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The Night the Bugs Came for Joba Chamberlain

When the rookie phenom took the mound in Game 2 of the 2007 ALDS, he seemed poised to deliver the Yankees a victory. Then the midges swarmed—and created one of the most indelible moments in baseball history.

Jay Torres

Have you heard the news? The cicadas are coming—and some have even started to arrive already. In a matter of days, trillions of the once-every-17-years species of Brood X cicadas will emerge from their burrows and blanket much of the Eastern United States in a wave of ear-splitting mating calls and discarded molt shells. To commemorate the occasion, we here at The Ringer present to you Bug Day: a celebration of all things insects, and their influence—for better or worse—on sports and popular culture.


The first oddity was the temperature.

On the evening of October 5, 2007, as the Yankees and Indians geared up for Game 2 of the American League divisional series, the thermometer at Jacobs Field read 81 degrees Fahrenheit. The warm, muggy air was typical for Cleveland in June, when slugfests often erupted in taxing humidity, but this was the third week of autumn. “We all brought our cold-weather gear thinking we would see snow and wind and ice and rain,” says play-by-play announcer Chip Caray, who called the game for TBS. Instead, the players, coaches, and fans traded their turtlenecks for T-shirts, as playoff baseball in Northeast Ohio took on the feel of a sweaty summer showdown.

This was an encouraging development for hitters, who entered Game 2 staring at the prospect of a pitchers’ duel between New York’s Andy Pettitte and Cleveland’s Fausto Carmona. A night earlier, the Indians had put on a power display against Chien-Ming Wang, backing their ace CC Sabathia with four home runs en route to a 12-3 victory. Now, without the burden of brittle bats and with a reliable breeze blowing out toward right-center field, “all the hitters were just happy,” says Ryan Garko, Cleveland’s first baseman at the time. “Nobody wants to play a playoff game in freezing weather. … That time of year, I think all of us felt lucky.”

By the eighth inning, however, any dreams of a high-scoring affair had been zapped. Outside of allowing a solo homer to Melky Cabrera in the third inning, Cleveland’s breakout starting pitcher—whose name was later revealed to be Roberto Hernández; Fausto Carmona was the false identity he had used to obtain a United States visa—had silenced a potent Yankees lineup, allowing just two hits and two walks. Pettitte was every bit as good, stranding numerous base runners and turning a 1-0 lead over to Joba Chamberlain with one out in the bottom of the seventh inning. The dominant rookie right-hander cleaned up Cleveland’s threat and returned for the following frame in an attempt to set the stage for Mariano Rivera to close out the ninth. The game felt all but over. “We were dead in the water,” says Jensen Lewis, then a rookie reliever for the Indians. “There was no way we were hitting Joba that day.” Until a gust of wind changed everything.

As Chamberlain returned to the field, a swarm of midges—small, mosquito-like flies that are endemic to the Great Lakes—converged on the infield, turning the mound into a bull’s-eye. The sticky atmosphere, the bright stadium lights, and a gentle northerly wind had attracted thousands of the notorious, nonbiting bugs—typically dormant in the fall—from Lake Erie at the game’s most critical hour. “I just remember Joba grabbing the back of his neck to wipe off sweat and his hand was black, full of bugs,” says Doug Mientkiewicz, the Yankees first baseman in 2007. “You try to block it out, but they were so thick that every breath you took, you’d either inhale them through your mouth or through your nose.”

Amid this unexpected frenzy, Chamberlain became rattled and lost his command; one walk and two wild pitches later, the rookie had allowed the Indians to tie the game at one. “It was just impossible to focus on throwing strikes,” says Roger Clemens, who had a front-row seat from the visiting dugout. “It should have been treated as a rain delay.”

For everyone involved, the “Bug Game” remains one of the strangest experiences of their sporting lives—an unthinkable ecological conflation of events interfering with a rookie phenom right before the greatest closer in MLB history could take the mound. The ramifications and second guesses from that night have since become part of baseball folklore, bolstered by the indelible, insectified imagery and subsequent fall matchups between the two organizations. Almost 14 years later, those in attendance still talk about the moment less like a playoff classic than an act of god.

“I don’t know if it was divine intervention or what,” Lewis says, “but we certainly needed it.”

