- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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Things were always more complex with Bobby Jenks than his weight and his fastball. But when you push 300 pounds on the scale and 100 mph on the radar gun, that's all people tend to see.
And so it was Friday at SoxFest, as the questions persisted about the public dialogue between Jenks and Sox management this past fall regarding his weight and conditioning. The affable 28-year-old closer said it has all been "brushed under the rug," and there is no reason to suspect otherwise.
But though he looks decidedly trimmer, Jenks took a deep breath as the crowd of reporters receded, revealing there have been far bigger changes in his life than a few less pounds.
"When everything is in front of you, you see what you have, what this game can provide for us, and you want to do everything you can to make your kids' lives much better, and that's what I've been trying to do," he said.
Jenks has four children now, the latest addition to his and wife Adele's brood a baby boy named Jackson born six weeks ago, and fatherhood spurred the changes as much as anything, he said.
"I no longer drink," he said. "No alcohol at all. Not even a beer here or there. Just things like that, really focusing on the future. It was a personal choice. It hadn't gotten too much. I just found myself not wanting to [drink] anymore. I just wanted to be more of a family man. Then this last year, I came to Christ and that was a big influence on my life."
Jenks had no desire to preach. But he could.
As a rookie five years ago, he was already married, already had his first two kids -- daughter Cuma and son Nolan, now 8 and 6 years old -- already had surgery on his pitching arm and already had accumulated enough extra baggage to take a couple of cross-country trips.
Sox general manager Kenny Williams had taken a chance on Jenks, picking him up the previous December after Anaheim had placed him on waivers. The Angels' Double-A club had suspended Jenks in 2002 for bringing beer onto the team bus more than once. He was also sent home from their minor league facility for fighting with a teammate not long after his surgery.
But Jenks was lugging around more than that. A 2003 ESPN Magazine article described his upbringing in rural Idaho, detailing incidents of drunken behavior that included one episode in which he burned his arms and hand with a lighter, and then lied to the team about how it happened.
Sitting with Jenks in the Cleveland clubhouse in August 2005, I remember him self-consciously covering a silver-dollar sized scar on his pitching hand, but never ducking the questions when I brought up the subject, saying the incident was, "one of those jackass moments. It's something I learned from."
And gradually, he did. Rather than denying what was in the story, Jenks took responsibility for his behavior.
"I finally realized what my priorities were and that I needed to put them in order," he said that day in '05. "I was a punk and it made me kick myself in the butt, but maybe if I didn't go through that, I wouldn't be here now."
Five years later, he says he has come much further still, and not just due to adding 2-year-old Rylan and baby Jackson to his family, though his children have clearly helped him grow up.
"I wanted to live a better life," he said. "I think every parent wants to do better [for their kids], regardless of what's going on in your life. You want your children to succeed and you want to be a good influence on their lives, really show them good examples and the right paths to follow to encourage them the right ways."
He said fellow reliever Scott Linebrink has been both a friend and a positive influence.
"I'm very proud of Bobby," Linebrink said. "Certainly, he has had a lot of changes ushered into his life in the last six to eight months. [Parenthood] is a big responsibility, but at the same time, it makes you realize there's something much more important in life than baseball. It's a job, it's what we do, but we also have to keep perspective on what's really important."
Jenks, who lives in Hinsdale, is one of very few Sox players who make their home in the Chicago area year-round. And he laughs at the difference between his upbringing and that of his kids.
"I was in the sticks, but we're going to be back there soon," he said. "I don't know when, but sometime in the future -- definitely not Idaho but something along those lines where it's out in the country, just a quiet life."
A week ago, Jenks agreed to a one-year, $7.5 million deal with the Sox, avoiding arbitration after a season in which he fell just one game short of a fourth straight 30-save season and had an era of 3.71 while struggling with a kidney stone in July and August, and a strained calf in September.
As it is, the two-time All-Star ranks third in team history with 146 saves, was the second-fastest pitcher in major league history to reach the 100-save milestone and will forever be remembered for saving the final game of the 2005 World Series, the first rookie since the Dodgers' Larry Sherry in 1959 to accomplish that feat.
"I love Bobby," said catcher A.J. Pierzynski. "He's been here a long time with me and I want him to do well and we need him to do well. He has a great family, great wife, kids. Bobby has had ups and downs, we've all had ups and downs, and seeing Bobby happy, when he's right, he's one of the best in the game and we need him to be that this year."
Jenks said he would love to finish his career in Chicago.
"This is the team that gave me my real shot doing what I'm doing now," he said. "Regardless of what happens, I'll never forget that. [But] whether I'm here or not, this is always going to be a special place for me."
Whatever ill will there may have been lingering since last fall, Jenks, Williams and manager Ozzie Guillen said it is behind them.
"He looks the best I've ever seen him, and I'm really proud of this guy," Williams said. "Just sitting here and looking at me and Ozzie, looking us right in the eye, addressing some of the issues head on, like men. I'm proud of him.
"Good for him. Sometimes, you have to push some buttons to ultimately get to that point."
Ultimately, the "buttons" were decidedly bigger than most realized and whether the changes in Jenks' personal life will show up on the mound remains to be seen.
"We'll find out," Jenks said. "I'm going to have the same aggression; you're just not going to see it. But it's going to be there as it always has. I guess I'm just more calm in my personal life.
"I put more pressure on myself than anybody. The team is paying you for a service and as much of a passion as it is for me to go out and play the game, it's still considered a job and I'm going to go out and do my job as best I can and I'm going to hold myself responsible for whatever happens."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com