FORT MYERS, Fla. - He is a past winner of the Tony Conigliaro Award for overcoming adversity. So that right there tells you Aaron Cook is a fighter.
He fought for his life in August 2004 when he was treated for a pulmonary embolism in his right shoulder. He needed surgery to remove a rib to relieve compression on a major vein.
On that fateful day, Aug. 7, Cook, a pitcher for the Colorado Rockies, experienced dizziness and shortness of breath. He thought the symptoms were merely a byproduct of the Denver altitude or the flu.
He had pitched two innings against the Reds and he felt awful, as if he were going to pass out.
The Rockies medical staff sent Cook to the hospital, where it was determined that he had clots in his right shoulder that were lodging in his lungs.
“I had the paramedic and doctor telling me as I was lying on the stretcher that I should be dead,’’ Cook recalled. “At that point, I’m fighting for my life. I wasn’t thinking about baseball. I was thinking about my family and my health and whether I was going to make it.’’
Cook was on the disabled list until July 30, 2005. He had to clear all sorts of hurdles to resume his baseball career, but when he went 7-1 with a 3.07 ERA in his final 12 starts that season, he realized the long haul was over. He was back.
‘I’m every bit the pitcher I was. I feel I have the ability still to win in this league, and that’s what I’m trying to show.’
So here it is, seven years later. He has gone through a series of nagging, even stupid injuries (last year, he jammed his finger in a door during spring training and essentially ruined his free agent season).
Now he is on a minor league contract, fighting for a spot in the Red Sox rotation.
“I’ve been through a lot of annoying things recently, but I think what happened to me has really put things in perspective,’’ Cook said. “It’s frustrating, for sure, because it’s taken a few years of productive times away from my career.
“But I’m here again and I feel with these things behind me, I’m every bit the pitcher I was. I feel I have the ability still to win in this league, and that’s what I’m trying to show.’’
Cook is known for allowing Craig Biggio’s 3,000th hit in June 2007, but he was a good enough pitcher to merit a contract worth $30 million over three years in 2009.
The Red Sox decided early in camp that they were going to hold the reins on Cook a little. In the past, he experienced shoulder problems after doing too much too soon.
“It’s not something I wanted to do, but I think it was the best decision to make,’’ said Cook, who threw his first batting practice yesterday. “Realistically, I’m four or five days behind everyone else. It wasn’t as much of a setback as we thought it might be.’’
For sure, he is miles ahead of last year.
He had prepared all winter to get his shoulder in shape, only to get his finger stuck in that door.
“I’ve learned to realize that you can’t control some things,’’ said Cook, “but hopefully you learn from the things you go through so you don’t put yourself in position to have some of those stupid things happen.
“I couldn’t pick up a baseball for four weeks after I broke my finger. All of the stuff I did to get my shoulder better went out the window. I lost four weeks and had to start over again.’’
His agent, Joe Bick, shopped Cook this offseason. Boston was, in his estimation, the perfect fit because the Sox were looking for a low-cost starter to compete for the fifth spot in the rotation.
Cook’s signing was supported by Bob McClure, the new Red Sox pitching coach, who coached Cook at two levels in the Colorado system.
Cook is a bulldog-type pitcher with a good sinker. The injuries have limited him, but the feeling is that being reunited with McClure can get him back to the basic strengths that made him an All-Star in 2008.
“This definitely felt like it was the best situation for me,’’ Cook said. “Great organization, openings in the rotation, my relationship with Bob all made it seem like this was the best place for me.’’
He was always a competitive sort, never backing down to any hitter. He was tough on the mound, and that attitude, which is a big part of his game, has returned.
Cook was part of that incredible Colorado run at the end of the 2007 season in which the Rockies won 14 of 15 - including 11 in a row - in a 20-8 September run that got them into the playoffs. And now he comes to a team that went 7-20 last September and suffered the biggest collapse in baseball history.
“I’ll never forget the run we had,’’ he said. “It was amazing to be a part of it. I just wish we could have won a game or two in the World Series, but Boston was just very tough that year.
“As far as this team goes, the guys have taken responsibility for what happened. They have moved on and want to make sure that stuff never happens again.’’
Cook is also happy to be with the team that Tony Conigliaro played for.
“It was an honor to be recognized for what had happened to me and that I was able to overcome what happened to me to resume my career,’’ Cook said.
“I grew up in church, and what happened to me renewed my faith in the Lord. He got me through a challenging time in my life, and the whole experience made me stronger as a person.
“It’s allowed me to put everything in perspective. I know what’s important. I know better what things I need to worry about and what things I have no control over.
“But it’s made me stronger. No doubt about that.’’Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.