlain. In the rest of the country, his unique first name became a slight, and a shorthand term for a long-held distaste for the Yankees. Soon, the name Joba came to symbolize a fatigue not only for the team’s ruthless big money practices, but also for the media’s clear favoritism towards East Coast franchises.
That Joba Chamberlain was the symbol of this sentiment is misguided and unfortunate, and more a result of bad timing than anything that Joba did. Because, generally speaking, Joba Chamberlain is the opposite of what people don’t like about the Yankees.
First, he’s a high round pick that rose from within the organization, not one of the Yankees’ empire-boosting free agent acquisitions. The Yankees picked Chamberlain, who is really a good pitcher, with the 41st pick in the 2006 amateur draft, after every other team had a shot at him. According to John Sickels, he was a well-regarded prospect who had some injury problems that caused him to drop from the top fifteen picks. They took a chance on him and he produced. That’s not the profile of a bothersome business-type who carries himself like the CEO of ARodCorp.
Second, Chamberlain is from Nebraska. It’s my suspicion that fans who dislike Derek Jeter hate him the most when they imagine him dining in an expensive Manhattan steakhouse, seated beside his lovely, urbane fiancee as he sniffs the cork of a fine wine. Nothing about Joba Chamberlain suggests to me that he’s an urban snob. His mom has had her run-ins with the law. His dad drives a motorized scooter named Humphrey. According to Tyler Kepner, he has a tattoo on his left arm that says, “Always Give Thanks and Praise.”
Third, he’s not paid very well for a baseball player. He makes $1.4 million this year, the first year that he’s exceeded seven figures. He’s a bargain. Who doesn’t like a bargain?
The source of the ire is elusive. Joba has not enjoyed the infuriating adulation of a Derek Jeter, and he doesn’t do odd things in public like Alex Rodriguez. Why, then, was there a queasy sense of a doomed fate come to pass with the news that Joba Chamberlain–a kid who had a tough upbringing and has done nothing but earn his place by pitching well and working hard–blew out his arm?
The most obvious starting point is the Joba Rules. As Joel Sherman of the New York Post recounted in 2007, Joba rose from the Winter Leagues in Honolulu to the bright lights of the Bronx within the course of a year. He brought with him an injury history, and his meteoric rise was accompanied by an increased concern that he would fizzle as quickly, especially when the major league staff transitioned him from a starting pitcher to a reliever. By then viewed as a major asset to the present and the future Yankees, measures were undertaken to dodge any injury to Joba.
Coaches, media members, and fans called these pitching restrictions the Joba Rules, and talked about their evasive ins and outs the way George Costanza referred to the impenetrable Penske File. George King of the New York Post described the Joba Rules in late August of 2007 (just before they were about to change): “One inning pitched requires one day off. Two innings requires two days of rest. Three innings of work means three days on the pine. And he needs two days off before being asked to throw two innings.” I found four different names referenced as authors of the rules, from Joe Torre up to Brian Cashman. “A few months ago,” wrote Sherman at the end of the 2007 regular season, “we didn’t even know who the heck [Joba Chamberlain] was. Now Yankees fans debate the rules surrounding his usage with – we can only hope – the fervor that the Supreme Court applies to cases involving freedom of speech.”
Plenty of teams limit their young pitchers, but few made it such a tediously public affair as the Yankees did. Sportswriters described the rules the way a business writer would track a business merger. In late September of 2007, Sherman wrote that, sure, the rules may have seemed excessive, but that “the Yanks were armed with reams of data that showed a too-frequent injury correlation when young starters were asked to quickly transition to stressful bullpen roles.” Few major league bullpens warrant a mention in the major media news cycle beyond a dominant closer or a disgraceful one, but even the biggest outlets updated America on the Joba Rules.
The Joba Rules seemed to pick at an American wariness of the balance between meritocracy and privilege. In the baseball world, the great players are most often those who excel in obscurity for a few years in the minor leagues, and rise to the majors and contribute once they have proved resistant to injury and capable of withstanding the trauma that your average pro gram inflicts on the brain and ego. The Joba Rules seemed to upend this formula, and to assume greatness as a given as long as injury is avoided, like naming the valedictorian at the start of freshman year and hoping she didn’t take a liking to pot and punk rock.