The Indians had dealt with strange and adverse circumstances throughout the 2007 season. When their home-opening series against the Mariners was postponed in April thanks to about 20 inches of snow, Major League Baseball sent the team to Milwaukee to play a three-game set against the Angels. To make up the original four-game series, Cleveland hosted Seattle on mutual off days during the season, which created burdensome stretches of consecutive games and doubleheaders. The team also dealt with its share of injuries—Cliff Lee suffered a groin strain in spring training, and threw fewer than 100 innings that year—and umpiring controversies. On April 28, it had a six-game winning streak snapped because the umps retroactively added a run to the Orioles’ score three innings after the play in question had occurred. “There were challenges that year,” says Derek Shelton, then Cleveland’s hitting coach. “We continued to plow through.”

The key to that resilience was a no-excuses organizational mentality that fifth-year manager Eric Wedge had established while climbing the ranks as a minor league skipper. Cleveland featured a blend of youth and experience, and the team bought into Wedge’s mindset down the stretch, going 19-9 in September to finish with 96 wins and clinch the AL Central. During that month, the Indians swept the Twins by defeating ace Johan Santana for the fifth time that season alone. “It’s about learning toughness and just to be able to focus and concentrate on a level that’s beyond others,” says Wedge, who earned AL Manager of the Year honors. “And when you come up against adverse situations, that’s when it really pays off for you.”

Nobody embodied that philosophy better than the pitcher formerly known as Carmona. As a kid working on his father’s farm in Yasama—a rural region of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic—he had grown up without proper health care, and had a bad set of teeth from eating raw sugar cane. When he joined the Cleveland baseball academy as a lanky 20-year-old, the organization helped him fix his teeth and devised a plan for him to add weight and improve his strength. “I came up with him all through the minor leagues and if you knew Fausto’s background, it was tough,” Garko says. “He went through a lot to get there.” After three years developing in the minors and a failed attempt in the closer’s role as a rookie, he broke out in 2007, winning 19 games and posting a 3.06 ERA over 215 innings. His emergence at the top of Cleveland’s rotation was one of the main reasons the team went into the 2007 playoffs with real World Series aspirations.

“He worked hard in the minor leagues,” Wedge says. “He developed into a solid starting pitcher, great arm, very intense, a lot of fight in him, and a guy that went out and competed like you want all your players to compete.”

The Yankees had their own reasons for optimism. They had swept the Indians in two different regular-season series, and had a star-studded lineup headlined by Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Hideki Matsui. After going 21-29 to open the season, they had recalibrated with an impressive summer and finished with 94 wins. Clemens, in his final professional season, joined the team in June, and Chamberlain made his MLB debut in August. The hard-throwing rookie reliever was perhaps the most valuable part of the Yankees’ own 19-win September, as he took the league by storm while posting a 0.38 ERA with 34 strikeouts in 24 innings. “He had electric stuff—a power slider, dominant fastball,” says Clemens, Chamberlain’s lockermate. “He was a great kid, always wanting to learn and get better and he fell right into that role real nicely.”

As the two teams prepared to square off in October, Caray remembers being “kind of scared shitless” of his assignment. An announcer for Braves games, he had been tasked with leading TBS’s first playoff broadcast, and remembers scrambling to internalize all the narratives swirling around the two historic American League clubs. “The Yankees were the big kids on the block: all those championships, all those big names, Joe Torre, the fantastic legacy that he helped create in New York,” Caray says. “I think in many ways, Cleveland is the prototypical American underdog city. That team was trying to make its mark and show, ‘We are as good as, as important as, and our fans are as knowledgeable as the great fans in New York.’”

After the Indians slugged their way to victory in Game 1, the pressure shifted to the opposing dugout. The Yankees needed to take a game on the road, even the series, and return to the Bronx with an opportunity to close things out. “They were in position to do that,” Caray says. “Until Chamberlain came in and the bugs came out.”

ALDS: New York Yankees v Cleveland Indians - Game 2
Yankees manager Joe Torre talks to reliever Joba Chamberlain as New York infielders try to swat away the midges that had descended upon their ALDS Game 2 matchup against the Indians in Cleveland in 2007
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

About three weeks before Game 2, the midges were minuscule eggs nestled into nutrient-rich mud at the bottom of Lake Erie.

