Extensive and Exclusive Never Before Seen Interview With Joba Chamberlain, June 2007
When Joba Chamberlain first arrived in Trenton about halfway through the season, I don’t think anyone expected him to move through the system quite as quickly as he did. Sure, he was a first round pick, but this was his first year of professional experience and he was still learning the pro game.
Sure enough, about two months later Chamberlain was setting the world on fire in the Bronx.
When I caught up with him in the Yankee Stadium clubhouse in September, it was a struggle to even get two minutes with him because of the constant crowd of reporters waiting to talk to him.
But back in June, you could have as much time with Joba as you wanted, so here’s the complete transcript from our June 15th interview just outside the home clubhouse at Waterfront Park.
Note: This has never been seen in its entirety. However, some of the quotes have appeared in my June 28th feature on Chamberlain in the Democrat.
Ashmore: I’ve read that your heritage is very important to you. As someone not familiar with the Native American culture, I was wondering if you could take me through growing up in that lifestyle and what it meant to be one of the highest drafted Native American players in baseball history.
Chamberlain: It’s been fun. It’s one of those things that I take as a compliment. A lot of Native Americans don’t necessarily get the opportunity to chase their dreams, and I was one of them. So when I go back to where my family’s from, I always tell the kids to work hard and set yourself up to be successful and good things will happen. You’ve just got to be patient and wait for your breaks, because a lot of them don’t get to see light at the end of the tunnel, but there always is light at the end of the tunnel. I tell them to stay focused and trust themselves and just do everything that they want to do and never let go of their dreams.
My dad was born on a reservation, and he had polio at the age of eight months so he was taken away from his family. We all grew up in the city, but we still have family on the reservation, so we go back and see them. It’s a lot better, but it still can become better. And it’s frustrating for a lot of the kids, because they don’t get the opportunities that a lot of kids in the city do, so you’ve just got to tell them to stay focused and always chase your dream.
Ashmore: So with that said, how important is it to you to be a role model for those people?
Chamberlain: You’ve got to be a role model in more ways than just one, on the field. You’ve got to lead your life the right way. I’m representing the Yankees on the front, but I’m also representing my name on the back, and that’s almost just as important to me. To be able to carry on my name, and to be able to go back to see the opportunities and the tribulations that I came through in my life, I think it’s good. This is something that I want to do, and every day I’m making sure that I’m doing things the right way and that I’m preparing myself to be successful.
Ashmore: The Yankees picked you 41st overall in 2006. Take me back to draft day, what was that like for you?
Chamberlain: Stressful. I stopped watching it in the middle of the first round and started playing with my son. We were upstairs playing, and I got a call from a bunch of my teammates and everybody saying that I’d been picked at 41 by the Yankees. It couldn’t have happened with a better team or organization, so I was pretty lucky to get picked by them at 41.
Ashmore: Did you get picked where you were expecting to go?
Chamberlain: No, it was a little later than I expected to go. But you’ve still got to go out and pitch and maybe prove people wrong and show them what they passed up on. That puts a little chip on my shoulder, and I like that. It makes me work that much harder to get to where I want to go.
Ashmore: How do you handle going from not having a lot of money to signing the kind of check that the Yankees gave you when you were picked?
Chamberlain: I don’t know. If I had five dollars in my wallet when I was growing up, I was happy. You’ve got to be humbled by it, because there’s a lot of people that you can help with that, and I think that’s the biggest thing. I wouldn’t be where I was if there weren’t a lot of people to help me to get here. The biggest thing for me is to know that I can take care of my family if they need something, and I can take care of a lot of other people that have helped me get to where I’m at.
Ashmore: It seems like you really started to establish yourself as a premier prospect in Hawaii Winter Baseball this off-season. What was your experience like over there?
Chamberlain: It was awesome, I think I probably grew more as an individual than as a pitcher. It’s a new place, you’re there for a while, and there’s Japanese guys and guys you don’t know on your team. You’ve got to step outside of your comfort level, and just become a better person. When you’re out there, it’s a lot easier to communicate with the guys before and after the game about the pitches or what were you expecting here. It’s a little bit laid back compared to what it is during the season, so I think I learned a lot being able to talk to the guys after the game, like ‘Hey, I pitched you like this, what were you expecting?’ or “Did you see something?’ and I think it really helped the development of me becoming a pitcher than if I’d have jus stayed here.
