Right-hander remains down to earth despite high projections
LINCOLN, Neb. -- For Joba Chamberlain, there aren't enough hours in the day to savor life's experiences.
At 20, he recently felt the unbridled joy of becoming a father. He's a star pitcher for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, his hometown team, and focused on helping the Huskers get back to the College World Series.
And, oh yes, Chamberlain is just a couple of weeks away from hearing his name called in the First-Year Player Draft with many prognosticators listing the right-handed power pitcher as a likely first-round draft choice.
"I think my story is one that sends a positive message to kids," Chamberlain said recently as he gazed out at an empty Haymarket Park following a Cornhusker workout. "Never give up on a dream. If you have the will and the work ethic, you're going to catch a break somewhere along the way."
Chamberlain has shown the will and the work ethic, all right. As a young child, Chamberlain traveled with his father, Harlan, to visit relatives in the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska and those solid Native American roots, along with his father's love and guidance, provided a strong foundation for an uphill journey that has brought Chamberlain close to a career that can help secure his family's financial future and put a smile on his face each day that he reports for his job.
"I never knew so many good things could happen just for throwing a little white thing across the plate," Chamberlain said with a smile.
When he has the opportunity to talk with admiring Nebraska kids on the reservation, at the ballpark or elsewhere, Chamberlain isn't relating the tale of a phenom who blazed a trail of baseball glory without any glitches along the way.
After graduating from Lincoln Northeast High School, Chamberlain was battling a weight problem and not ready for college baseball. He took a job with the city maintenance department, cleaning restrooms and grooming fields for others to play on. All the while, Chamberlain was changing his body with workouts and a better nutritional routine.
"He was heavy and out of shape," Nebraska coach Mike Anderson said. "He lost almost 50 pounds."
After working through the fall semester two years ago, Chamberlain enrolled at Division II Nebraska-Kearney. He went just 3-6 with a 5.23 earned run average as a freshman, but the big thing was that he was playing the game he loved again. Although the record and ERA weren't special, Nebraska began to gradually get interested in the potential as Chamberlain topped 90 miles per hour on the radar gun with a body that was gaining core strength.
Harlan Chamberlain, a polio victim as a child who watched Nebraska games from his motor scooter just above the tunnel leading to Nebraska's clubhouse, kept his son's name in Anderson's ear during the time that Joba Chamberlain was at Nebraska-Kearney.
"I'd walk up after games and Harlan would kiddingly say 'Joba would love to be here'," Anderson recalled. "At the time, he's a Division II athlete. I'm kind of dismissing it. The way it all turned out, it's an incredible story."
Chamberlain went 10-2 with a 2.74 ERA last year, earning All-Big 12 and third-team All-America honors. He struck out 13 in eight innings against Miami in the Super Regional and went seven innings against Arizona State for Nebraska's first College World Series victory.
"When we won the Super Regional and I got to be in a dog pile with 30 of my best friends, that's a memory that will last forever," Chamberlain said. "So many great things have happened to me here, but I think the best is just being able to put on the Nebraska uniform. Growing up in Lincoln, this is the team and the University that I've always loved."
With the success Chamberlain and Nebraska had last year, the pressure and expectations have inevitably intensified. Chamberlain has been talked about as a possible first-round pick all year, but he's not dwelling on draft projections or overthrowing to hit a certain number on the radar gun that might satisfy the pro scouts.
"I'm just going to be who I am," Chamberlain said. "It was great for me to see how Alex Gordon dealt with it last year. Everybody knew he was going to be a high pick, but he just stayed focused on doing his part to help the team. I'm just going to pitch my game and have fun. If you try to do too much, that's when you get in trouble."
Chamberlain is quick to say that his well-grounded approach stems mainly from his father's influence.
"He's a real joy," Harlan Chamberlain said. "If he takes the same approach with the rest of his life as he has with the first 20-plus years, he'll be a success no matter what."
Joba Chamberlain's days are full and rich as the college baseball season builds toward a climax. Whether he's watching his infant son do nothing or taking the mound for a big Cornhusker start, Chamberlain considers it all a precious journey through life.
When his name is called on June 6, a new package of thrills will be there to savor.
"You hear so much about who's going where in the draft, but I can't get caught up in all that," Chamberlain said. "If I'm fortunate enough to get drafted high and have the opportunity to help my family, that will be a real blessing. I want to be able to help them because they've sacrificed so much for me."
Robert Falkoff is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.