Laid primarily in warm, still water sources such as lakes, rivers, and streams, midge eggs hatch and begin the insect’s four-stage life cycle. In their larval stage, they look like bright red worms that burrow into sediment and organic matter for a couple of weeks or sometimes months. Once they reach the pupal stage—and when the water is warm enough—they swim to the surface, a three-day journey that prepares the midges to become winged adults. “Once it hits the top of the water, it quickly splits its skin open and it liberates a little adult midge,” says Joe Keiper, an entomologist and the executive director at the Virginia Museum of Natural History. “It unfurls its wings and quickly flies away before it can be eaten by a fish.”

At that point, thousands of midges take flight together in what becomes a frantic attempt to reproduce. Over the course of just three days, the males will mate and die, and the females will return to the water to drop their eggs to continue the life cycle. “Nature is pretty harsh, so if you are a tiny little midge, imagine getting hit by a drop of rain. It’s nothing to us, but to something that is orders of magnitude smaller than us, it could be a disaster,” Keiper says. “That’s why insects reproduce so prolifically—it increases their chances of surviving.”

On that particular night, dew points had reached the 60s, meaning there was an excessive amount of moisture in the air. Thanks to the growing October heat wave, the temperature of Lake Erie had become just warm enough to trigger another midge cycle. Though midges typically don’t travel far, according to Kelly Dobeck, a Cleveland-based meteorologist, the swarm could have been nudged toward the stadium by a light northern wind that developed into the later hours. “Toward that time of day, we can get clouds moving in that’ll fire up the lake breeze, so just that little push can sometimes [be enough],” Dobeck says.

Keiper suggests that as the midges floated into the ballpark’s vicinity, the towering light standards acted like a magnet. Because most insects are attracted to light, the midges instinctively navigated toward the field. “The interesting thing about swarming insects is that many of them, including these midges, look for a high point,” Keiper says. In this case, thanks to the mound’s elevation, the high point became the pitcher. “We don’t know for sure, but it just seems to make a lot of sense with what we know of insect biology. It’s like a rallying point where the swarm will occur so males can find females easily.”

Midges are typically more active as night sets in, which is one of the reasons Dobeck tells Clevelanders to keep bright lights turned off around their homes when they expect swarms to hit the city. “You have to remind people that it happens all the way through October, as long as the lake water is warm,” she says. But with Jacobs Field all lit up, nothing could prevent the bugs’ inland migration.

“Just because of perfect conditions—the bright lights, the warm temps, the winds coming in from the lake—you get the insects blown in there,” Keiper says. “By chance, that poor pitcher got kind of smothered.”

The first signs of the bugs came in the top of the eighth. Mientkiewicz hit third that inning, and remembers having to call timeout multiple times in the box to swat the midges out of his face. “[Jeter] thought I was like trying to mess with the pitcher by stepping out, and I’m like ‘No dude, the bugs are all in my nose, my face,’ he really couldn’t tell,” Mientkiewicz says. “Just being able to concentrate was almost impossible.” Once the Yankees took the field, Mientkiewicz says, “it just got to be so bad.”

On television, the insects swirling around Chamberlain’s head looked like snowflakes, until the camera zoomed in to show the black specks coating every inch of his skin. It didn’t take long to see their effects. Chamberlain walked Grady Sizemore on four consecutive pitches to start the inning, something he’d done only once against the 91 batters he’d faced during that regular season. When his next pitch got past catcher Jorge Posada, he motioned to the Yankees dugout to express his discomfort. Not wanting to waste a mound visit, Torre sent trainer Gene Monahan—armed with bug spray—out to the mound to see what could be done.

After spraying Chamberlain down, Monahan passed the insecticide around to Jeter, Rodriguez, and Robinson Canó, all of whom applied the aerosol repellent liberally before offering it to second base umpire Fieldin Culbreth. Mientkiewicz, however, refused to join in the spontaneous confab. “I didn’t think it was going to work,” he says. “They weren’t biting you, they were just annoying. There’s nothing you can do—there’s so many of them that they were stuck to everything.”

Indeed, bug spray was the wrong decision that night—the liquid only attracted even more midges to stick to Chamberlain’s increasingly sweaty skin. “It got in the guys’ eyes probably,” Keiper says. “Insect repellent is not some easygoing stuff. It’s poison. Basically they poisoned their pitcher and said, ‘Now go do your best.’”

