SAN FRANCISCO – It was the United States vs. the World at the Futures Game on Sunday, and no player represented America as genuinely as Joba Chamberlain.
Chamberlain, a New York Yankees Double-A power pitcher, is a member of the Winnebago Tribe, which populated the area that is now Wisconsin more than 1,500 years ago. His father was born on the Winnebago Indian Reservation in the far reaches of northeast Nebraska, where Chamberlain frequently visits.
At 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, Chamberlain is known to teammates as "Joba the Hutt" both because of his size and the pronunciation of his name, which is the same as the immense "Star Wars" alien.
Chamberlain, who allowed one run in one inning, was just one in a parade of touted pitchers and hitters in the Futures Game, an annual showcase of baseball's top minor league talent played as a prelude to the All-Star Game in front of a swarm of national media and MLB executives.
The World won the seven-inning exhibition 7-2 behind early damage from the Taiwanese Chin-Lung Hu (Dodgers) and late home runs from Canadians Joey Votto (Reds) and James Van Ostrand (Astros).
For the record, the U.S. still holds a 5-4 advantage in the series, though the game is really about evaluating the best prospects and projecting who will be the next Futures Game alumnus to graduate to the All-Star Game.
No wonder Chamberlain discreetly pulled the U.S. team's lineup card off the clubhouse wall after the game, folded it neatly and placed it in his bag. By tomorrow, it could be unveiled in the Village of Winnebago, home to tribal leaders and Chamberlain's extended family.
"I'm going home for a couple of days to see my family," he said. "I get a lot of support back home. I'm proud to represent myself and my culture, and they are proud of that too."
Should he make it to Yankee Stadium, the New York media will be clamoring for his story.
Chamberlain, 21, was somewhat unknown because of his obscure upbringing, and wasn't drafted until the supplementary portion of the first round in 2006, 41st overall. He didn't go straight to college after graduating from Lincoln (Neb.) Northeast High in 2003 because he had to earn money to help his family. His father, Harlan, has had serious health problems most of his life, yet put in 60-hour work weeks at a state prison and as a bar bouncer.
Chamberlain didn't start pitching until his senior year in high school, and a professional career seemed as likely as the Winnebagos taking back Wisconsin. He found employment in the city maintenance department, ballooned to 250 pounds, then enrolled at Division II Nebraska-Kearney in the spring of 2004. He went 3-6 with a 5.23 earned-run average, but lost weight and gained enough of a fastball to transfer to Nebraska, where he was seen by scouts who were attending Cornhuskers games to watch third baseman Alex Gordon.
Now he has one of the best fastballs in the minors, regularly touching 97 mph. He was named the best prospect in the Hawaiian Winter League and is 7-1 with 99 strikeouts in 67 2/3 innings at two levels this season.
"He's rapidly reaching the top echelon of pitching prospects," said a scout for an opposing team. "He has the strength to develop as a starter, or he could become a power arm out of the bullpen."
First things first. On his way back to Double-A Trenton (N.J.), Chamberlain will stop in Nebraska to see his father, who contracted polio as a child and recently recovered from a ruptured appendix.
"My dad hasn't been able to travel, and he hadn't seen me pitch all year until watching today on TV," he said. "He's an inspiration to me because with all his health problems, he raised me. He never asked why. He just got up every day, worked hard, cared for his family and respected our heritage.
"I'm just trying to live up to that."
Futures Game Notes
• Hu's on first … OK. There. Never again. The Taiwanese middle infielder was all over the bases, hitting a double, a single, driving in two runs and scoring one to earn MVP honors. Hu scored on a sacrifice fly despite a laser-like throw from U.S. center fielder Justin Upton (Diamondbacks), perhaps the highest-regarded prospect of all.
"They must have seen my Dodger cap because I was getting yelled at and booed," he said. "I feel like a Dodger already."
• World manager Juan Marichal somehow got nine pitchers into the seven-inning game, and U.S. manager Dave Winfield squeezed in eight. Every U.S. pitcher who lasted more than one-third of an inning allowed at least one hit except Luke Hochever (Royals), who retired the side in order in the fifth.
"It was good experience playing against the best hitters in the minors," Hochevar said. "It was just fun being around these guys, and we all hope to run into each other later on in the big leagues."
- Joba Chamberlain