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The fast life

Once his fastball and his life were out of his control. Now White Sox closer Bobby Jenks is taking his rebound to a Series audience.

By JOHN ROMANO
Published October 25, 2005


HOUSTON - Just so you know, the radar gun is not to be trusted.

When Bobby Jenks ambles in from the bullpen, when he stands like a mountain on top of a mound, when he leans back and whips a fastball toward the plate, every head swivels toward the radar gun as if it holds all the answers.

Was it 100 mph? Or was it only 99? Only 99.

Of course, it's not the numbers at fault. It's the interpretation. The gun is dandy at measuring speed, but not so good at judging impact. It doesn't tell you, for instance, that a 100 mph pitch is somewhere between a blink and a sneeze. Between a rip and a foul. Between confidence and fear.

No, it doesn't tell you a 100 mph pitch ain't nothing but heartache.

Sometimes, even for the guy throwing it.

Don't get me wrong. That fastball made Jenks what he is today, and that's quite rich and semifamous. It also made him what he was yesterday, and that was often drunk and sometimes belligerent.

That pitch travels so fast, it can seemingly pluck a high school dropout from an Idaho creek and drop him in the middle of the World Series.

"I totally understand how far I've come," Jenks said Monday at Minute Maid Park. "I try not to give it too much thought. I don't want to get swept up in the moment."

Perhaps you've caught the Jenks act this postseason. The one that begins with White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen extending his hands above his head and around his waist to let the bullpen know he wants the big guy.

Darned funny stuff. Darned impressive, too. When the 6-3, 270-pound Jenks hits the mound, there is no going to the concession stand.

He is the script too corny for Hollywood. A kid who grew up in a dilapidated cabin in northern Idaho near an Aryan compound. He was on his way to nowhere when a coach discovered him and set him on the path to fortune.

Not exaggerated enough?

Throw in injuries and demotions. A spurned agent and a national embarrassment. And maybe, if there's time, tell the story of how he met the love of his life at some local burger joint.

"He's a great kid," said Mark Potoshnik, who took Jenks into his home and enrolled him in high school in Seattle five years ago. "He's not trying to be anybody but himself. He's a simple guy."

Rewind the story for a moment. Go back to 1999, when Potoshnik was looking for players for his summer baseball team. An acquaintance told him about this kid in the sticks in Idaho. He'd gone unnoticed by scouts and colleges because he was academically ineligible and never finished high school. He spent most of his days fishing near his family's cabin in Spirit Lake.

"You could tell he was a prospect," Potoshnik said. "You just had to put everything in place."

Potoshnik warned Jenks that he wouldn't be eligible for the 2000 draft unless he returned to high school. When his old school wouldn't take him, Jenks moved in with Potoshnik's family and enrolled in a Seattle area school.

Still academically ineligible, Potoshnik arranged for a series of workouts to attract scouts. The first drew eight to 10. A few weeks later, 40 showed up. Jenks was drafted by the Angels and given a $175,000 bonus.

For a kid unaccustomed to money, supervision or responsibility, life in professional baseball was an adventure.

He drank heavily. He got in an argument with a manager when he tried to bring beer on a bus. In a self-destructive and inebriated moment, he supposedly burned his hands with a cigarette lighter.

A 2003 article in ESPN the Magazine portrayed Jenks as a backwoods freak. It suggested he had a learning disability. That his father was racist and irresponsible. That Jenks had a drinking problem and a temper.

It also suggested he was the best prospect in the land.

Today, Jenks, 24, will say little about those days or the ESPN article. He talks of how he has matured since getting married and having two children.

"He grew up not knowing or having any responsibilities in life," Potoshnik said. "Suddenly, he had all of these people around him with expectations of how he should act. He didn't always deal with it well.

"I don't think a few episodes with alcohol should follow him around the rest of his life. He was young. I think every frat boy in the country has spent a weekend or two on the bathroom floor."

Having invested hundreds of thousands of dollars and five minor-league seasons in Jenks, the Angels finally gave up. After elbow surgery in 2004, Jenks was put on waivers in December.

The White Sox claimed him for $20,000.

Guillen had heard the rumors. He also had seen the fastball. After a couple of weeks in spring training, he pulled Jenks aside.

"This kid had a great opportunity to make money in this game, but it was up to him," Guillen said. "I told him, you continue to do this stuff you're going to ruin your life."

Converted from starter to reliever, Jenks blew batters away in Double A and made his big-league debut against Tampa Bay in July.

By September, he had taken over as closer and Saturday became the first rookie in 10 years to earn a save in the World Series.

The potential is there. The possibilities are endless. Jenks has an arm like few pitchers before him. He has a good curveball. He's learning to throw a cutter. But, of course, it is the fastball that sets the right-hander apart.

Not many pitchers arrive at 100 mph.

You just hope he doesn't depart at the same speed.

[Last modified October 25, 2005, 03:00:29]


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