SEATTLE -- The long road back for Mariners reliever Denny Stark ended on a sunny Sunday afternoon, when he walked from the bullpen in left-center field at Safeco Field to the middle of the diamond. Stark stood on the mound, took a deep breath, and focused the best he could. It had been 1,747 days since he last threw a pitch in the Major Leagues -- and it definitely didn't seem like it was only yesterday.
"It is something that I will remember for a long time," he said. Stark struck out the first batter he faced, Athletics catcher Landon Powell. Three batters and another out later, Stark walked to the first-base dugout, receiving a nice ovation from the fans and high-fives from his teammates. "It was nice just to be able to go on the field again," he said after the game. "It was a nice jog from the bullpen to the mound, but after that, I was concentrating on what I had to do." The Mariners won the game, 8-7, in 15 innings, making Stark's comeback from two Tommy John ligament replacement surgeries on his right elbow even more satisfying. "Just to walk in here was unbelievable," he had said on Saturday shortly after being promoted from Triple-A Tacoma. "I really can't put the words to it. It's an amazing feeling. Driving up here from Tacoma definitely brought back some memories. It's a feeling I can't describe. This is one of the greatest days of my life." An even greater day came less than 24 hours later, when he made his first Major League appearance since July 19, 2004. All of the hard work had finally paid off for the right-hander. When the Mariners placed closer Brandon Morrow on the 15-day disabled list on Saturday, they also promoted Stark. The news came via a 10:30 a.m. PT phone call from Tacoma manager Darren Brown. Without beating around the bush, as he so often does, Brown was straightforward with the news. He told Stark that he was returning to the big leagues. "That was a great wakeup call," Stark said, smiling. Stark had a 0-0 record with one save and a 3.97 ERA in seven relief appearances with Tacoma, limiting opposing hitters to a .214 average. He was the Mariners' fourth-round Draft pick in 1996 and reached the Majors with the Mariners in 1999. Now 34, Stark is more appreciative than ever about his career. He was so good early on that he advanced quickly through the Seattle farm system. His fastball was consistently in the 90s and it seemed as though he would be a mainstay on the Mariners' roster for many seasons. But he was traded to the Rockies after the 2001 season for third baseman Jeff Cirillo. It was not one of those trades that helped both teams. Cirillo struggled from the get-go and Stark ended up having the two elbow surgeries. Stark missed the 2006 and '07 seasons altogether and had no idea if he would ever pitch again -- at any level. "I never knew if I'd ever throw a pitch 80 miles per hour, let alone 90," he said. The Mariners decided to give him another chance in '08 and signed him to a Minor League contract. He split the season between Double-A West Tennessee (3-3, 4.29 ERA) and Triple-A Tacoma (3-0, 3.00) and was invited to Spring Training as a non-roster player. "I was feeling really good at the end of last year, and going into Spring Training this year I was hoping [the elbow] would bounce back fine after the offseason," he said. "It did, and it's nice to go out there and pitch without worrying about the elbow." Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu said Stark was impressive in camp and if it had not been for the stellar performances of Chris Jakubauskas and Shawn Kelley, he most likely would have been on the Opening Day roster. Stark settled for another trip back to the Minors, hoping for a promotion. Less than a month later, the call he has been waiting more than four years to come, arrived.
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.