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He strikes out 20 in his first 15 1/3 major league innings, all scoreless. Ninety-nine ... 100! He finishes the regular season 2-0 with a 0.38 ERA, handing the ball to Mariano Rivera with ninth-inning leads again and again and fueling New York's late surge to the wild card. "The best slider I've ever seen," mutters Angels shortstop Orlando Cabrera to Yankees third base coach Larry Bowa, after Cabrera flails at a third strike last month in Anaheim. Just one more American Leaguer grateful for the Joba Rules issued by the Yankees front office, the decree demanding one day's rest for each inning the rookie pitches, to protect his arm and projected starting role next season.
But all that still can't explain how a kid, a stranger, becomes an overnight savior to a city that's seen everything. It can't just be the velocity of his fastball, the snap of his slider and his first name. Can't just be the speed of his ascent and the emotion of his fist pumps and the desperation of the Yanks for a late-inning arm to flog them through the dog days and dry lips of August and September. There's something else too, something the crowd has scented in the hasty, bare-bones sketch of Joba's life in the tabloids before his Yankee Stadium debut, something in the crossing of paths between this kid and this franchise, something....
He can't explain that something. "I don't really know what's going on," he says. "People keep saying to me, 'Do you realize what this is?' No. I don't. Fifty-four thousand people chanting your name every time you go out there? I got nothing for you on that one. All I know is that everything's getting real fast."
And the reason that it doesn't sweep him away is that his gaze isn't up there in the crowd. His hat's tugged low, and his eyes, after he walks off the field and strips off his pinstripes, are on the words on his body, the ones he took from the bills of his old ball caps and had tattooed to his chest and arms. All those references to his tribe and his gratitude and his dad and his sister and now, too, his baby son, Karter, the one born 17 months ago to him and the girlfriend he met at Nebraska-Kearney, Alicia Mueller. The child that it kills him to be absent from, in this summer of leaps that Karter and Alicia couldn't possibly make with him, the baby that he's planning to have on his hip next season in New York so that he can begin his attempt at the biggest leap of all: the bar his father set.
"I'll settle for being half the dad he's been," says Joba. "I'm excited. There are so many ways I want to take this thing. I'm going to be able to help kids on the reservation. I want them to realize you don't have to be from the best to be one of the best. I want to teach them to live with their head in the clouds and to reach for the stars, that you have to, or what is your purpose?
"I wake up with two purposes each day: Make at least one person smile and have fun. If I can make a wisecrack or give someone a hug, that day's been worthwhile, even if I give up 15 runs. No matter how bad it is, it'll get better. I mean, look at this."
His hand sweeps across a beautiful ballyard—Comerica in Detroit—shimmering beneath a cloudless August sky. "This is what I do for a living. I get to come here on a weekend day and watch a major league game for free—and maybe even get to pitch in it. What could be better than that?"
One thing could make it better. Just one thing, still missing....