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September 24, 2007: Love Rules

It was a day of love at Yankee Stadium on Sunday.It began with an outpouring of love for someone recently departed from the family, Phil Rizzuto. While many members of the Rizzuto family–including his wife of 64 years, Cora, and lifelong friend Yogi Berra–watched from seats of honor near home plate, the scoreboard played a highlight montage from Phil’s career as player and as broadcaster. The music they chose couldn’t have been more fitting: “That’s Amore.”

But what struck me most that day was the way the fans have embraced one of the youngest, newest members of the family, Joba Chamberlain. The big kid with the 99 mile per hour fastball turned 22 on Sunday, and his father and some friends of the family were there all weekend to celebrate it with him.

For Harlan Chamberlain, Joba’s wheelchair-bound father, it was his first trip east of the Mississippi River. Many fans are familiar with his face from the television broadcasts of the game in Kansas City he attended where he saw Joba pitch in the majors the first time. Tears of joy made Harlan Chamberlain’s face shine that night, and now the smiles and greetings of New Yorkers everywhere he goes makes him smile.

“The people here have been wonderful. Absolutely great,” he said before a game this weekend. We were on the warning track in front of the Yankee dugout. Normally at that hour, batting practice would be taking place, but it had been cancelled because of the extra-innings affair that had kept everyone up late the night before. So we were doing what everyone else was doing: talking baseball.

In specific, we were talking Joba.

I had to ask. “So, was he always into baseball growing up?”

“Since four years old,” Harlan said without hesitation. “Back then of course it was just dress up. I had bought this catcher’s equipment from the church across the street. They were phasing that part out of their parochial school’s phys ed department, so I bought [it] for thee bucks. So he dressed up and just started taking to it, and I saw he liked it, so I just took a ball and started throwing it at him, teaching him not to be afraid of the ball. And that didn’t take long.”

I wondered if little Joba had been just as stocky as he is now, but what I asked was, “Did he play tee ball and Little League and all that?”

“Yeah. He always played with neighborhood kids. And then tee ball and what not. He always came to the top of whatever pursuit he embarked upon. He always has risen to the top, and well, it doesn’t get anymore top than this other than the World Series. And we’re not so far away from that.” The excitement in his voice is as palpable as it is in the crowd later that day, when the Yankees still have a chance to catch the Red Sox for the division, and stage comeback after comeback until finally notching an extra inning win in a five-hour game. But that will come later. Harlan told me more. “He’s got a passion for the game that is unequalled by anybody I’ve seen. There are lot of players an athletes who are better than he is, but I don’t ever recall seeing anyone who matched his passion. And that’s his motivator.”

I asked how old Joba was when he started to see that fire. “Oh, when he was about eight.”

Eight? “He liked playing the part. Initially it was a part.”

Like a role in a play? Yes. I asked if he always thought he was going to be a pitcher. Harlan laughed. “No, he was a catcher! He was a catcher for a long time.”

I told him then about Ralph Terry, a pitcher for the Yankees in the 1960s who was MVP of the 1962 World Series, but who started out as a catcher in high school in Oklahoma, playing against Mickey Mantle. But back to Joba. “He didn’t seriously get into pitching until he was a senior in high school. I mean, he’d throw the ball and play that position once in a while, but as far as actually pitching, developing pitches, being a pitcher. There’s one thing to being a thrower, another to being a pitcher. And people would always say to me ‘your son throwing tonight?’ Because they don’t know the difference. And I’d say ‘yeah, he’s pitching tonight.'”

Harlan’s pride in his son was obvious. And so was his love. “Did you know,” I asked in closing, “that there is video on the Internet of Joba singing in the bullpen?”

He didn’t seem surprised and he smiled at me. “That’s just the way he is. He’s a ham. He really is. He’s always been a ham.”

It’s not just the people of New York who have been so friendly to Harlan Chamberlain. A steady stream of players still came and went on their way to jogging or stretching, each one pausing to shake Harlan’s hand or say hello. Joba’s dad is as popular as his son, it seems, and that is saying a lot, as his son is possibly one of the most lovable characters to put on pinstripes in a while.

Already the “Joba Rules” T-shirts are being sold on street corners outside the stadium, and on Sunday, Joba’s birthday, there were at least four different styles of Joba-related shirts in evidence on the crowd, even though according to those “rules,” Joba should not have been available to pitch. The rules, as laid down by the coaching staff, included stipulations like, Joba shall not be brought in in the middle of an inning. If Joba pitches one inning, he shall rest one day. If he pitches two innings, two days. Well, he’d already been used in the middle of an inning earlier in the week, but Friday night he did pitch two complete innings in 14-inning loss to the Jays.

But on Saturday night, Joe Torre did say, when press by reporters, that the rules were ‘evolving.’ “All I can say is that the rules from here on will probably involve pitch count,” he said. The rules, it seems, can bend.

Sunday afternoon saw the Yankees take a comfortable 7-3 lead over the Jays while Mike Mussina pitched seven solid innings for New York. Unfortunately, with two out in the eighth, Luis Vizcaino walked the third batter he faced, then gave up a home run to Matt Stairs. When the next man, Aaron Hill, got a hit, the crowd began chanting “We Want Joba! We Want Joba!”

When Vizcaino then walked the next man, Joe Torre came out of the dugout and received a cheer.

Then a blare of heavy metal theme music came from the stadium sound system, and Joba came trotting in from the bullpen. It was positively Mariano-like. Five pitches later, he left the mound, triumphant, having struck out a player whose name he probably didn’t know and probably didn’t care to know. (Adam Lind, if you’re wondering.)

As it turned out, Torre decided that rather than use Mariano three days in a row in the ninth, he would send Joba back out to finish the job. He got a soft dribbler back to the mound, struck out pinch hitter Lyle Overbay, and then quite fittingly, blew away Reed Johnson on three straight pitches to seal the deal. His first major league save and the adulation of a sold-out house was his birthday gift.

By next season, as any fan knows, the love affair could be over. He could be traded, get injured, or even fall from grace. But for now, the lovable kid with the blazing fastball is loving it and being loved right back.

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