Also, baseball is supposed to be a pastoral game,for children and gentlemen of leisure. It began as a game to relieve the pressures of the urban reality. Baseball fields are the national park in the city limits, where adults act like children and the eye has a chance to relax against a peaceful backdrop. The Joba Rules, on some subconscious level, too closely mimicked the needling demands of business, of parenthood, of stress by limiting the public’s opportunity to watch and enjoy a great young pitcher in order to protect the bottom line, the investment.
I propose that Joba Chamberlain was the harbinger of a new era for baseball fans, and that the early stages of his career was the bridge from the Veteran Era to the Age of Potential, when the benefits of the long term investment grew to challenge the joys of the present moment. During the Veteran Era, your typical baseball fan could live with a team that traded away some young prospects for a chance at a great second half from a proven veteran. Such transactions were accepted as the cost of doing business, and experience itself was treated as a commodity.
But the Age of Potential, which began its full bloom at about the time Joba Chamberlain came up, brings with it panoply of new anxieties. Chamberlain drew our ire because he is the symbol of the baseball fan’s new modern condition, in which a fear for the future of the franchise holds as much sway over our daily lives as baseball fans as the standings and the playoff picture.
In managing the Joba File, the Yankees publicly pored over the type of minuscule player development decisions that used to take place privately. Rather than letting the innings pitched speak for themselves, Cashman, Torre, and company revealed the innards of the process, and the media made it fodder for fan consumption and consideration. The private anxieties of a baseball franchise, once the domain of a privileged few, were writ large, and it says a lot about how baseball fans relate to the game of baseball right now.
There is an increasing demand for decisions that are based on reason and analysis. The fine baseball blog U.S.S. Mariner is a case in point. Prominent baseball writer Dave Cameron takes the tone of a college professor critiquing local government when he takes the Seattle Mariners brass to task. Here’s a sample quotation, taken almost at random from a recent post about Ichiro Suzuki and Eric Wedge, which exemplifies the tone: “Giving a slumping player a day off is the baseball equivalent of spitting at the wind; when you’re done, it’s still going to be windy, and there’s a good chance you’ll have saliva on your face. I’m not saying that Wedge shouldn’t give Ichiro the night off. I understand why he’s doing it. He has to feel like he’s doing something, so he’s doing the only thing he can do. It’s just not going to matter.”
There are about twenty different layers of content embedded in these few sentences. There is the idea that Cameron is a fan of the team, but that he is also a professional baseball writer, and finally that he is an expert at constructing a lineup and a baseball team. Psychologically, he refers to Ichiro’s mental state, as well as that of Eric Wedge, and his own. He both reinforces and completely discounts conventional wisdom, and wields down-homey metaphor and meteorology. Generally, though, Cameron and many other writers like him take the fan’s side. But this version of the fan is a super-charged intellectual on whom nothing is lost. The super-fans set the bar very, very high.
Fans were once able to ignore, for example, more mundane aspects of player development, meaning the monitoring of very young prospects, ballpark financing, and contracts. At the very least one could bemoan a big contract but carry on with life as usual. But nowadays there’s the Joba File expectation that we incorporate into our ever-expanding portfolio of fears, concerns, and considerations the long term prospects of the organization, and the most prized assets within that organization, even if they are years away from making any real impact. Just as in a past era falling out of the sky used to be the worst possible outcome of a flight from Phoenix to Chicago, losing a major league baseball game used to be the least desirable outcome of the contest. Now, though, the worst that can happen during a baseball game is that a whirlpool opens around the pitching mound and sucks away the future of the franchise, leaving fans mastless in the void. The Yankees, when they publicly displaying their own anxiety as they developed young players, made it our problem as well as theirs, just without the control.
It used to be that the team on the major league field was a fan’s primary concern. Twenty-five players and a few coaches made for plenty to talk about and pore over, not to mention every other team’s twenty-five. The arduous, tedious process of raising another one hundred ducklings in the farm leagues, the five-year planning, developing, and drafting were not considered a part of the entertainment. It was the baseball equivalent of a middle management meeting to determine the craft services vendor for the next taping of The Sopranos.1
Back in those days, baseball fans were all happy and calm and spent more time with their families. Before we learned about prospects.