Cleveland’s trainers were more familiar with the midges, and thus avoided the repellent. “Our trainers knew it. They understood,” Shelton says. “I don’t think you saw a lot of our people putting it on. You have people from Northeast Ohio around, you understand it a little bit.”

In the broadcast booth with Tony Gwynn and Bob Brenly, Caray had no playbook for the bug delay. “With a rain delay, you see the grounds crew come out and they pull the tarp on, there’s a natural progression to the delay and understanding what is going on,” he says. “But nobody had any idea at all that bugs were gonna stop the game, or that bug spray was gonna make it worse.” The crew eventually sent the broadcast back to TBS studios in Atlanta, where Ernie Johnson tried to make sense of what was happening and buy time for Caray to determine the direction of the game. “I think that was the most difficult part of it,” Caray says.

After a short pause, play continued. Though he’d later come to regret this decision, Torre made no effort to delay the inning further. “Joe was such a high-character guy,” Wedge says. “Whatever he would have [preferred] I would have respected.” But much like crew chief Bruce Froemming, who had a bug-less view from where he was standing down the right-field line, Torre couldn’t grasp the severity of the midges from his vantage point in the dugout. “You’re breathing [and] they’re going in your nose, they’re going in your mouth, they’re going in your ears, they’re sticking to your face, your forehead, the back of your neck,” Clemens says. “To stand out there on the mound and throw a baseball as hard as Joba throws it, they should have called it and waited the 35 minutes for that to clear.”

On the first pitch after play resumed, Asdrúbal Cabrera bunted Sizemore along to third. Then Travis Hafner took Chamberlain’s first offering of his at-bat and lined the ball straight at Mientkiewicz, who squeezed the second out. “I remember Posada setting up inside and I’m playing on the grass and I was like, ‘Oh no,’ and he hit an absolute rocket at me that thankfully was right to me,” Mientkiewicz says. “I’m surprised it didn’t explode my glove because it hit me square in my chest. If it had been an inch to either side I think I would have either missed it or taken it off the body, because I literally couldn’t see.”

With two outs and Victor Martinez at the plate, the midges disrupted Chamberlain again, as he threw a second wild pitch. Sizemore sprinted home and slid beneath the pitcher’s tag, tying the game and bringing more than 44,000 dormant fans to life. “I really give our guys credit,” Shelton says. “They did not get affected at any point—they were laser focused on winning. We’d won big [the night] before and then that night it was just any way we could just try to score a run.”

“As soon as he scored that run and we tied the game, we felt like, ‘We got this now.’” Cabrera says. “‘Let’s win this game at home and go to finish the series in New York.’”

After Chamberlain avoided further damage in the eighth, the bugs remained relentless in the top of the ninth. But Cleveland’s roster was more familiar with them. Instead of swatting at them like the Yankees had, the Indians sharpened their focus and shrugged them off. “Fausto didn’t get fazed by it, and I think the rest of us kind of fell in line behind him and we weren’t going to really acknowledge it and just try to keep going,” Garko says. The pitcher erased Johnny Damon with a groundout, and then struck out Jeter. After Bobby Abreu eked out an infield single and stole second base, the Yankees’ hopes rested on Rodriguez, that season’s league leader in RBI, to knock him in. In the midst of that at-bat, cameras zeroed in on Carmona’s unflinching face as he peered toward home plate, midges angling in every direction. On the ninth pitch of the at-bat and his 113th pitch of the night, Carmona made Rodriguez whiff with a 97 mph sinker on the inside corner to finish the frame. “He was joking with us that he eats those bugs for breakfast,” Lewis says. “It was just another day for him.”

The bugs dispersed shortly after the ninth, and Cleveland capped off the wild night in the 11th. Hafner connected on another line drive against New York reliever Luis Vizcaíno that scored Kenny Lofton to win the game, 2-1. It set off an ear-splitting celebration that felt bigger than an ALDS victory—it was a burst of relief, an improbable comeback in the strangest of elements, and an iconic triumph that would be remembered by generations. Most importantly, it provided enough momentum to close out the Yankees in Game 4, marking Cleveland’s first MLB playoff series win since 1998.