Ashmore: Did you consider that your first taste of professional baseball considering you didn’t play in the minors in 2006?
Chamberlain: Yeah. All the guys were professional, so it was a little different. It was different to see the training, and the different way they go about it. College is a lot different. It was a good transition instead of just going straight from college to mini-camp to straight into spring training. To get that little edge and that little jump in Hawaii, I think that helped.
Ashmore: For someone who hasn’t seen you pitch before, give me a little self scouting report and what to expect from you out there…
Chamberlain: I’m going to give you 110 (percent). I’m going to go out there, and I’m going to throw hard, and I’m going to locate. I’m going to be exciting on the mound, I’m going to show emotion and be that guy who wants to keep my team involved and just keep everyone in the game because it can get lackadaisical at times. Just be able to throw to the plate, keep everyone involved, and keep everyone on their toes. It’s always easier to not get relaxed as a defender, and for me to not get relaxed out there, and just throw it and see what happens.
Ashmore: The scouting reports on you say you’ve got a fastball, slider, curveball and a change. Anything else?
Ashmore: Focusing on the fastball for a minute, you regularly throw in the mid to high 90’s. But even with being able to throw that hard, how important is being able to locate as well?
Chamberlain: It’s huge. As you well know, you can throw as hard as you want, but if it isn’t where it needs to be, it’s going to get hit. If I’m sitting at 94 and I can locate it, it’s better than me hitting 97 and throwing it right down the middle. As long as I’m locating, I think it allows me to throw all my other pitches for strikes.
Ashmore: You were pretty much lights out in Tampa, and you just made you first start with Trenton. How big of an adjustment has it been for you jumping from Single-A to Double-A?
Chamberlain: It’s 60 feet, six inches no matter where you throw. I think that’s the biggest thing, and I’ve gotten a lot of great advice from guys who’ve played. Just be yourself. I think the biggest thing that I did notice was that a lot of these guys adjust during the at-bat, not at the next at-bat. You can’t pitch them the same way. They’re good enough to where you might be able to strike them out with a slider the first time, but they’re not going to swing at it the next time out. The biggest thing to me was just them adjusting during the current at-bat, not the next at-bat or next time out.
Ashmore: Everybody likes to project when a player like yourself is going to reach the big leagues. Do you have any sort of timetable or goal as far as when you’d like to do that?
Chamberlain: No. I think you always have goals and dreams, and you set them, but you can’t set them too high to where if you don’t meet them you feel like you’re a failure. To be where I’m at right now, I would probably say I’m ahead of schedule for my own goals, I would say. Everything’s going good. You’ve just got to set yourself up to be successful. You can only control what you do out there, everything else is up to the people above me. As long as I go out and do my thing and be successful, that’s all I can do.
I was fortunate enough to speak to Joba on four separate occasions in Trenton, although I only got to see him pitch once — a dominant 12 strikeout performance in six innings of work against the hapless Harrisburg Senators. I think that if any of his answers tell the tale of just how quickly he sailed through the system, it’s the last one. He didn’t give me any indication that he thought he’d get to Yankee Stadium as early as he did, and I’m not sure he thought he would.
About a week before he was called up, I wrote a highly criticized — and perhaps rightly so — column in which I blasted the Yankees for rushing Chamberlain through the system, pointing to the fact that this was just his first season of professional baseball, and that calling him up too early could be determental to his long-term progress.
Since then, Joba quickly blossomed into one of baseball’s brightest young stars, and will be one of the most closely followed players in the game in 2008.
Next week, I’ll post my ten-minute chat with Ian Kennedy from the same day.
Another indication of how far these guys have come?
Any reporter who can get a combined 20 minutes one-on-one with Chamberlain and Kennedy these days is either Peter Gammons or a liar…
Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com