- Joe McDonald, ESPN Staff Writer
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The night before Boston Red Sox prospect Ryan Westmoreland was scheduled to undergo a potentially life-threatening surgery to remove a cavernous malformation from his brain stem, he and his family, along with his girlfriend, ate dinner at Outback Steakhouse in Phoenix, Ariz.
It was March 15, 2010.
It was a somber night because no one at the table knew what to expect. The important thing was they were together -- Ryan, his parents Ron and Robin, his girlfriend Charlene Colameta, and his uncles Chris and Joe Westmoreland.
The following day, Ryan Westmoreland had surgery to remove a golf ball-sized mass of cells that were bleeding into his brain.
Now, almost a year later, Colameta is planning another dinner at Outback. Only this time it'll take place in Fort Myers. This time it's a celebration of recovery. It's a celebration of life. It's a celebration of baseball.
"It's tough for people out there to really understand what this surgery was and how close we were to losing him," explained Ron Westmoreland on Wednesday. "It was a real special night for us out there because it was the night before the surgery. It was an emotional night because we didn't know what was going to happen. We knew what the possibilities were and some of them were very bad. So we made it a very special night in Phoenix. For them to want to go do that again at Outback is pretty cool."
March 16, 2010 served as a new beginning for Ryan Westmoreland. He even has the date tattooed on his right arm.
The surgery, while a success, still impacted his 6-foot-2, 220-pound athletic body. He would have to relearn simple, everyday tasks. His family and doctors were more concerned with his quality of life than a potential return to baseball. Westmoreland would use his love for the game as motivation, not only to live a normal life but also to excel on the field again.
Only days after the surgery, he was even swinging a bat in the hospital.
"While I was in the ICU in Arizona, I never really let go of anything," Westmoreland said recently. "I just said, 'I'm still going to be able to play, regardless of the people who said that wasn't in the cards.' It's great to put it into perspective and realize how far I have come. Being me, and the drive I've always had, I've always had the extra motivation and wanted to be better.
"I have come a long way, but I know there's still a long way to go. I'm ready for it and I push myself every day. I haven't taken a day off. If [returning to baseball] is meant to be, it's going to happen. If not, it's not because I didn't work hard."
Following the surgery, the Westmorelands were given a window of two-plus years before any doctor would attempt to put a percentage on how much he would recover. Westmoreland is now halfway through that time frame and he's already swinging a bat with fellow prospects in the warm Florida sun.
Westmoreland, an outfielder, has been taking live batting practice every other day, but he's been able to participate in tee work and hitting soft tosses on a daily basis.
He is allowed to throw at least three days a week, but the Red Sox don't want to rush that aspect of his rehab because he was off for so long. They don't want him to ruin his shoulder. Plus, Westmoreland's motor skills are still affected, especially with his right (throwing) hand, but the latest report was a positive one in terms of his arm strength and accuracy. Progress is being made.
He has been running and lifting weights every day, too.
"I'm about as close as you can get to being normal again," Westmoreland said. "Besides the fact that I'm not as good as I used to be, yet, but the fact that I'm starting to mold in with all the other players is good for me. I know the people who have seen me go through this are proud of me. The doctors, everybody is proud of what I'm doing right now."
Ron Westmoreland receives e-mails and text messages with updates on Ryan's progress on and off the field from Red Sox personnel. He's still working on improving his motor skills, but his natural abilities are starting to take over on the field.
"It's pretty impressive the way he's handled it," said Ron Westmoreland. "The progress itself is amazing, but for a 20-year-old kid to handle it the way he has is inspiring, and from a father's perspective, I'm just so proud of him.
"I'm just glad he's going to live a normal life. Baseball, to me, is a bonus. He's so driven."
'Something is not right'
The Red Sox picked the Portsmouth, R.I., native in the fifth round as their sixth selection (172nd overall) in the 2008 draft. He showed tremendous ability and showcased his skills despite having surgery to repair a torn labrum only months after signing his first pro contract. Upon returning to game action the following season with Class A Lowell, he broke his collarbone and needed surgery after making a spectacular catch and slamming into the outfield wall in Lowell.
He arrived in camp prior to the 2010 season bigger, stronger and more motivated than he had been before. In the cages, he was tearing the cover off the ball. There was a lot to like about this kid.
Westmoreland first started to feel numbness in his thumb and pinky last spring while playing video games with his roommate, fellow Red Sox prospect Pete Ruiz. Westmoreland couldn't feel the controller, but he just brushed it off.
The numbness remained and he played with it for the next two weeks. He had dealt with so many injuries and was feeling so good about his development, he didn't want to stop playing.
Westmoreland became suspicious on March 2. Playing pingpong, he discovered his legs were extremely tired.
"I was like, 'This isn't normal.' I thought maybe I was tired from the workouts," explained Westmoreland.
The following day, he participated in the team stretch with the rest of the prospects, but when he was done, Westmoreland felt like he had just worked out for three hours.
"I told the guys straight-up, 'Something is not right. I don't know what it is. I don't feel hurt, but my whole right leg and right arm is really weak right now.' They kind of knew about the numbness, but when I told them it was my limbs they thought it could be a head or neck injury."
The team sent Westmoreland to have an MRI.
On March 4 he arrived at the complex and the results had come back. The next thing he knew, he was on a plane bound for Boston.
