David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Those were raindrops in his eyes, Joba Chamberlain said, but they easily could have been mistaken for something else. When the bullpen gate opened Wednesday in the seventh inning, Chamberlain stepped through, and then paused briefly at the warning track.
Thank you, Chamberlain thought to himself. Fourteen months had passed since he last stepped on a major-league mound, and this was a lot to handle.
The road back from Tommy John surgery was difficult enough, but the severe ankle dislocation on top of that? From a freakish trampoline accident? That was supposed to end his season before it even began.
And yet here he was, standing on the Yankee Stadium mound again, a steady rain falling, listening to the speakers blare, "Welcome Back, Joba Chamberlain" as many of the fans from a crowd of 44,593 rose to their feet to give him a standing ovation.
The scene reminded Chamberlain of what it was like when he first walked into the old building, the House That Ruth Built, and it was a challenge to harness those emotions again. Many doubted he would return this season. But when asked about his worst days during the lengthy rehab process, the darkest moments, Chamberlain instead talked of his inspiration.
"You know what?" Chamberlain said. "I really never had a worst day and it always went back to my father. He never complained that he was never going to be out of his wheelchair. I knew I was going to be able to walk again. So it was always a reminder when I tell my dad that I love him every night that I'm going to get better."
Chamberlain's dad, Harlan, was stricken with polio as a child, and the pitcher has referred to him often as a source of strength. Drawing from that, and his own personal triumph over two devastating injuries, what Chamberlain did on the field during the Yankees' 12-3 rout of the Orioles was secondary.
His first pitch was a 93-mph fastball to J.J. Hardy that split the plate. The second was a hanging slider that Hardy belted over the leftfield wall. That made it immediately clear this would not be a seamless re-entry into the Yankees' bullpen.
The Orioles nicked him for two more singles that inning before Wilson Betemit grounded into a double play. Joe Girardi let Chamberlain face four more batters in the eighth, which is when Endy Chavez stung Chamberlain for a run-scoring double. Omar Quintanilla popped up to short and Nick Markakis lined out before Girardi visited to retrieve the baseball.
"I was curious to see how he would do because I'm sure there was a lot of emotion," Girardi said. "I was glad that he wasn't over-pumped up. That was my biggest concern because there was a lot of emotion from the fans as well who were happy to see him come back. I think you'll see him continue to improve as time goes on."
Chamberlain was regularly clocked in the upper 90s during his rehab stint, but hovered from 91-93 during Wednesday's outing. When it was finished, Chamberlain looked disappointed as he walked toward the dugout, despite receiving another standing ovation.
Instead of tipping his cap, Chamberlain took it off completely, and then rubbed his head before disappearing down the steps.
"Obviously that wasn't the result I wanted," Chamberlain said. "But I have to look at the picture as a whole and to see what I've come back from in the last 14 months. Hopefully I'll look at some film, see what we can fix and go from there."
Girardi also is in the evaluation stage. Ideally, Chamberlain will slot into the seventh-inning role, with David Robertson and Rafael Soriano to follow. But Chamberlain is not quite there yet. "As he throws better," the manager said, "obviously you give people more responsibility."
Ultimately, that is Chamberlain's goal. Getting back on the mound Wednesday was only the first step for a pitcher who is very familiar with the process -- and the need for patience.
"I don't come here just to go out there and play catch," Chamberlain said. "I want to be in the game. I've got to prove that and I'm fine with that. Obviously they believe in me to do my work."
There's no doubting that.