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Chamberlain ready for fresh start with Tigers

Veteran reliever hopes healthy routine pays off with new ballclub

DETROIT -- The first thing that was noticed about Joba Chamberlain is the look. Gone is the mustache he donned during the end of his tenure in the Yankees bullpen. Now, he has a beard, as so many former Yankees have done.

Add a pair of glasses, and Chamberlain took to Michigan for the Tigers' Winter Caravan with almost a hipster kind of look.

"You know, it's the first year of my life [that I can]," he said with a smile at TigerFest. "College, couldn't have any facial hair, and obviously in New York you can't. I could have a mustache, but mustaches aren't that cool. I'm not Tom Selleck. I tried the best I could, but it just didn't work for me.

"I don't have to worry about shaving. It's a little thing for me. And I wear the glasses because I feel like I look smarter, and I'm too lazy to put my contacts in."

The other look about Joba is that there's less of him. The paunch he seemed to grow during his veteran years in the Bronx seems to have vanished, even through the winter clothing.

There's a good reason for that. Between a healthy offseason and a new diet furthered by hiring a healthy-conscious cook, Chamberlain has dropped weight.

"I've probably lost 15-20 pounds," he estimated. "It's good weight, just being healthy and not having to worry about my ankle and just being able to do the things I need. It's been a great offseason. It's gone really, really well."

Give him credit. When he talked about the joy of having a fresh start, he wasn't kidding.

He has yet to put on a Tigers uniform and take the mound, but he's already embracing it. He made a point to get to know his new teammates on last month's Winter Caravan, and he was joking around with new closer Joe Nathan by the end of TigerFest.

With fans, the experience was similar. His autograph sessions were noted for occasionally slow lines, in part because he was talking with new fans.

He doesn't harbor ill feelings for his old squad. His tenure in Yankee pinstripes are years he's going to cherish. Still, this was a change he needed.

Seven years removed from his unbelievable rookie stretch in the Yankees bullpen that made him a national phenom, five years removed from an ill-fated stint as a starter, and two years removed from back-to-back injury-shortened seasons, Chamberlain said he has learned from his New York years.

In a city of comebacks, Chamberlain is a bit of a comeback story himself.

"Sometimes change is good, and sometimes change is necessary," Chamberlain said. "It's not the easiest thing to do, obviously. For seven years, I was fortunate to win a World Series while I was there, play in the old stadium, open a new stadium, play for Mr. Steinbrenner. I'm going from one great organization to another great organization. It's totally different.

"It's nice. The change is great. I was fortunate enough to have some great years there, some not-so-good years, but you learn. I'm in my eighth year and I'm only 28 years old. I've pitched in every situation that you can imagine in New York. I just think that helps here for what we're going to do and getting the ball to Joe."

The Tigers are counting on change being a boon for him. They had options on the free-agent market for setup men when they signed Chamberlain in mid-December. The combination of Chamberlain's experience for his age, his renewed health and his late-season arm strength drew them.

"We like Joba. We like his abilities. We like what he's been through in his career," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said upon Chamberlain's signing.

The more recent experience, is what prompted changes. Part of it is simple health, now two years removed from the double whammy of Tommy John surgery on his elbow and ensuing surgery to repair a dislocated ankle.

The velocity on his fastball, by all reports, returned last season. The slider, the pitch that puts more stress on the elbow, did not. With his health intact, he went about this offseason trying to get it back.

"I actually started throwing it a little bit earlier this offseason," he said, "just because it's such a feel pitch. It's one of the pitches that can get me back to my delivery, my release point. ...

"It wasn't very good [last year]. I walked too many people last year, and it wasn't consistent enough. It's a pitch that got me to the big leagues, and you can't go away from that. I want to get back to where it was."

If he regains the confidence in that pitch, he believes, the fastball will be more effective, and the walk rate that ballooned on him last year should drop. If he drops his walks, his innings should be more effective.

Beyond a healthy arm, though, goes a healthy body. And he believes the combination of a normal workout routine and a better diet should help him.

"I feel great," he said. "The scale is one thing, but it's how you feel. I just feel healthy. The clothes fit a little bit better. You don't mind looking in the mirror. But it's something that you have to take serious. Obviously, I'm not getting any younger. My hairline keeps going further back. It's one of those things. As you get older, it's totally more important. You don't have a 21-year-old metabolism."

His new diet, built by Tigers strength and conditioning coach Javair Gillett and delivered by Aaron Young in his hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska, includes lots of fish and regular vegetables, and much less dairy, all of which is a departure for a Midwestern kid. He claims he ate fish maybe three times in his life before taking on the changes, and now eats it at least three times a week.

As a hockey dad, he hopes to pass down his new eating habits to his young son, but he hopes it pays off for him right now. A fresh start on the field might well feed into it.

Jason Beck is a reporter for Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.
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