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Healthy and clear-headed, Jenks has more to give

Former White Sox closer easing back into baseball life after surgeries, rehab

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Healthy and clear-headed, Jenks has more to give play video for Healthy and clear-headed, Jenks has more to give

CHICAGO -- Unfinished.

After speaking by phone with MLB.com for 35 minutes concerning numerous life changes covering his last two years, Bobby Jenks needed just that one word to describe his Major League Baseball career.

Fortunate might have been an equally apropos choice. And ultimately, it's a word befitting his life as much as his career.

The soon-to-be 33-year-old has endured three back surgeries, including one that almost killed him. Jenks beat an addiction to pain medication and has been clean and sober for almost 18 months. He even battled through a period of depression that caused him to basically drop out of sight for the last year or so.

Through it all, Jenks could see a light at the end of an oftentimes dreary tunnel. And that growing glow is a return to the mound.

"Mentally, I'm still 100 percent in the game," Jenks said from his Malibu, Calif., home. "Even if [a return] is only for a year or two, knowing I got through everything and conquered this part of my life and finish how I want to finish ... ."

Jenks currently is rehabbing from spinal fusion surgery in which he had two plates and six screws inserted on Oct. 8 by Dr. Robert Watkins. The surgery corrected four hooks found growing on the inside of his spine.

The long-running back pain led to abuse of pain medication, and the combination of the two led Jenks right out of baseball.

* * *

Jenks wanted to make one point clear: Alcohol was not the reason for his stint in rehab.

"Pain in my back got so bad that I tried to do all I could to stay on the field," Jenks said. "I took more and more pain pills. I tried to get off them, and I couldn't."

By Jenks' recollection, self-medicating began during his final season with the White Sox in 2010. The abuse grew to its highest level after his first back surgery in December 2011 while he was with the Red Sox.

Neither the White Sox nor the Red Sox knew about the problem, Jenks said. He swears he never took the mound intoxicated or out of sorts, but while Jenks was in that California rehab facility, he "quit everything," including alcohol.

His view of life has changed dramatically since becoming clean and sober.

"Oh yeah, a tremendous difference," said Jenks of living his life clean. "Your whole mental aspect changes. It's completely different from how I look at life compared to before."

Becoming a better father to his four children has been one of the ways in which Jenks has improved his life. And this has happened despite Jenks now being divorced and not having them with him all the time.

His kids went through their own little program to help them understand what their dad was going through.

"They are still young, and I have an entire lifetime to make up for the times I wasn't there for them," Jenks said. "Before, when your mind is clouded, you don't pay attention to the small things. When you can clear your head, you realize what you have in front of you."

* * *

Once Jenks arrived in Boston, his back grew progressively worse. Four bone spurs were found on his spine and the plan was to go in and shave them off in December 2011.

A plan was set to actually shave off just two, but the surgeon started the third and didn't finish, leaving sharp bone in two different spots on Jenks' spine.

"It was like laying on your side and having a semi ride over the top of your head," Jenks said of the pain. He returned to his then-Arizona home following the surgery, sat down on his couch and said he felt a feeling like someone was pouring a bottle of water down his back.

That water was spinal fluid.

"Just exploded out from the incision," Jenks said. "There was a chance that if I would have gone to bed that night, I wouldn't have woken up."

Instead, a call to a facility where Jenks was doing shoulder work led him to a doctor who told him to gather up whatever he could and get to the hospital.

Along with finishing up the third bone spur and taking off the fourth, the second back surgeon also had to contend with a major infection that almost got to Jenks' brain stem. The doctor said that the hooks on the spine were the true cause of his pain and the bone spurs represented his body's way of fixing that area.

Given quite a bit of time to reflect, Jenks now recalls experiencing sharp little pains in his back when he was starting for the Angels as part of his first organization in 2000. He had been battling the issue, essentially, his entire career.

The culmination of the spinal issues put an end to Jenks' tenure with the Red Sox, with whom he had signed on for two years and $12 million as a free agent.

"It was a disaster," said Jenks with a laugh of his Boston tenure, which included a 6.32 ERA over 19 games in 2011. "The guys were great, but it was one thing after another.

"In that second week in, I tore my biceps. I got back and pitched, and my back kicked in. Then, I rehabbed my back in the Minors and developed a blood clot in my lung. It was an absolute nightmare."

* * *

Scott Reifert, the White Sox senior vice president of communications, invited Jenks to return to Chicago for this year's SoxFest, set for the weekend of Jan. 24-26. He wanted to go, but it took some self-convincing for him to say "Yes."

"I'm nervous," Jenks said. "I was thinking about all the negative things ... that they would boo me off and hate me. That's what I was dreading most.

"I've been away from it for so long -- especially going back to the place that means the most to me. It makes it so special. It helps my drive to get back and experience that feeling one more time. When I think of baseball, I think of Chicago baseball."

Normal recovery from the fusion surgery falls between six months and one year, and Jenks doesn't intend to rush a return as he goes through physical therapy. He wants to be in as strong of a place as possible when it is time for the focus to fall back upon baseball. The best news right now is that Jenks currently is pain free.

"So much better," said Jenks when asked to sum up his life.

Things aren't perfect. But the man who drew "oohs" and "ahhs" when he reached 100 mph in his debut at U.S. Cellular Field, the man who closed out the 2005 World Series and is forever etched in the memories of White Sox fans, is on his way back.

"To be honest, it took a full year before I would watch baseball on television," Jenks said. "It was just one thing after another for so long, and I hid from it all.

"I'm still here. It could have gone a lot worse. I could not be going back [to Chicago] on the 24th, and some people would have never known what happened to me. Questions can be finally answered, and it's important to my own psyche. I didn't disappear and didn't fall into pit of addiction. I climbed out of it, and I'm doing pretty well."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Merk's Works, and follow him on Twitter @scottmerkin. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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