Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Requiem for the Joba Mustache – The Wall Street Journal

Joba Chamberlain and his 'utterly glorious' mustache.

Requiem for the Joba Mustache
by Jason Gay

The mustache debuted in spring training, but its true public unveiling came on opening day, in a cold and emptying Yankee Stadium. The Red Sox were leading and the Yankees looked old and anemic, and a late afternoon chill had brusquely turned to rain. Loyalists hoping for a rally began scrambling for the exits. They'd arrived at the stadium wanting an opening-day triumph and a ninth closed out by the elegant Mariano Rivera, now 43 and embarked upon his farewell lap. Instead they got Joba Chamberlain—and Joba Chamberlain's beautiful, terrible mustache.

It was a mustache to behold. When Chamberlain revealed it upon his arrival in Tampa, it was wispy and unserious, a translucent caterpillar. But six weeks later it had evolved into something robust, almost preening in its fuzziness and breadth. This was a mustache that wanted to be seen. Already it had been compared with the mustache of a sea captain, or a Brooklyn bartender, or that of a cable repairman who wasn't really there to fix the cable. It could be viewed without assistance from the upper deck, and surely at home plate, where the unimpressed Red Sox pounded Chamberlain for another three ugly runs and rendered the Stadium silent. Yankee Day 1 had become a punch line. When the game was over, Chamberlain sat slumped at his locker, looking dejected. A mustache had been roughed up.

"Is Joba bitin' my stache?"
But this was only one game. The mustache had potential. This season is an important one in the pitching life of Chamberlain, who'd shown such promise in the early moments of his career, but had become something much less promising, undone by injury and other distractions. After 79 appearances in 2010, he'd pitched in only 49 games in the following two seasons, and the thrill that once surrounded the hard-throwing Nebraskan reliever, now 27, had settled into something lukewarm. When would Joba ever be the Joba once promised? Chamberlain had been mentioned in trade gossip, and he'd growled in spring training about being a starter, episodes that only reminded how much his status had slipped.

Was the mustache a signal of the old Joba swagger? It did have personality, some brio. It felt like a throwback to some bell-bottomed Yankee tradition. The club has a starchy, perplexing policy about facial hair—mustaches are OK; goatees and beards aren't—but it hasn't stopped some spectacular creativity on the upper lip. The Hall of Fame of Yankee Mustaches is remarkable: Thurman Munson, Catfish Hunter, Sparky Lyle, Reggie Jackson, Don Mattingly, among others. Goose Gossage's walrusian 'stache should be in Cooperstown alongside Goose Gossage. Cases are made for Oscar Gamble, even Steve Balboni. Billy Martin, of course. Jason Giambi tried one a few years back, mostly to ridicule.

"No one bites my stache!"
Mustaches like Chamberlain's should be encouraged. Especially now. At least it offered levity. This is not expected to a brilliant Yankee season—the team looks creaky and iffy and there are predictions of a finish deep out of the playoffs. There's not a lot of confident laughter. Granted, the Yankees are not a barrel of yuks, even in good times—the culture of the team seems permanently trapped in the turgid middle of Alec Baldwin's "Glengarry Glen Ross" speech—but humor must be welcomed amid stress. The Yankees did salute Chamberlain's mustache in March on the team's official Twitter account, describing it as "utterly glorious."

Then suddenly, the mustache was gone. After another bouncy outing, this one against Detroit, Chamberlain decided to shave it Sunday. "It wasn't working, so we decided to get rid of it," the pitcher told reporters including the Journal's Daniel Barbarisi. "I figured I'd see if I had an upper lip." He said he'd done it with a trimmer before the game. "I'll shave tomorrow," Chamberlain said.

And with that, another Yankee legend was consigned to history. This legend had delivered no pennants or titles, carded not one victory to its name. It did not have a baseball card or a sneaker campaign or a restaurant. (Of course it did have a parody Twitter account.) It played in no old-timers games, punched no paparazzi and never got caught leaving a nightclub at 4 a.m. It will be forgotten by May, and this feels like a New York shame. Joba Chamberlain's mustache was going places. It could have been a contender. Or at least a useful laugh. — The Wall Street Journal

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