The numbness was a direct result of the cell mass bleeding onto his brain. He visited with three specialists before it was decided he would have the surgery in Arizona by renowned brain expert Dr. Robert Spetlzer.
The days between March 4 and his surgery on the 16th were stressful and confusing for Westmoreland.
"I was a little nervous, but at the same time all I had to complain about was my fingertips were numb and I was a little weak after I really worked myself," he said. "I was really unsure and honestly didn't get it because I wasn't in pain, and I wasn't having headaches, yet. I was just really questioning what was wrong and if it was serious.
"As the days went on, and I saw more and more doctors, I realized how serious it was, as did my family. I've learned more about the brain in the last year, so I kind of went from being really unsure and questioning what was going on, to a lot of nerves and worrying what the future held. I'm just blessed that everything turned out OK. It was a really tough two or three weeks, but we made it and I had a lot of support."
When his parents learned of Ryan's condition, they were stunned.
"At the beginning it was devastating," Ron Westmoreland said. "We were concerned for his life. Once he got out of the surgery, we didn't really know what track his recovery would take because the doctors explained to us that there might be paralysis or some severe problems as a result of where they had to get this thing from in the brain stem."
'This kid might just be able to pull this off'
It was awhile before Ryan, his family, the doctors and the Red Sox knew he would live a normal life. In the months after the surgery, it was tough to see Westmoreland struggle with his physical problems, trying to go through the normal routines of everyday life.
"Every day you just saw progress, and that's all we wanted to see was him getting better," explained Ron Westmoreland. "It was all driven by his drive, his dream to get back."
Part of Westmoreland's occupational therapy exercises included picking up pins and paper clips. There were days when it seemed like hitting a 95 mph fastball would be easier.
"The athlete that he is, to see him really struggle like that during those months was difficult for us to watch," said Ron Westmoreland. "We knew it was doing him some good. It got to a point when we knew he was going to live a normal life. As parents, that's what really mattered to us."
The support Ryan and his family have received from the entire Red Sox organization has been overwhelming. Because the Red Sox were so actively involved, it relieved some of the stress on his parents.
"I saw them quickly switch from employer to family," Ryan Westmoreland said of the Red Sox. "That was great. From what I've heard from other people, there aren't too many organizations that treat you the way the Red Sox treated me. Only being a second-year minor leaguer, you would think they would treat me differently because I'm not a big leaguer, I'm not a veteran. But they went out of their way and helped me with everything I went through. They didn't budge on anything I asked for, or my parents asked for. A top-class organization."
Red Sox trainers were given a hands-on course by the neuro rehab specialists in order to fully understand the process of Ryan's occupational therapy. The Red Sox trainers have incorporated those exercises into his daily baseball routine.
While at home last summer, Westmoreland would gather his baseball gear and head to Cardines Field, the historic ballpark in the City by the Sea in Newport, R.I.. He would take swings off a batting tee and run the bases.
"It wasn't pretty, but he was getting it done," Ron Westmoreland said. "It was just great to see him back in that element. From that point on, no matter where he did it, he started getting better and better to a point where you say, 'This kid might just be able to pull this off.' It's great because we all know that is what's driving him, to get back to the game. We're just so proud of him."
Westmoreland was doing better because he was in his element. Baseball was back in his life and it fueled his recovery, both on and off the field.
He was home in Rhode Island for the holidays, but he has spent the majority of the winter in Fort Myers. He began to crank up his rehab on Jan. 7 and now he feels like he's back in the groove of the daily baseball routine.
"I basically had my one year of isolation to sit and sulk and think about the future," he said. "Now that I'm here, I'm as focused as I've ever been on getting better, not necessarily looking to play next week. I'm just looking to take positive steps forward, and if that takes me to the field, it does. If not, I won't say I wasn't trying. I am really focused. I'm ready to start playing again."
After the Red Sox move their big league camp from the player development complex to City of Palms Park in early March, the organization's minor leaguers make the PDC their home for the rest of spring training. Westmoreland is still considered a rehabbing player, but his presence on the field and in the clubhouse has become an inspiration for everyone.
Ruiz has seen Westmoreland's progress firsthand from Day 1.
"He's an inspiration to a lot of guys every day," Ruiz said. "He lights up so many guys every day when he walks into the clubhouse. You see him doing stuff, you see him taking BP -- and it's not just about what he's doing physically, it's the way he's handled it in such a mature manner. It's unbelievable. He's never once complained about being dealt a crappy hand and never once complained about not being able to do something. Every day he comes to the yard and tries to get better."
Now that he continues to rehab and people see him on the field hitting baseballs and running around, the biggest question Westmoreland is asked is when he'll be able to return to game action.
He can't put a time frame on when he'll be able to return, but that doesn't mean he's not thinking about it.
"I'm at a point mentally right now where I know I'm not going to put myself on the field unless I feel like every aspect of the game I can do as good as I always have," Westmoreland said. "The time frame is questionable, but when I'm ready in every aspect of the game, I'm going to go out there. I want to make sure everything is locked in before I'm in a game atmosphere again."
If and when Westmoreland does step back onto the field for game action, his family will be there to see it.
"We're good right now because we know he's going to live a normal life, but if he ever steps back in the box, that'll be a moment ... I can't even think about it without getting choked up," said Ron Westmoreland. "It's his love of the game that's driving him and nobody's going to tell him he can't do it."
The family will probably celebrate with a dinner at Outback Steakhouse.
Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.
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