Joba Chamberlain remembers the infamous bug game in Cleveland
When a swarm of flying insects interrupted the pre-game warm-up between the Browns and the Chargers of the NFL at Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium last weekend, it was only a minute or two before the first notification pinged Joba Chamberlain’s phone. Players from both teams and fans batted away the pests known as Lake Erie mosquitoes.
Oh, Chamberlain can tell you all about it. Fifteen years ago, Chamberlain was a Yankees reserve player who enjoyed a fantastic rookie season – quickly gaining the confidence of manager Joe Torre, who had begged the front office to let him field the boy with a nearly unbeatable fastball/slider combination . Then came October 5, 2007, Game 2 of the American League Division Series: the “Bug Game”.
“You can hear them; they’re everywhere,” Chamberlain said recently. “You try not to open your mouth and swallow them. Yes, it was interesting.”
Chamberlain, then 21, had a .38 ERA in 19 regular season appearances and batted 34 batters. In his first 24 innings of the big league, he had shown good control, taking six strides and throwing a wild pitch. Cleveland had won Game 1 of the ALDS in a 12-3 loss, but the Yanks were ahead in a tight Game 2 — the only run to score on a homer by Melky Cabrera.
Andy Pettitte threw the first 6 1/3 innings and threw seven hits. A double and a walk from the left veteran caused Torre to stick out a right index finger to call out Chamberlain, who escaped the seventh inning by hitting Franklin Gutierrez and dragging Casey Blake back to right field with a flyball. So far, so good.
But conditions had changed significantly by the time Chamberlain and the Yankees took the field at the end of the round of 16. The mosquitoes had arrived, attracted by the unseasonal fall heat in Northeast Ohio (81 degrees on the first climb). In search of mates, a cloud invaded the bright lights of what was then Jacobs Field – and they seemed to focus on Pitcher’s Hill.
“I’m just saying, ‘This isn’t normal. I’ve never seen that,'” Chamberlain said.
As Derek Jeter smashed the bugs away from his shortstop position, the mosquito-like insects clung to Chamberlain’s sweat-drenched face, obscuring his vision and crawling into his nose, mouth and ears. Chamberlain walked Grady Sizemore and then threw a wild shot. Gene Monahan, the Yanks’ longtime head coach, brought a green can Off! bug spray. It didn’t help.
“I try to throw and then it just gets worse,” Chamberlain said. “I sweat enough already and keep fighting. Geno comes out and [umpire] Laz Diaz was behind the plate; As we all now know with foreign substances, what Geno did was technically illegal because it gets gooey. But he sprays it all over everyone, which backfired because they were even more drawn to the humidity.”
Chamberlain would later learn that this particular brand of spray was useless against mosquitoes; Torre later said it was “like Chateaubriand to the bugs”. Not pulling his team off the field is one of Torres’ biggest regrets from his Hall of Fame managerial career. Chamberlain said he was later told vinegar or dryer sheets might have repelled the mosquitoes.
“It would have been nice to know at the time,” Chamberlain said. “I was just glad they didn’t bite because I would have been unhappy.”
A sacrificial bunt put Sizemore on third base and after getting Travis Hafner to line up, Chamberlain threw another wild pitch that scored the run. He beat Victor Martinez and walked with Ryan Garko before mercifully escaping the inning with a strikeout.
“[Hideki] Matsui hit me in the back and they all flew everywhere,” Chamberlain said. “When I finally saw the video, it was disgusting. There was probably two hours when I felt like one was in my ear; I tried digging it out with a Q-tip. They were in my eyelids. I’m usually a quick shower-in-and-out guy; I did a little scrubbing on this one.”
The lead was gone and the game went into extra innings, decided by Hafner’s single against Luis Vizcaino in the 11th.
“Just when you think you’ve seen it all,” Jeter said at the time. “That’s home advantage.”
Cleveland won the series in four games and then lost the AL Championship Series to the Red Sox — eventual World Series champions that year. All anyone seems to remember from this ALDS now is the mosquitoes.
“The frustrating thing for me was just not making pitches,” Chamberlain said. “The bugs, I don’t care. That’s no excuse to have wild pitches and give up the game. I should take responsibility and say, ‘Hey, we have to let this go.’ Fausto Carmona (later known as Roberto Hernandez) came out in the next inning and they weren’t bad. Obviously they knew the secret.”
At the Guardians spring training complex in Goodyear, Ariz., viewers walk past a black-and-white photo of Carmona/Hernandez from that game. The pitcher is focused and refuses to be distracted by mosquitoes or anything else.
“There’s no getting around that,” said Triston McKenzie, who will start Saturday’s Game 3 for Cleveland (and also attended the Browns/Chargers game last weekend). “You just have to pull yourself together and get through this. It’s like a swarm of mosquitoes, but if you try to smack them away, they don’t care. They’re going to land on you anyway.”
Chamberlain spent nine more years with the majors after that night — most of them with the Yankees — then transitioned from the Tigers to the Royals before coincidentally retiring at Cleveland in 2016. Chamberlain has since returned to Lincoln, Neb., where he spends most days taking his son, Karter, to baseball tournaments. He said that hardly a day goes by when someone doesn’t share their memories of “The Bug Game”.
“It never fails,” Chamberlain said. “I guess you could always be remembered for worse things.”