Sunday, April 17, 2011

Westmoreland Defying Odds After Brain Surgery

Boston prospect has perspective, but keeps baseball hopes alive

Ryan Westmoreland underwent surgery March 16, 2010, to remove a
cavernous malformation in his brain. (Joy R. Absalon/
By Evan Drellich /
March 11, 2011

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It was about the only question not asked of Ryan Westmoreland, because it will never really matter.

Oh, to Westmoreland, the Red Sox prospect who's five days away from the one-year anniversary of brain surgery that could have cost him his life, it's important all right. There is still no dream greater than making the Major Leagues, than playing for the Red Sox.

But to ask how strong a chance, how much time he has to do it -- to make it all the way back and farther after a cavernous malformation sapped everything from his vision to his fine motor skills -- would be failing to see the big picture.

Illness, if anything, always begets perspective.

"I just feel like when I'm ready to play, when I feel like I'm going to be able to perform well, I'm going to go out there and play," Westmoreland said Thursday at a lunch table at the Red Sox's player development complex, surrounded by reporters. "The goal at the end of the day is always get to Fenway. If it happens, it happens. If not, it doesn't.

"I'm just hoping for the best every day, and if I play, it's going to be meant to be. If not, it's also meant to be. So we'll see what happens."

So far what's happened is that a young man, a local kid with as much baseball talent as anyone, has made immense strides in regaining not only his diamond skills, but his functional life.

Westmoreland won't turn 21 until April. Boston's fifth-round pick in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft, he commanded a $2 million signing bonus out of high school in Portsmouth, R.I., and he made a fine outfield debut in the Class A New York-Penn League in '09: a .296 average, a .401 on-base percentage and seven home runs in 223 at-bats. At 6-foot-2, and today close to 220 pounds, he embodies "projectability."

But a year ago at this time, Westmoreland's body simply didn't feel right. There was weakness and fatigue, and routine tasks suddenly weren't routine -- all because a cell mass on his brain stem was bleeding onto his brain.

Less than two weeks after an MRI exam led to the malformation's discovery, Westmoreland went in for surgery in Arizona on March 16. Dr. Robert Spetlzer, a renowned neurosurgeon, performed the operation.

"It was very confusing," Westmoreland said of the whirlwind diagnosis caught him in. "I honestly didn't really know what was going on. I mean, I saw the MRI, I saw the problem there, but at the time, I wasn't really symptomatic. I wasn't in pain at all, it took about a week or two weeks for the symptoms to really start kicking in. Everything kind of spiraled down. I remember at this time last year, I was really unsure of what was going on, and then as the days went on, it became more reality of how serious it was."

Prior to surgery, Westmoreland had lost all vision and had gone completely deaf in one ear. When both his sight and hearing improved rapidly after surgery -- within two to three days -- he knew he was on the right course. Surgery brings no guarantees, though, and naturally, baseball was still last on anyone's mind.

"It's hard for all of us, because it started out, baseball being in the back," Westmoreland said. "We weren't even really thinking about that in the beginning. It was just to get through the surgery alive and lead a normal life. As soon as we all realized that I was going to live a normal life again and I got my eyesight back and everything was becoming normal, we kind of just altogether said, 'You're going to play baseball again.' ... We're trying not to let that go."

Picking up a pen was a trial. So too was tying his shoes, and driving was out of the picture for a time.

Where baseball was concerned, Westmoreland couldn't even see the ball sitting on a tee.

"It was kind of double," he said.

That didn't bode well for someone hoping to earn a living in the pros.

"I had the days where I was really down on myself, and I said, 'You know, am I going to play again?'" Westmoreland said. "I was really unsure about the future."

Time brought steady improvement. Through physical therapy, Westmoreland's been able to regain precision in his motor skills, his balance. Balance, more than anything, is what he lost.

The more robust activities came back first: running, hitting. Slowly but surely, he realized he had a legitimate chance to come back.

"As the weeks and days went on, it kind of became more reality that I was going to get there, that I was going to reach my goal," Westmoreland said. "I just really tried to limit the days that I got down on myself."

By the fall, Westmoreland was actually able to take live batting practice. He's done that five or six times now, and he's already gone deep once, homering on Field 1 at the player development complex. It was about October or November, as he recalled.

"It was amazing," Westmoreland said. "I'm happy with just hitting line drives, but that feeling of hitting the ball and knowing that it's gone right away was something that I haven't seen in a while. Right when I hit it, I knew it was gone right away, and it was just, it gave me a lot of motivation that things are getting really good."

Westmoreland has been able to drive again since mid-summer. He's happy about that, that he no longer has to be chauffeured. Tying his shoe is no longer as arduous.

Self-sufficiency's always more valuable than a baseball career. And somehow, his baseball career is still in the picture.

"I think it's amazing," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "I saw him [one] day at Fenway sitting in a wheelchair, and now he's attempting to play baseball. I think it's already a win-win. Obviously, because I'm a member of the Red Sox, I'd love to see him as a productive player. But the fact that he's out there playing, it's already an exciting story."

There is no timetable for when Westmoreland can begin playing competitively again, and he's content with that. Doctors have already been amazed at the speed of his recovery: they've seen video of him hitting, and more than one has been surprised by what they've seen.

Westmoreland's sight isn't perfect yet, though it's not expected to be. He's weak on his right side, too, but not as much as he once was. He does one-hand drills in the cage, extra work in the weight room.

"It's gotten a ton better," Westmoreland said. "And I'm really happy with it, because I know that the doctor said it wouldn't come as quickly as my left."

A left-handed hitter, Westmoreland throws with his right, and at one point, he could barely reach 10 feet on a throw. Now he's at 100-plus.

"There's fatigue, there's certain aspects of balance that I'm still working on, but I started out with basically nothing and now I'm at a very advanced level," he said.

Westmoreland isn't sure where he'll begin the season once Spring Training ends -- he could remain in Florida, he could work out with an affiliate. He just wants to get back on the field, wherever that may be.

Westmoreland's progress with his exercises is charted thoroughly, and it's the most tangible way to see improvement now. Because the big things, like running, have already come, the improvements are more subtle. But they are certainly there, and they're expected to keep coming.

After the operation, when his arm was still numb, Westmoreland got a tattoo that takes up the entirety of his upper right arm. The date of his surgery is most prominent, along with a nod to Saint Christopher.

"Protect me," it says.

"I figured the best time to get a tattoo would be when you can't feel your arm," Westmoreland said, his genial nature still shining through.

There was a time, inevitably, when Westmoreland couldn't understand why he was subjected to it all.

"There was this thought of 'Why me? Why is this happening to me?'" he said.

Now at the one-year anniversary of the most traumatic time in his life, he's a patient optimist. He's a realist, too -- he knows that his health comes first.

Incredibly, though, he's still a ballplayer, too. And his dream is still in front of him.

"I feel great, just to be on the field again and be doing baseball activities is one thing, but to be doing it at a level that I'm doing it now," Westmoreland said. "I've gotten through the worst, and now it's just an uphill climb for me."

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