DENVER (AP) Aaron Cook didn't always dream of taking the mound on opening day like he will Monday when the Colorado Rockies face the Arizona Diamondbacks.
For a while there, all he hoped for was to see his wife and play with his two young kids again.
Cook's world started spinning on a warm summer night at Coors Field in 2004. Pitching against the Cincinnati Reds, the Rockies right-hander came out in the third inning after feeling dizzy. Within a few hours, Cook was in the hospital listening to doctors tell him he was lucky to be alive.
Blood clots had formed in his right shoulder and traveled to his lungs. Had any of them broken off and traveled to his heart, he could have died.
Cook's thoughts immediately turned to wife Holly and their two children, Alexis and Elijah.
``Baseball, it is my job, but it's not all that important. I've got family and friends back home who are there for me, and that's what's really important,'' Cook said Sunday.
He was placed on blood thinners to get rid of the clots, then had surgery several weeks later to remove most of the first thoracic rib and two muscles on the side of his neck that were causing a vein compression. He had a second operation later that year and then began a long rehabilitation with a fresh perspective.
``Baseball is just a big kids' game. We're out here just having fun, and I think once I realized that and starting treating it like that, that's when I started having success,'' Cook said.
It took him nearly a year to get back to the big leagues, and when he did he went 7-2 with a 3.67 ERA in 13 starts in 2005. In his first full season in the major leagues last year, he was 9-15 with a 4.23 ERA.
With the offseason trade of Jason Jennings to Houston, the staff ``ace'' spot was wide open and Cook emerged as the opening-day starter with a sensational spring after adding a four-seam fastball to his repertoire that includes a mean sinker, a breaking pitch and a deceptive changeup.
He'll face Arizona right-hander Brandon Webb, the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner, on Monday.
``It's something I've been working for my whole career. But I'm at the point now where I realize it is only one start,'' Cook said. ``One of my main goals last year was to pitch a full season and rack up a bunch of innings and now I know what it takes. I know I can stay healthy through a whole season.''
Cook, who has a 28-28 career mark, no longer takes medication for his condition, although he has two large scars on his chest as daily reminders of his traumatic detour on his way to becoming the Rockies' opening-day starter.
``I feel Aaron is looking forward to taking the next step in his career and that would be pitching at the top of his rotation, that would be being a guy his teammates depend upon and look to for stability, for balance,'' Colorado manager Clint Hurdle said.
``He has gone through enough life challenges and professional challenges to take the next step.''
Cook's comeback serves as an inspiration across baseball.
``I know Aaron. I know what he went through. I don't know anybody that went through something that serious,'' said Webb, who went 16-8 with a 3.10 ERA last season. ``To be able to come back to where he's at now is pretty remarkable.''
``He's had to overcome a ton of adversity on and off the field,'' Rockies rookie catcher Chris Iannetta said. ``And to make the opening-day start, it's awesome to see. You just admire that. Who wouldn't?''
Cook doesn't wear the scars as a badge, however.
``When you go through something like that, you realize how precious life is and every day's a gift,'' Cook said. ``I'm not a symbol of anything, really. I'm just a regular guy who happens to play baseball and goes out there and has fun.''
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)