In all my years as a Chicago White Sox fan, few players have captured my attention and adoration like Bobby Jenks. And the arrival of today’s Sports Illustrated added to the legend of Bobby Jenks in each of the ways described in the headline. I will get to that; but first, a quick retrospective on the meteoric rise to South Side stardom that Bobby Jenks has experienced during his 4-year Major League career.
In 2005 Bobby Jenks, who was originally drafted by the then-Anaheim Angels, descended upon the South Side of Chicago like a haloed blessing from the baseball gods. He pitched in all four games of the White Sox World Series sweep over the Houston Astros, securing two saves, giving up only three hits, and striking out seven with the kind of high-octane, unhittable gas that I imagine Walter Johnson rocketing towards the plate way back during the dawning of baseball as our national pastime.
White Sox fans will remember that Dustin Hermanson began the 2005 season as our closer, and was spectacular. Through 57 games, Hermanson gave only 13 earned runs (a 2.07 ERA) while saving 34 games. Injuries sidelined him late in the second half of the season and throughout the playoffs, thus opening the door for the dawning of Bobby Jenks as the White Sox 9th-inning dominator.
While Jenks’ personality on the mound is relatively low key, there has always been something about him that is larger than life. The most obvious larger than life characteristic of Bobby Jenks is his physical presence. He is listed at 6’3″, 275, and seems even bigger than that. Plus, off the mound, he has always seemed to have that stereotypical “jolly, fun-loving, big guy” disposition. And most White Sox fans will remember the rumors and whispers of possible off-the-field issues that followed him after the Angels essentially gave up on him.
Bobby Jenks was virtually unknown when he joined the White Sox in 2005, but ensured that no matter what happened from 2006 on he would always hold a place in the pantheon of beloved Sox players. Striking out 50 batters in your first 39 1/3 Major League innings, saving the bullpen after Hermanson’s injury, and getting the final out in the World Series for a city starved for a baseball championship will give you legendary status.
We all wondered whether Bobby Jenks was just a hulking flash in the pan, or the White Sox closer of the future. In the three years since 2005, he has saved 41-40-30 games while amassing a career ERA of 3.09. In short, he has answered any questions about whether or not his 2005 performance was a fluke.
And the most recent issue of Sports Illustrated, which includes excerpts from a book written by former Angels farmhand Matt McCarthy, has given us a brief glimpse into Bobby’s time with Angels, and his ignominious release — which we should all be thankful for every time he shuts the 9th inning door on the opposition this season.
The introduction of Bobby Jenks comes about five pages into the article, with this incredible description:
Mitch froze after his eighth throw to me. From his expression I thought he’d either pulled a muscle or seen a ghost. Turning around, I saw a tall, overweight, bald man getting out of a truck. Mitch walked toward me and in a hushed voice whispered, “That’s Bobby. He throws a hundred.”
Bobby was Bobby Jenks, a pitcher who’d attained mythical status in Mesa before his arrival. Raised in the backwods of Idaho, Jenks, at age 19, had been 6’3″, 280 pounds, with a 100-mph fastball, and was considered one of the most promising talents in the 2000 draft. But many teams passed on him because of questions about his character. There were rumors that he was an alcoholic and that he had a history of violence. The Angels took a chance and signed him in the fifth round for $175,000.
Bobby was an object of intense curiosity to many in the baseball community; everyone seemed to have an opinion of him. ESPN’s Peter Gammons called him a ‘monster,’ while others compared him with the fictional Nuke LaLoosh in the movie Bull Durham.
From where I was standing, Bobby Jenks looked like a night-club bouncer. He disappeared into the locker room and after 15 minutes appeared on the field with us. “Well, look who it is,” said Bruce Hines, an Angels’ field coordinator.
“I’m here,” Jenks replied flatly.
“Nice of you to join us, Bobby.”
“Just trying to help the Angels win a World Series.”
“You’re moving in the wrong direction for that, Bobby. All right, we’re about to scrimmage. Bobby, you’re in charge of broken bats.”
I wonder what Bruce Hines was thinking watching Bobby Jenks get the last out of the 2005 World Series? As you read more in the SI article, it becomes clear that Bobby Jenks may have thought in his own mind that he was trying to help someone win a World Series, but it certainly wasn’t the Angels.
All the better for White Sox fans.
According to the accounts of Matt McCarthy, the questionable character issues that many people feared when Jenks was 19 reared their destructive head during his time with the Angels. They eventually led to the Angels giving up on Jenks in December of 2004, and the White Sox subsequently claimed him off waivers for $20,000. The rest, as they say, is history.
But a lot more happened during the one year that Matt McCarthy and Bobby Jenks were teammates that made its way into McCarthy’s book and into this week’s issue of Sports Illustrated. And the brief accounts of Jenks that McCarthy provides helps to give us a more well-rounded picture of who Bobby Jenks was, and how far he has come to grow into one of the most dependable players in all of Major League Baseball since his call-up in 2005.
Seriously, I defy you to come up with 20 names of players who have been more consistently successful over the past half decade, without any significant dips in production for even a short period of time, while meaning as much to their respective teams as Bobby Jenks. And this is a guy who was described as a 19-year old as a drunken, violent, monstrous Nuke LaLoosh.
Scouts, in general, must scratch their heads as much, if not more, than people in any other profession.
Back to the McCarthy book excerpt in SI. A few other interesting quick-hits about Bobby Jenks:
— Describing his time in Little Rock, which preceded his arrival in Mesa, Jenks explained that he and the coach in Little Rock had personality issues. “He said I threatened to kill him,” Jenks is quoted as saying. He then adds, “It was just a figure of speech. I really didn’t mean it.”
