Pitcher is back in the majors after having two Tommy John surgeries
Denny Stark had come all the way back. He had battled past the pain and beaten the odds. He was dealing again, throwing the kind of 94 mile-an-hour heat that made him one of the Mariners’ top prospects 13 long seasons ago.
He was back in the big leagues, back after two Tommy John surgeries. Back after missing the 2006 and ’07 seasons. Back in the bigs for the first time since 2004. Back on the mound at Safeco Field, where every trip from the bullpen, for him, felt a little like a victory lap.
He called Saturday’s return to the majors after a five-year hiatus “one of the best days of my life. He faced Oakland on Sunday and Texas on Monday and didn’t allow a run in 1-2/3 innings.
Each day was a celebration. Each pitch he threw was a tribute to Stark’s persistence, his courage and his unquenchable thirst to get back to the major leagues.
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“Having been out so long, that first day, putting on a uniform again, coming into this clubhouse again, made everything all worthwhile,” Stark said, relaxing in front of his locker before the game. “I don’t think it even mattered if I threw a pitch. Just being on the roster, I could finally start sleeping better at night, after going through all the tough times.”
But Stark, maybe more than any other player in the game, understands at age 34 that baseball comes with few guarantees. He was recalled late last week after closer Brandon Morrow was placed on the disabled list, and he will remain with the Mariners only as long as he gets hitters out.
He could be here for five years, or he could be gone tomorrow.
After throwing two days in a row, Stark was Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu’s emergency pitcher Tuesday, and that emergency arrived in the 10th inning when Shawn Kelley collapsed on the mound with a strained oblique muscle.
Stark couldn’t get the Mariners safely out of the inning.
After retiring the first two Rangers, he surrendered four straight singles, gave up a walk and then allowed a grand slam to Jarrod Saltalamacchia. The game was lost.
And knowing how long and hard Stark had fought to get back to the major leagues, knowing how much disappointment he has suffered, it hurt to watch him struggle.
“It wasn’t my day, I guess,” he said after the 7-2 loss. “It’s extremely disappointing, to say the least.”
For a guy who had been through as much as Stark, however, disappointment is relative.
“I never thought negative about it. I set a goal, and I really geared myself to that goal,” said Stark, who was 11-4 with Colorado in 2002. “It was definitely a long time to be out of the game, and I exhausted all my resources, physical and emotional.
“When I decided to have the second surgery I told myself I was going to give it everything I had. And if I didn’t make it back, I would know that, at least, I gave it my best effort.”
Stark was pitching for Colorado Springs in a PCL game in Sacramento in 2006 when the pain and swelling in his right elbow became more than he could bear. By his own admission, he had nothing on his pitches.
Five days later he tried one more start and felt the rest of the ligament rip apart. The pain he felt was the truth. He needed Tommy John surgery, which replaces the ulnar-collateral ligament with a tendon from some another part of the body.
After the first surgery, however, his body rejected the new tendon. Stark tried again.
“He had had success in the big leagues, and I don’t think he wanted to end his career on a note like that,” Wakamatsu said. “In spring training, you could really feel how much he wanted it.”
After the second surgery, it took Stark two years before he could throw a ball 90 feet. Now he’s throwing fastballs in the mid-90s.
“I feel like this time in the big leagues is even more special than the first,” he said. “There was so much uncertainty and so many obstacles to overcome.
“I’m just really appreciating this. I’m taking this day by day, and that’s the honest truth. I’m enjoying each day and taking it for what it is and not really setting any lofty goals.”
And, as difficult as a day like Tuesday was, Stark soon will realize that one bad outing won’t diminish the enormous victory his comeback represents.