Long before Bobby Jenks was closing out games for the White Sox, the flamethrower was lighting up radar guns and providing colorful quotes for newspapers in small towns like Butte, Mont. and Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.
While casual fans of the game were first introduced to Jenks when the then 24-year-old rookie fired the final pitch in Chicago's 2005 championship, his journey from an Idaho cabin to baseball's biggest stage was hardly smooth sailing.
Selected by the Los Angeles Angels in the fifth round of the 2000 Draft, Jenks was one of the most promising -- and puzzling -- prospects to hit the baseball scene in the last decade. Listed at a mammoth 6-foot-3 and 275 pounds, the teenage Jenks stymied opposing batters with an intimidating frame and a fastball that consistently hit triple digits. But many scouts worried about Jenks' makeup, citing his poor grades -- he was academically ineligible three of his four high school years -- and rural upbringing as evidence of a lack of discipline.
In his professional debut with Rookie-level Butte, Jenks struggled to a 1-7 record and 7.86 ERA. His promotion the following season to Class A Cedar Rapids, where he went 3-7 and walked 64 batters in 99 innings, produced similarly lackluster results. But thanks to Jenks' 100-mph threat, he was given a look at Double-A Arkansas, joining the team's playoff run at the end of the '01 season.
Travelers media relations and broadcasting director Phil Elson still remembers the moment Jenks first toed the mound for Arkansas in Game 1 of the Texas League Championship Series against the Nolan Ryan-owned Round Rock Express.
"The game was packed," Elson said. "And everyone is raving about this kid who can throw 100 mph and here's Ryan, in the stands, the most famous guy who threw 100.
"So in the first inning [Jenks] snapped off a few 102-mph pitches, and you can tell everybody's breath just stopped when they saw that. It was impressive."
"I don't remember how he pitched for the rest of that game," added Elson, who has worked in baseball for 15 years. "But I'll never forget that moment."
Jenks picked up a win and 10 strikeouts in two starts for the Travs, but familiar control problems continued to plague the young pitcher in 2002. He walked 90 batters in just over 123 innings between Class A Advanced Rancho Cucamonga and Arkansas, going a combined 6-11. Still Jenks averaged nearly a strikeout per inning and he remained on the Angels' radar, ranking as the club's second-best prospect in '02.
The following season it all unraveled for Jenks when a season-ending elbow injury forced him to the sidelines after a promising start to his third stint in Arkansas. Jenks won seven games and had a 2.17 ERA and 103 strikeouts in 16 starts before the injury. Further compounding matters were reports of his off-field antics, with one national magazine portraying Jenks as an immature alcoholic, and another, ESPN the Magazine, chronicling Jenks' experience torching himself with a lighter and drunkenly passing out.
Former Angels Minor League pitcher Matt McCarthy's book Odd Man Out also told stories during that time period that allege Jenks faked a back injury and threatened to kill a former manager in Arkansas.
"You know what? My friends and family that know me, they know the truth," Jenks told reporters this spring when excerpts from McCarthy's book were released. "They know none of it is true.
"When I got the opportunity to come [to Chicago], it was a wakeup call. And the situation of how I was released, I've grown up a lot since I've had issues in the Minor Leagues."
He certainly did. After the Angels waived the troublesome prospect in December 2004, Jenks made sure the White Sox's gamble paid off.
Given the opportunity to close for the Double-A Birmingham Barons, Jenks saved 19 games with a 2.85 ERA and began to show signs of harnessing his electric stuff, issuing 20 walks in 35 games.
With a fresh slate in Chicago, Jenks made his Major League debut on July 6, 2005 and was an integral part in the White Sox's World Series run. The two-time All-Star and married father of two has credited his success for learning how to pitch instead of throwing hard.
It's a simple solution and one that guaranteed Big Bobby wouldn't ever have to look back.
Minor League career breakdown
2000: Playing for the Angels' Rookie-level team, Jenks went 1-7 with a 7.86 ERA.
2001: Jenks went 3-7 with a 5.27 ERA for Class-A Cedar Rapids before getting a late-season callup to Double-A Arkansas, picking up a win in two starts for the Travelers. |
2002: Splitting the season between Class A Advanced Rancho Cucamonga and Arkansas, Jenks went a combined 6-11 and struck out 122 batters in 21 games. |
2003: The 22-year-old went 7-2 with a 2.17 ERA in his third stint in Double-A. But Jenks' best Minor League season was cut short by an elbow injury that required surgery. |
2004: Jenks appeared in just five games in '04, three of which were with Triple-A Salt Lake. He went 0-1 with an 8.76 ERA for the Bees and was waived by the Angels at the end of the season.|
2005: The White Sox placed Jenks with Double-A Birmingham, where he collected 19 saves in 35 games before he was called up to the Majors. |