This was before the Chicago White Sox and the World Series and the days when the eyes of the world would be on a 6-foot-3, 270-pound pitcher from a log cabin in the Idaho woods.
Back then Bobby Jenks was trying to feel the thunder in his hands. It was 2001, two years into a minor league baseball life that would meander for half a decade in the haze of an aching right arm, wild fastballs and a few nights he would rather not talk about. He was pitching in the Texas League championship in Round Rock when he unleashed a ball toward home plate that set off a chain reaction in the stands.
At once, 5,000 heads swiveled toward the outfield fence. Jenks turned as well to look at the gleaming numbers on the scoreboard.
That was the first time. Soon afterward 100s began showing up everywhere — on scouts' radar guns, minor league scoreboards and, ultimately, on television screens everywhere this past Saturday as he heaved a fastball past likely Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell. There is still something magical about a pitch that hits three digits because even now, with advancements in strength training and equipment, there are so few pitchers who possess this kind of power.
Jenks, 24, shrugged as he walked out of Minute Maid Park on Monday, an off day before Tuesday night's Game 3 against the Houston Astros, who trail in the best-of-seven World Series, two games to none.
"I don't want this to sound bad," he said. "But the thrill left after the first time. I knew what I got; I didn't think about it anymore."
The World Series has been about him thus far. His strikeout of Bagwell with two outs in the eighth inning of Game 1 — followed by a 1-2-3 ninth inning — earned him a save in the White Sox' 5-3 victory. Game 2 went differently. Jenks came on to pitch the ninth with a 6-4 lead, but let the Astros tie the score on pinch hitter Jose Vizcaino's two-out, two-run single to left field. It was Jenks's turn to be saved, by Scott Podsednik's walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth that gave the White Sox a 7-6 win.
Jenks will likely get more opportunities for such drama in this Series, which means his past will continue to be dredged up. A national magazine several years ago told the story of a minor league pitcher no one had heard of, drifting through the then-Anaheim Angels organization, throwing 100 mph fastballs but with little control. There is the story of the drunken night when he burned his arm intentionally with a cigarette lighter. The suspension for constantly bringing beer on minor league bus rides. The three agents he has fired during his nearly six professional seasons.
The fact is, Jenks wasn't trained for the big league life as so many talented youngsters are now. Growing up in Spirit Lake, Idaho, he didn't play on high school baseball teams or have private pitching mentors. He was simply the big kid who threw harder than everybody else in summer league games, then went off to hunt and fish.
Were it not for the owner of a Seattle-area baseball academy who was desperate to find players for a traveling team, Jenks might still be in a log cabin. But Mark Potashnik called a friend in Idaho looking for pitching prospects for his team, the Seattle Bombers. The friend mentioned Jenks, Potashnik phoned and the two met the November of what should have been Jenks's senior year in high school. But Jenks shocked Potashnik by telling him that he didn't go to school.
"Don't you know you can't be drafted unless you go to school?" Potashnik asked.
It was the question that might have saved the White Sox. Potashnik took Jenks into his Kenmore, Wash., home, enrolled him in high school, trained him in the afternoons to pitch. Then he took Jenks to tryout camps.
Jenks — despite impressing scouts with his powerful arm — did not have the great fastball he possesses today. He simply didn't know how to pitch. Potashnik taught him mechanics, the minor league coaches helped him to find his potential. And suddenly his fastball started getting faster. It hit 98 his first year in the minors and then 100 in 2001. Yet he was all over the place. He led the Arizona Fall League in strikeouts twice, but also in walks. As a starting pitcher he seemed lost; he was never healthy; his arm was always sore. Frustrated, the Angels took him off their 40-man roster last December. And Chicago couldn't resist pulling him off waivers.
From the start, White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper knew what the team had. He had seen the 100 mph fastball before in the fall league and in winters throughout the Caribbean. With Jenks coming off three years of elbow strains and irritations, a decision was made to have Jenks become a closer.
"I took to it very quickly," Jenks said with a smile.
Suddenly the pitcher who had made more than 17 starts only once in his minor league career pitched in 35 games for the White Sox' Class AA team in Birmingham this spring. More importantly, he had 19 saves. Then on July 5, he was called to the majors and as the summer wore on he simply got better, finishing the season with six saves and a 2.75 ERA. He was so dominant that the White Sox, with the best record in the American League, made him their closer at the start of the postseason. It was a risk, certainly. But sometimes a 100 mph fastball counts for more than experience.
On Monday a sea of cameras descended upon him as he stood in the White Sox' clubhouse. He said he wasn't worried about blowing the lead in Game 2 the night before, that he can't dwell upon such failures. It was hard to imagine this was the kid from a log cabin who the Angels didn't want anymore.
"I think he's been through a whole lot and experienced a whole lot," Potashnik said. "He's had a lot of people write him off a lot of times. He's been on the scrap heap and written off. He's been through it and learned from it.
And as Jenks walked through the corridors of the stadium, he looked down at his arm.
"I know I've been gifted," he said. Then he laughed and walked out into the brightest autumn of his life.