Dictionary.com starts to define the term prospect with words like “future” and “advancement.” But by the third definition, things take a strange turn: “3. something in view as a source of profit.” The word profit, sharing the optimistic prefix pro, is one of the most loaded terms in Western Civilization. It conjures up all of the costly causes and effects that drive the better and worse angels of our nature, the ruthlessness and superficiality, the grim mechanisms of interconnected life that baseball is structured to provide an escape from. Playing baseball for profit, after all, is the original sin for the baseball players. Profit is the side effect of success, not the core motivation in the moral universe of the baseball field. A prospect in the shadow of profit morphs into more of a speculative stock option than a pleasing narrative. With the prospect as commodity, Gordon Gekko in his two-tone braces puts a call in on a hot one, milks him for all the profit he can, and abandons it as soon as its monetary value fades.
This may be closer to reality than we’d like to admit, but the genius of baseball has been the industry’s general ability to cloak the inner workings, and the fan base aids in the illusion by endorsing it with its stamp of approval. How else can you explain the historically robust attendance at Wrigley Field?
But we’re stripping away the artifice, and, like a Swatch watch without a face, the inner workings are becoming an appealing aspect of the aesthetics of baseball for a lot of people.
An easy place to start is the MLB Network’s broadcast of the early rounds of the MLB Amateur Draft. To keep pace with the cachet of the NFL and the NBA, MLB stole their aesthetic of podiums and old commissioner groaning out the names of high school kids and college juniors and seniors that were until that moment anonymous. MLB has imposed a model of media consumption that should tie-in with an already massive media market like college football and basketball. Those drafts assign teams to already prominent public figures, so viewers and followers have a sense of context and transition between the two leagues. In baseball, the connection between amateur players and the major leagues are tenuous and uncertain. A staggering proportion of the names called on draft day will disappear back into obscurity after years of anonymous toil.
Baseball fans, in this model, are asked to invest their sporting capital, meaning their care, into players that will likely never return the favor. Baseball people understand this, and they continually hedge any excitement by noting how many pitching prospects fail, and how quickly a promising player can burn out. But draft coverage in the model of the other college sports trumpets the slow, uncertain process as though it was something different, something faster. Such coverage, like the Joba Rules, exposes yet another mechanism driving the heretofore thankfully hidden side of baseball management, but now comprising the growing anxiety machine. Fans are worrying about the business, without the salary.
There is no doubt that young players are an important part of winning, so it makes sense that fans like to watch the players coming up to determine what the chances are that a team will either continue or start winning. Young players have always mattered. The difference is in the attention that we pay them.
In the course of my lifetime, the trend towards increased prospect adulation and early career tracking seems to have started in the late 1980s and early 1990s, through the prism of baseball cards. Around that time, the once simple pack of cards started to crystallize and fragment, and as the variety of inserts and artificially rarefied sets expanded, it drove the need for more targets of interest around which to create such sets. Rookie cards met this need for a while, but once that idea was tapped out, the prospect cards took the concept further. The subprime mortgages of the baseball card collecting game, prospect cards were worth big money before the prospect made his major league team a cent, like rookie cards on the juice, inflating their performance by artificial means. Brien Taylor’s card was worth a few thousand pennies before the pitcher was worth a dime for the Yankees,2 and I can still picture Todd Van Poppel bathed in orange like a dynamo bursting from obscurity into stardom.
Despite the specialization of the baseball card industry, prospect-watching was still at the edges of general baseball patronage. The hype that surrounded players like Taylor and Van Poppel was the exception rather than the rule. Between then and now, however, the tracking of an organization’s prospects has evolved from an outlier’s art to a daily ritual.
I bailed on the baseball card industry back then, unable to keep track of the splintering brands and the nuances that distinguished a Gold card from a Platinum one. The chatter about prospects faded, for me, and I sank into a blissful period of watching baseball that prioritized present-day major leaguers above all else. When a young guy showed up, he had to play well. His reputation went only as far as the front door of the major league clubhouse.
Time passed, and the dormant creature awoke when, in the midst of the online baseball boom, I discovered prospect blogs and started to learn more about the minor leagues, especially from John Sickels, the proprietor of the earnest and addictive blog Minor League Ball. And while Sickels was a major bell cow, daily baseball blogs began to feature the work of minor league enthusiasts. The instance that I remember is the story of Arizona Phil as related to me by my friend Paul, a big Cubs fan. Arizona Phil was a mere reader of The Cub Reporter, whose copious blog post comments on Chicago Cubs prospects were so impressive that he became a cult figure among readers. His knowledge of Cubs prospects at every level of the organization became, even in comment form, a staple of the reader experience on the blog. Finally, Arizona Phil was welcomed into the fold as a regular contributor, and today he maintains AZ Phil’s Corner, a special section of the blog with detailed information about the Cubs 40-man roster that looks more like a spreadsheet for a middle manager at Microsoft than a baseball fan’s cheat sheet.