— According to McCarthy, Jenks called out then-Angels farmhand Derrick Turnbow for being “so ‘roided out, it’s ridiculous.” Turnbow, of course, would later become both an All Star and the first Major Leaguer to be publicly identified as having tested positive for steroids.
— And lest you look at Bobby Jenks and wonder whether he was using steroids or other banned performance enhancing drugs to supplement his workouts, the better question would be whether Jenks even works out at all. Consider this exchange, as recalled by McCarthy:
“Any interest in hitting the weights?” I asked Bobby, knowing that there was no chance. He shook his head.
“I’ll let you in on a little secret,” he whispered. “Tell ‘em you have a bad back, and they don’t make you do a thing. Lift weights? Not with a bad back. Run? Not with a bad back. Stretch? You can’t with a bad back. It’s the life man.”
Hmm…that’ll make White Sox fans think twice the next time Jenks misses time with any “injury” to his back. Something tells me that to get where he is, Jenks’ stance on weight-lifting and conditioning has improved at least a little. He did suffer some nagging injuries last year, but otherwise he has been the picture of consistency and reliability.
— McCarthy says that alcohol was a problem for Jenks throughout his time with the Angels. He claims that Jenks showed up hung over for “more than a few games” and was suspended for bringing beer onto the team bus.
— In one of the more random and interesting anecdotes relayed by McCarthy, he says that Jenks “married a woman that he met at the drive-through window of Dick’s.” According to Bobby Jenks’ player page on Chisox.com, he is married to a woman named Adele and has two kids, Cuma and Nolan. I’m assuming that Adele is the infamous woman from the drive-through. If so, McCarthy’s use of this anecdote to illustrate Jenks’ impetuousness and immaturity at the time does not necessarily hold water. Perhaps it was capricious then, but if they are still together, I guess it was meant to be.
My favorite anecdote of all I have saved for last. McCarthy describes on afternoon walking into the clubhouse and finding Bobby Jenks “splayed out on a trainer’s table” reading a magazine:
“What are you reading about?” I asked.
“Me,” he said flatly. “Everybody’s got something to f—–g say about Bobby Jenks. One day I’m an alcoholic; the next day I’m the second coming of Christ.” I laughed awkwardly, trying to think of how I would describe him. “I’m a damn bargain is what I am,” he continued as he rolled onto his stomach. “Hundred-and-seventy-five-thousand dollars for a guy with my s–t?
“And what do they do? They send me to this hellhole with guys who don’t belong in pro ball.” It wasn’t a stretch to imagine he was talking about guys like me.
“How many guys can throw a hundred miles an hour?” he asked me as he tossed the magazine on the floor.
“Probably a dozen,” I offered.
“How many guys on this planet can throw a ball a hundred miles an hour?” he said in a much louder voice as he sat up.
“I can think of one,” said a large man with shoulder-length brown hair as he sauntered into the room and calmly submerged himself in a vat of ice. It was Angels reliever Derrick Turnbow, in Mesa on a rehab assignment. A year earlier he had suffered a displaced fracture of the ulna while throwing one of his 100-mph fastballs.
“Now, I can’t say that I’ve ever seen you hit triple digits,” Bobby said playfully.
“Go to hell, Jenks,” Turnbow said…”Talk to me when you’ve pitched a game in the big leagues.”
That specific anecdote continues with Jenks’ suggestion that Turnbow is “so ‘roided out” as I described above. I have to admit that I laughed out loud reading about Jenks sprawled out and then rolling over on his gargantuan stomach while wondering how he could be so underpaid with his “s–t”. It certainly paints Jenks as a brash young player, but also gives us a window into the almost aloof, but absolute, confidence that makes him such a great closer.
The rest of the SI article is really interesting, and provides many more behind-the-scenes stories that the players involved may not necessarily enjoy having published. McCarthy’s book, from which the SI article is excerpted, is called Odd Man Out; and since I’ve cited it so much I’ll be nice and give you a link (non-affiliate, for the record) to where you can buy it. I definitely suggest you at least buy the issue of SI, if you don’t have a subscription already. I couldn’t find this particular article on their website, but it’s definitely worth a read as this article, as well as the now infamous SI expose on ARod’s steroid use, make it a nice warm-up for the upcoming baseball season.
The highlight for me, obviously, was the small section about Bobby Jenks. There is no moment more exciting during a White Sox game than when the White Sox have a slim lead heading into the 9th and the big man trots out from the bullpen to close it out. A vast majority of the time it ends with an exuberant “Gas…he gone!” from Hawk Harrelson and the chalking up of another “White Sox winner” by Ed Farmer. And if Bobby Jenks had the maturity and professionalism when we was with the Angles that he ostensibly does now, White Sox fans may never have had the opportunity to call him our own; and perhaps…perhaps…we might not have a World Series title either.
Like a lot of 19-year old kids, Bobby Jenks was young and brash and immature, and he was more caught up in having fun and being self-destructive than taking life and his career seriously. As I mentioned earlier, we all heard the rumors and whispers about such issues when the White Sox acquired Bobby Jenks. Luckily, Jenks got serious at the right time and used his release from the Angels as a wake-up call to turn his life and baseball career around.
The result has been fortuitous for Jenks, the White Sox organization, and White Sox fans everywhere. The White Sox have had ups and downs since winning the World Series in 2005, and always seem to have one or two significant holes heading into every season; but one of the few spots we’ve been able to count on for over 3 years and counting is the back end of the bullpen with Bobby Jenks.
The big man is already well on his way to carving out a legendary career on the South Side. For me, the details provided in this week’s SI only served to make the legend of Bobby Jenks more unexpected, compelling, and well-rounded. And it has gotten me more stoked for the 2009 baseball season.
There are less than four days until pitchers and catchers report, and less than two months until Opening Day — a day that will hopefully conclude with Bobby Jenks notching career save 118 in the first win of another playoff season for the Good Guys.