Mugger: Take This Joba, And Shove It!

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It’s a simple fact that there are only two teams in Major League Baseball that matter: the Yankees and Red Sox. And while fans and commentators can natter on all they want about Chase Utley, Willie Randolph or the Tampa Bay Rays’ Cinderella season, just two questions merit any serious discussion. One: Why was phenom reliever Joba Chamberlain jettisoned to the Yanks starting rotation? Two: What effect will the prolonged absence of the Bosox’s David Ortiz have on the A.L. East division race?

Last week, I was on the phone with one of my brothers, who’d just arrived in Mumbai for a hectic weeklong business trip, and all he wanted to talk about was how Joba had fared in his start against the Blue Jays on June 3. We agree on most matters (although he’s considering, probably just to get my goat, voting for Barack Obama in the fall), but baseball isn’t one of them. He’s been a Yanks fan since about 1950—and hates the Sox and the team’s TV-broadcast character, Jerry Remy, as much as I despise the Bombers and YES’s Michael Kay. I delivered the pleasing news that Joba had lasted less than three innings, after a build-up in the city that far exceeded the latest news from the Hillary Clinton campaign.

In fact, as the New York Observer’s Howard Medgal noted the next day, Joba received two standing ovations at Yankee Stadium before he even threw a pitch, leading the writer to say, “Even Lou Gehrig, after his ‘Luckiest Man’ speech, only got one.” That’s not too surprising, since “curtain calls,” especially at the Stadium, have become ubiquitous today—Melky Cabrera goes the yard in the third inning, and he emerges from the dugout to doff his cap—but the razzmatazz over the kid’s first big league start was really over the top, even by 21st-century standards.

Not surprisingly, I don’t care for many current Yanks—the gracious duo of Hideki Matsui and Mariano Rivera are exceptions—but man, the excitable Joba seems to have gotten a raw deal. First, while I understand the Yanks’ rotation is in flux—and if anyone believes that Mike Mussina, the Stanford grad who’s so brainy and curious that on a trip to Japan a few years ago he never ventured out of his hotel room, will continue on his Fountain of Youth run throughout the season, it just proves that optimism flourishes—why general manager Brian Cashman would succumb to Hank Steinbrenner’s wishes on the questionable Joba strategy makes me scratch my chin. Here you’ve got a lights-out reliever, an outstanding successor to Rivera in a year or two, probably guaranteeing that the Yanks will have the sport’s most dominant closer for two decades, and suddenly that late-inning weapon is wiped out. As a Sox partisan, I love the move, but it still doesn’t make much sense.

I also don’t get the antipathy directed at young Chamberlain, the engaging Nebraskan who’s not only a superior athlete but appears to be a stand-up guy as well, if only judging by his devotion to his infirm father Harlan. Yeah, he pumps his fist after a big strikeout, which irritates some purists, but it doesn’t bother me; didn’t Homer Jones start that trend a couple of decades ago when he’d spike a football in the end zone after catching a touchdown pass? Besides, it’s hypocritical for any Sox fan to jump Joba for his inning-ending antics when their guy’s closer, Jonathan Papelbon, is perhaps even more demonstrative.

At a time when every MLB team has a plethora of partisan blogs (often excellent), it took me by surprise to read the venom directed at Joba from “The Tao of Stieb,” one of the Toronto Blue Jays’ venues. The night after the sensation’s aborted start, this appeared: “Fat ugly toad Joba Chamberlain last just over two innings. There’s your goddamned saviour, Yankee fans. And while we’re at it, Joba has done pretty much fuck all as a major league starter aside from having some overhyped ‘rules’ named after him.” Hey, Tao, your team won that game, and they were the first recipient of the dumb Yanks front-office decision, one that even Johnny Damon, blessedly speaking out of turn, criticized—telling the Daily News’ John Harper that he felt “the bullpen was our strength… Everyone’s trying to replace a guy who was possibly the best in that role.”

I’m writing before Joba’s Sunday start against the lowly Royals, but even if he chucks six scoreless innings, it’s still a mistake in my book.

And now to the other raging question in the baseball blogosphere: Should the Red Sox sign Barry Bonds, currently out of work, to replace Ortiz as DH in their lineup? It’s just a rumor, of course, and nearly everyone thinks Sox GM Theo Epstein won’t touch Bonds, but I wish he would. That puts me in a minority in the newly crowned “Red Sox Nation”—the legion of bandwagon jumpers who crowd every visiting ballpark since Boston finally won a World Series four years ago—since most think Balco Barry is tainted goods. Yeah, so what else is new? As a Sox blogger on “Fire Joe Morgan” said last week, Epstein didn’t flinch last season is trading for Eric Gagne, who was known as a ‘roider. And New England Patriots fans got over the revelations of “Tapegate” last fall as long as their team was winning.

One of my favorite blogs is Craig Calcaterra’s “Shysterball”; although Calcaterra, a 34-year-old lawyer currently living in Ohio, is a Braves fan in his heart, his daily observations are fairly neutral, well-argued and a lot more interesting than what you find in the dailies. Nonetheless, Calcaterra last week added to his voice to the chorus shouting “No Bonds in Boston.” He wrote: “As I and many others have said in the past, the biggest thing anyone has to worry about with respect to a Bonds signing is a fan revolt and the intense scrutiny the front office would be subjected in the event Bonds falls on his face (which is very possible).”

Bonds seems like a creep to me—I don’t particularly care about his PED use, but his surliness, accusations of beating up girlfriends and IRS fraud don’t make you think of, say, Brooks Robinson or Ichiro—but if Ortiz is lost for the season, pumpkin-head might squelch a “fan revolt” if he walks a lot in front of Manny Ramirez and launches balls into Fenway Park’s right-field bleachers. Let Mike Lupica and the ’s Dan Shaughnessy bitch all they want; if Bonds helps the Sox win another title, I’m on board.

Despite Bud Selig’s bleating about the “integrity” of baseball, that’s a crock. The sport is a big business; so to paraphrase the popular commercial that airs on ESPN, “There’s no piety in baseball.”

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