NOTHING BONDS a baseball team like winning, unless you count the sweet stickiness of spilled champagne and the pungent fog of cigar smoke that enveloped the Chicago White Sox last Friday in the tiny visiting clubhouse at Fenway Park. The 2005 White Sox came together like no team the franchise has fielded since 1917, the last time the club won a postseason series before these White Sox swept the Boston Red Sox out of the American League Division Series last week.
Two of the characters most responsible for such a team party arrived at this nexus with stories beyond the imagination of Runyan, just as they were for the general managers of the other 29 major league teams. Brothers in arms and in adversity were Jose Contreras, by way of a defection from Cuba and exile from New York City, and Bobby Jenks, by way of the waiver wire.
Unwanted a year ago, the two righthanded power pitchers--one now an ace, the other a closer--are perfectly cast for second acts for the second team in the Second City. Contreras and Jenks combined for 10 2/3 innings against the Red Sox, allowing only two runs; Contreras won the first game, and Jenks saved the next two. Contreras pounded the strike zone with Wiffle-like splitters and searing 95-mph fastballs; Jenks fired 85-mph curves with roller-coaster dips and 100-mph fastballs with such violence that it's no wonder he was once on the brink of blowing his elbow apart.
Of such swing-and-miss stuff are titles made. The White Sox haven't been to the World Series since 1959 and haven't won it since that '17 team did so. With Jenks's former team, the Los Angeles Angels, standing in their way in the AL Championship Series this week, the White Sox were at least as ideally fortified to change history as the similarly long-waiting Red Sox did last year. Chicago entered the ALCS well rested, with the home field advantage, a hot starting pitcher reminiscent of Josh Beckett of the 2003 Marlins (Contreras was 12-2 since the All-Star break) and a nearly unhittable rookie reliever, as Frankie Rodriguez was for the '02 Angels.
"Sometimes people just need to be in a new environment," White Sox general manager Kenny Williams says of Contreras and Jenks. "We did our homework on them and thought they would be fits personality-wise. Talent has never been a question. Now they're in the right fit, with the right manager, the right coaching staff, the right city."
The Angels will get a firsthand look at the remodeled Jenks this week. Los Angeles made the rendezvous possible by slipping past Contreras's old club, the New York Yankees, 5-3 in Game 5 of their Division Series on Monday night. Ever resourceful, the Angels rallied after they trailed 2-0 and lost their ace, Bartolo Colon, to an injury in the second inning. (Colon's status for the LCS was in question; he has an inflamed right shoulder.) Rodriguez nailed down the final four outs, putting in place an ALCS in which the closers were teammates on the Double A Arkansas Travelers only three years ago.
Contreras, 33, pitched in 36 games for the Yankees (15-7, 4.64 ERA) before they decided that in New York, he would never conquer his control problems and lack of confidence. At first Contreras didn't fare much better after the trade to Chicago, on July 31, 2004, going 9-9 with a 4.70 ERA from that point through the All-Star break this year. However, he grew comfortable around Venezuelan-born manager Ozzie Guillen and a clubhouse populated with many other Latin Americans, including fellow countryman Orlando Hernandez, his former Yankees teammate.
Hernandez persuaded Contreras to return to throwing with a low, three-quarters release point as he had in Cuba, rather than the higher, over-the-top release he used in the majors. Comfort translated into confidence, which translated into attacking the strike zone as he never did in New York. In Game 1 of the Division Series, Contreras pitched into the eighth inning of a 14-2 win with what Boston's Johnny Damon called "the best stuff we've seen all year."
Four-and-a-half months after he traded for Contreras, Williams saw that the Angels had dropped Jenks from their 40-man roster. Jenks was a minor league legend because of how hard he threw--and lived. In five years in the minors Jenks had frustrated the Angels with wildness, injuries, his weight, an 18-29 record and what one club source said were "several acts of insubordination."
Meanwhile Jenks, 24, who is 6'3" and 270 pounds, threw so hard that his elbow was cracking apart from the stress. The injury put him on the disabled list three times in 2003 and '04, until in July of last year doctors inserted a permanent screw to keep the fractures from spreading. The Angels shipped him to their minor league camp for rehabilitation but soon sent him home after he was involved in a fight with another player. Shortly thereafter he was removed from the 40-man roster, and Williams claimed him for the $20,000 waiver price.
Called up in July when closer Dustin Hermanson was limited by a back injury, Jenks pitched so well and so confidently that Guillen elevated him to the closer's role down the stretch. Jenks nailed down six outs to save a 5-4 win in Game 2 against the Red Sox and needed only seven pitches to get the last three outs of the 5-3 clincher.
If the World Series is to come to Chicago for the first time in 46 years, the round-faced waiver pickup with the screw in his elbow and the renegade reputation will most likely play a prominent role.
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (JENKS)
¬† PITCHING ENIGMAS
Guillen (inset, 13) helped Jenks (above) and Contreras get their heads on straight.
RON VESELY (CONTRERAS)
[See caption above.]