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Rays reliever Justin Marks hopes big-league outing wasn't last

 
The Royals sent Justin Marks two framed shadow boxes of mementos from his one big-league appearance and also gave the pitcher an American League champions ring and a partial playoff share.
The Royals sent Justin Marks two framed shadow boxes of mementos from his one big-league appearance and also gave the pitcher an American League champions ring and a partial playoff share.
Published Feb. 29, 2016

PORT CHARLOTTE — The memories remain vivid, Justin Marks said, "like it was yesterday." And the generous parting gifts from that Easter Sunday 2014 afternoon in Kansas City provide specific reminders.

That's what should happen when you realize your life's goal to that point: pitching in a big-league game.

But what happens when you don't know if you'll ever get the chance to do it again?

The two innings Marks worked that day against the Twins — one good, the second not so much — mark not just the first but the only game he pitched in the majors.

And as he joined his fourth team since then after signing a minor-league deal with the Rays, Marks takes an honest approach in acknowledging that his chances of getting back are not necessarily encouraging.

"If I'm not meant to get back up there, if I don't get the opportunity or if I'm just not pitching well, I'm not going to hang my head about it," Marks said. "Obviously I want to get up there. I'm being realistic about it. As a 28-year-old free agent in this organization, you have to pitch pretty well to do that.

"I'm happy with where I'm at. I'm happy with what I've done in my career. I enjoy playing the game."

Membership in the Moonlight Graham Club, a collection of players who appeared in just one big-league game, is not necessarily desirable. Nor is it particularly exclusive, with a longer-than-you'd-think current membership list, per baseballreference.com, of 525 pitchers and 990 players overall.

(There is another, harder to quantify group of players who have gotten called up but never gotten into a game, including Rays knuckleballer Eddie Gamboa, who spent two days last season in the Orioles bullpen. "That," he said, "didn't provide any satisfaction.")

Marks is competitive about wanting to get back to the big leagues but insists he is not consumed by reliving the past.

"I wouldn't be playing for the sole reason, the only reason, to get up there," he said. "Then there is going to be a huge letdown if in hindsight I look back and say, 'Well, I just didn't do it.' So I don't want to go through things like that."

He prefers to take a present-day view — that he will just go out and pitch and see where it leads him.

The bar, obviously, will be high, given what happened the first time:

The April 17 "Holy shoot, this is happening" phone call a month into his sixth pro season that told him he needed to pack up to head from Triple-A Omaha to meet the Royals in Houston.

The uncertainty until getting official word after landing that he definitely would be activated.

The thrill of walking into the clubhouse and being greeted by ace James Shields (the ex-Ray).

The anxiety of waiting until his fourth and, from what he could sense, final day before being sent down, to pitch.

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The joy of sharing the moment with his wife, Jamie, and his first son, Landon, and other family and friends.

"I knew the move wasn't permanent, I understood the situation," Marks said. "I just didn't want to get sent back down without making my debut. That would have been the worst-case scenario."

His Royals down 5-1 in the sixth, Marks got the call. He started out well, with a foulout and a walk, then he caught Twins All-Stars Brian Dozier and Joe Mauer looking. His second frame was a bit more messy, four hits and two walks leading to three runs, ending his afternoon with 55 pitches.

The Royals would classily send him two framed shadow boxes of memorabilia — jersey, lineup cards, game balls, tickets — to mark the occasion, plus a partial playoff share and an American League champions ring, all for his limited contribution.

Marks expected to get sent back to Omaha after the game. What he didn't expect was to be scrambling just to have a shot to get back.

The Royals put him on waivers that June, and he bounced to the Oakland and Texas organizations then off a mountain bike resulting in a broken left wrist that put a bad finish on a year that started out so well. He didn't make any progress in a rough 2015 season with Arizona's Triple-A team, and he will try again with the Rays to make it back.

"I'm sure 20 years from now if that is all I have to look back on, then it will be cool to look back on," Marks said. "But hopefully there are more memories to be made."

Marc Topkin can be reached at mtopkin@tampabay.com.