“I’ve been playing this game, been part of this game for a long time, I’ve seen some of the strangest things happen, with bugs or bees or other animals,” Wedge says. “But it’s the mindset that you have overall that’s real—that’s a given that allows you to make your way through something like that. That’s where I was really proud of our guys.”

ALDS: New York Yankees v Cleveland Indians - Game 2
Yankees catcher Jorge Posada sprays pitcher Mariano Rivera with bug spray during their ALDS Game 2 matchup against Cleveland in 2007
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Then a Cleveland-based entomologist, Keiper wasn’t used to receiving so many phone calls and emails late at night. But as the midges descended onto Jacobs Field and messages flooded his inbox, he realized that he had to flip on the television to witness bug history. “It was pretty crazy,” he says. “I can’t remember another time like that.” Though he’s not a diehard sports fan, Keiper saw an opportunity to educate Cuyahoga County residents about their backyard insects.

“A lot of topics in entomology are very esoteric, but when you have something that everyone can relate to, they want to talk about it, and when they talk about it, they learn. That is what it’s all about,” Keiper says. “You get into academics or the museum world, you’re in it, in part at least, because you want to impart that knowledge, and grow appreciation for it.”

For Chamberlain, the person most affected by the midges, the night probably has a different tint. Despite the electric start to his career, he never developed into the lights-out performer many thought he would become. He toggled between starting and relieving over his 10 years in the majors, serving stints in Detroit and Kansas City and ending with a 25-21 record, 3.81 ERA, and seven saves. Chamberlain’s arc, perhaps unfairly, makes the “Bug Game” feel like an inflection point—a fluky moment that ended an otherwise flawless start in pinstripes. To his credit, the righty never made excuses for his lack of command, even making light of the scenario upon signing with Cleveland briefly before retiring. “You have great success early and then a couple things don’t go right and then you might want to question yourself,” Clemens says. “But I always thought of Joba as being a pretty confident kid.”

The series had other casualties. Coming off their third consecutive ALDS ouster, the Yankees offered Torre a cheaper contract, but the skipper declined, ending a 12-year managerial run that included four World Series titles. When reflecting on that night, Torre said he “second-guessed” himself for not taking his players off the field and, instead, letting the inning continue. “No matter how long you were in the game—Joba Chamberlain for a couple of months, or Joe Torre who had spent his life in the game—nothing could prepare you for that,” Caray says in Torre’s defense. “Bad breaks are a part of baseball, that’s the old cliché. It’s really true—and the bad break for the Yankees was a young, inexperienced pitcher pitching in the game of his life, and nobody, nothing could prepare him for what took place.”

Beyond taking their place in the annals of baseball lore, the midges also provided a brief reprieve from the narrative of a curse surrounding Cleveland sports. After all the pain the city’s fans had endured over the years, the “Bug Game” offered marginal proof that the sports gods didn’t always spite their city. The seemingly biblical anomaly had worked in the team’s favor, delivering a legendary October victory to a city starving for one.

As a way to commemorate the game the following year, the Indians hung a black-and-white photo of Carmona staring through the bugs—what Lewis says teammates called his “breakfast picture”—inside their spring training facility. It’s there to this day, a reminder of the resilience the team displayed that year. “That was a huge sense of pride and example of ‘You never know what you’re going to face,’” Lewis says, “and [that] the adversity that you’ve got to overcome can literally come in all shapes and sizes.”

More than a decade later, both organizations remain bonded by the bugs, a shared ordeal that’s become a talking point in recent playoff matchups. Cleveland hotels have even posted notes about the harmless insects, cautioning guests to close windows and reminding them that the bugs “helped the Indians to win.” The midges’ recurring presence isn’t exactly a point of pride; the bugs are a flat-out nuisance. But summer swarms still serve as nostalgic reminders of a game that will never be forgotten.

Though midges have returned to the stadium (which was renamed Progressive Field in 2008), nothing has resembled that 2007 infestation. And how could it? The humid air, the northern breeze, the odd start time, the bright lights—they all conspired and aligned seamlessly that October night. “An incredible coincidence,” Garko says. “We [barely] put a ball in play to score a run and tie the game up, and we end up winning. Who knows what would have happened had the [midges] not shown up?

“It’s kind of what sports is all about.”

Jake Kring-Schreifels is a sports and entertainment writer based in New York. His work has also appeared in Esquire.com, GQ.com, and The New York Times.

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