To those that don't know, it was just one inning in a Cactus League game. To reliever Ryan Cook, it was triumph over two years of injuries.
GOODYEAR, Ariz. — The significance went unnoticed by probably 99 percent of the 2,615 fans still in attendance for Wednesday’s Cactus League game at Goodyear Ballpark — an eventual 4-2 victory for the Indians over the Mariners. To them it was just another tall, bearded reliever — and there are a lot of those pitching in spring training — throwing a meaningless inning in a month filled with meaningless innings of games that don’t count and are easily forgotten.
Even when all the Mariners’ players and coaches — people who understood the importance of the moment — were standing and eagerly waiting to congratulate Ryan Cook as he ended that sixth inning with a strikeout of Ulysses Cantu, the implication probably didn’t register.
The inning’s results weren’t spectacular: Six batters faced, one run allowed on three hits after getting the first two outs quickly.
And yet for Cook, it meant everything. It represented a milestone in perseverance, a triumph over personal doubt, vindication over anyone who questioned why he kept trying, thinking he’d never pitch again and a reminder of why he endured the past two years of injuries and setbacks.
Yes, two years.
Cook, 30, signed with the Mariners before the 2016 season, hoping for a chance to make the bullpen after a vagabond 2015 season that started with command struggles, shoulder issues, a demotion to Class AAA while with the A’s and a trade to the Red Sox. Once an All-Star with Oakland in 2012, he was just trying to find a fresh start. He had a legitimate chance to make the 2016 Mariners’ bullpen. It was Jerry Dipoto’s first season as general manager and he was in the process of turning over the roster at prodigious rate.
“I was feeling really good and ready to rebound from a down year before,” Cook said.
Instead of a fresh start, he found the disabled list — a place where he would remain going forward.
It started on March 2, 2016 with the first batter he faced in a Cactus League game that spring — Alexei Amarista of the Padres. Cook tore his lattisiums dorsi.
“I remember throwing a 3-2 fastball and I felt my lat go,” he said. “I didn’t think anything of it. I thought, ‘well that felt kind of funky.’ So I finished the inning.”
He was shut down immediately, receiving a platelet rich plasma injection hoping to speed the recovery process. Torn lat muscles have become a common injury for pitchers. They are lengthy recoveries of six to eight weeks, but they aren’t career ending.
Cook remained in Arizona to rehab and was progressing as expected. And then …
“I tore my hamstring doing just our normal running, nothing crazy,” he said. “So I obviously had to rehab that. That was in probably May.”
So he began rehabbing both injuries, slowly working his way back to the mound, building strength in his shoulder and leg. Eventually, he worked his way back to a rehab appearance. On July 10, pitching for the Arizona Rookie League Mariners at Peoria Stadium, Cook started the game and felt an awful pain in his elbow following a pitch. He’d torn his ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow.
“It was also the first hitter of the game,” he said. “And that was obviously kind of demoralizing.”
Instead of opting for surgery immediately, he tried to recover without surgery.
“We tried rehab for eight weeks on it, just trying to see if we could save being ready for 2017, but knowing all along it wasn’t a very good shot,” he said.
The elbow didn’t respond.
“After that little stint of eight weeks trying to make it right, in my second bullpen, I knew it wasn’t right,” he said. “So we decided to have surgery then and there.”
Cook underwent Tommy John surgery on October 20, 2016.
Surely this was the last of his problems. With advanced technology and medical techniques, the success rate for these surgeries is enough to allow a pitcher to believe he’ll be healthy and whole again in about a year.
“We started that process of recovery,” he said. “And I was feeling pretty good and then the ulnar nerve situation happened.”
The “situation” started in February of 2017 when Cook began to notice that he was losing feeling and function in the fingers on his throwing hand.
“I was just about to start throwing a tennis ball and I couldn’t even grip a tennis ball or baseball,” he said.
Cook visited two nerve specialists, both of whom ordered immediate nerve transposition surgery.
“They each said, I should have the surgery yesterday and I had to do something quick or risk possible permanent nerve damage,” he said.
Cook went to renowned surgeon Dr. Neal ElAtrrache in Los Angeles for the procedure.
“What had happened was the scar tissue from the surgery was squeezing my nerve slowly,” he said. “Once that happened it was clear sailing. It was just trying to get strong again, get back and being able to work out again because it had been so damn long.”
The grind of a lengthy recovery is both mental and physical. It’s two different opponents beating on you — one pummeling your gut and the other punching you in the head, both equally painful and frustrating. Cook endured it for two years.
“I had days where I physically couldn’t do the things I used to be able to do so effortlessly,” he said. “That was tough. And there’s the mental part that comes with that aspect of ‘Can you do this anymore? Is your body physically capable of doing this?’ It wasn’t ever a doubt of ‘can I do this mentally?’ because I know how to pitch and I’ve done it since I was a kid. But that doubt of ‘Physically, is my body going to be able to come back and compete at he highest level?'”
How did he just not want to quit? Many people simply wouldn’t withstand such situations. But he found strength in being strong for others.
“There were definitely those days,” he said. “I was down here in Arizona rehabbing the whole time. There was a lot of benefit that came from that for me. I was able to help a lot of younger kids that were going through rehab as well. And every time I started to feel that way, I would help somebody and that would get my brain back to the right thought process that this is all part of it. And if you do want to come out on the other side, you have to stay strong through this.”
It wasn’t strength in numbers. It was group motivation. I’ll pick you up and you do the same for me.
“Through helping other guys, it almost helped me as well to keep that positive outlook on it,” he said. “It just reminded me that baseball will be fun again.”
He also had the support of his parents and his fiancée, Lindsay.
“Obviously my family has been with me throughout the whole process and my fiancée has seen the crappy days of me saying, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to come back from this,’ or the doubt that creeps into your head of not being healthy or not even think about throwing a pitch competitively,” he said.
In two years, he’d torn his lat, torn his hamstring, torn an elbow ligament and had nearly gotten permanent nerve damage from the elbow issues from a surgery while throwing a total of two innings.
That’s why that one inning on Wednesday was so significant to Cook and those that know his journey.
“Once I came out of the clubhouse and went to the bullpen everything was kind of routine and normal,” he said. “In the clubhouse when we got there and during the morning, I was nervous and more excited that it was finally here. I mean I essentially put in two years of time working towards that moment.”
And it didn’t disappoint.
“To be honest with you, it was pretty special,” he said. “I had fun playing baseball again. Obviously there’s the competition between a hitter and a pitcher, but it was a bigger picture than that for me yesterday. I was just trying to focus on making pitches and having a good time being back out on a baseball field. I did a lot of good things and I did a couple of bad things. But all in all, I was extremely with how it went. I think I set a good foundation to build upon.”
More importantly, he had no issues a day later.
“I came out feeling good,” he said. “I had normal soreness, normal tightness of being a pitcher and that was actually a pretty good feeling.”
So what’s next?
“I keep competing,” he said. “I’m coming into camp with the regular aspirations that I would have if I’d never have been down for two years. I’m just going to keep pitching. The first one was obviously getting my feet wet. From here, I’d like to go out there and keep competing and making sure my stuff is getting sharper and helping the ball club in any way I can.”
If Cook could pitch meaningful innings again, it would be an ultimate thank you to the Mariners organization that never cast him aside during this two-year process.
“I cannot say enough good things about the staff that’s been here, the training staff that I had, the organization and the front office for giving me the opportunity because let’s be honest not many would, I don’t think,” he said. “I’m extremely thankful to Jerry and his staff and everybody to give me that opportunity for sure. In some aspect, it would be really nice to be myself again and do it for the organization and those guys that have given me this opportunity.”