The televised MLB draft a few years later was a kind of mainstream coronation of the underground movement that fans like Arizona Phil gave such power.
The trend towards a public obsession with prospects has by now been canonized by the Tampa Bay Rays, who built a powerful franchise by focusing on landing one powerhouse prospect after another in the amateur draft and eschewing costly free agent signings, expending great energy to standardize their minor league system and build a cohesive organization from the bottom to the top. Jonah Keri chronicles this process in his book, The Extra 2%, where the strange tales of impulsive owner Vincent Naimoli, with his signings of Jose Canseco, Wade Boggs, and Greg Vaughn, give way to names like Upton, Longoria, and Price, and the Rays approach unfolds as proof that the prospect game could pay off big, affirming the shift in big league approach to match the baseball fan’s increasing concern for A-ball intricacies. The Rays played the game so effectively that they jumped from worst to World Series in a year, reinforcing with steel beams the baseball public’s mania for prospects.
To gauge the current attitude towards very young players who were very recently highly coveted prospects, all you have to do is perform a quick Twitter search for catcher Buster Posey, the 24-year-old phenom who rose to prominence as the unnaturally self-possessed rookie catcher for the World Series champion San Francisco. Posey, who fans quickly ordained as a full-blown star before he played an entire regular season, blew out his ankle in a collision at home plate. Posey had to publicly announce his lack of support for threats against Scott Cousins, the player who slammed Posey at the plate. When I heard the news about the young catcher, I gasped, taken over by a fear for the future of baseball. A friend of mine voiced much the same sentiment: “Such a young star.” Calls were put out to end home plate collisions entirely. The game would have to change in order to keep our young catchers from getting hurt. Catchers, who were once regarded as the toughest players on the field and who get to wear full body armor, should be protected like NFL quarterbacks.
When a community faces a growing anxiety, it searches for places to vent the mounting pressure. As the Age of Potential heightens, baseball fans face the growing expectation that they embrace their favorite team’s entire major and minor league system, that they learn about each of their team’s prospects and draft picks, whether these unripened ballplayers will ever see the major league field or not. In other words, there is a new fear in town, and it’s the fear of missing out, of mismanaging personnel, of poorly developing minor league players, of drafting badly. The keeper league fantasy baseball player has a particular knowledge of this challenge, to put names to the uncharted sections of the map, as dictated by the changing coordinates of potential; learning every face on earth, because one of them could be president one day.
Faced with expectations they struggled to meet, in a system with nerve-racking implications for the future of fandom, we lashed out at Joba, and now, in spite of all of the care, in spite of the reams of data the Yankees claimed to possess, the worst has happened. The golden arm blew out. I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that the subprime mortgage boom, driven by analysts with a certain access to mathematical systems that the average consumer has almost no knowledge of, has ratcheted up the public’s demand for transparency and control. The powers that be are no longer trusted to wield the tools of progress. The public has called for control of executive salaries, and more government involvement. In baseball, the fans have taken up the tools themselves, and transformed consumer responsibility into a consumable art form.
Joba Chamberlain is a good pitcher who came up just as the baseball community began to deal, on a deep level, with the rising tide of the prospect obsession. He enjoyed a half season of brilliance on the biggest stage in baseball, but has otherwise done little to warrant the attention paid him. Instead, it was the timing of his arrival that coincided with the pressures guiding baseball media and fans to press him to the top of the media cycle, and he rose like an air bubble from a deep sea vent to burst at the surface. For every armchair baseball Buddhist who accepts that pitching is a fickle endeavor fraught with peril, there will be a hundred of our nouveau fans, writers, and pundits who will work like demons to extract every teachable cell of invaluable vent vapor, searching for the secrets of the deep.
- There is likely a connection between the Age of Potential and the rise of Special Features on DVD menus, in which the viewer enters a magical world of The Lord of the Rings, for example, only to completely undercut the illusion by watching two hours of “Making Of” video. ↩
- Jeff Passan at Yahoo! makes the case that Taylor changed the nature of the MLB Draft with his demand for a $1.55 million bonus, otherwise known as “Van Poppel money.” “Single-handedly,” Passan wrote, “(Brien’s mother Bettie) was changing how baseball did business, empowering the players who, for so long, had been stunted by a rigid bonus structure.” ↩