FORT MYERS, FLA.—It was a year ago that Ryan Westmoreland had life-altering—and potentially life-threatening—brain surgery.
On March 16, 2010, the player who had been rated as the top prospect in the Red Sox farm system—a five-tool outfielder who earned comparisons to Grady Sizemore, and showed superstar potential—required a delicate procedure to remove a cavernous malformation of cells that had begun leaking into his brain stem.
The symptoms started appearing last February—the odd tingling in his right thumb and pinkie, the feeling that the baseball was like a medicine ball, that his bat was like a “big tree log” even after he’d switched to a lighter piece of wood. They became progressively worse, as he suffered from a loss of vision and hearing, resulting in the conclusion after a number of visits to specialists that he should undergo the delicate and risky procedure.
The surgery was successful, but because it took place on the area that controls motor function, it had expected consequences. Westmoreland spent weeks and months re-learning functions that nearly everyone, let alone an athlete, takes for granted: breathing, standing, walking.
It is a process that remains ongoing. The 20-year-old (he turns 21 on April 27) is still trying to re-master how to tie his shoes.
“For something simple to be so hard makes people take things less for granted,” says Westmoreland, who estimates that it takes him two minutes to lace up.
Some fine motor skills remain elusive. He is still rehabbing from Bell’s palsy, a condition that created partial paralysis of the left side of his face. There are other small differences in a handshake or high five that point to what he has been through.
His vision also remains a work in progress. While he can hit without sunglasses inside a dim batting cage, the glare of the outdoors requires him to wear a thick pair of sunglasses. For a baseball player, vision is crucial, as the ability to detect the spin of a baseball out of a pitcher’s hand is the first element needed to achieve the coordination of fast-twitch muscles to impact a baseball.
The most important aspect of his recovery, the assurance that he will enjoy a normal quality of life, has been accomplished. And now, Westmoreland is pushing past that to see whether he can regain not just normalcy but the exceptional athleticism needed to compete on a baseball field against world-class talents.
“At the beginning, it was all about his health and well-being and hoping he was going to enjoy that normal quality of life and just being a happy kid able to do normal everyday things,” Red Sox farm director Mike Hazen says. “We’ve seen him move beyond that point, which is a great thing.
“We’re making that transition from everyday life, which seems to be nearing completion, to redeveloping as a baseball player, which we still have some ways to go, but we’re continuing to move towards as well.”
Westmoreland, who signed for a $2 million bonus as a 2008 fifth-round draft pick, is now taking batting practice three times a week, and recently has progressed to hitting in groups on the field with other Red Sox minor leaguers. He has yet to see a breaking ball, and for now, he only hits against Sox minor league roving hitting instructor Victor Rodriguez. He has been pleased with the results, making regular, solid contact, even if there are more mis-hits than one would typically see from a prospect.
But the fact that he has the coordination to swing a bat at all at this point, one year removed from the surgery, is evidence of startling progress.
“It’s not perfect,” Westmoreland says. “But I’m not expecting it to be yet. I’m not even a year out. I’ve seen improvement, which is really what I’m looking for. When I started out I couldn’t even see the ball on a tee. I was seeing double, and now I’m taking live BP.”
He has also seen his arm strength make significant strides (he is throwing from over 100 feet). He resumed weightlifting aggressively in the last few months, and the outfielder is now robust at roughly 6-foot-3 and about 215 pounds. He notes proudly that he has less body fat and more lean mass than he did pre-surgery.
Long Way To Here, Long Way To Go
That Westmoreland’s recovery is now being measured on a baseball field rather than by more basic life functions such as walking and driving is evidence of how far he has come. Yet he is also mindful that there remains a long way to go in his baseball recovery.
“More people are understanding what happened and what the reality of the situation is,” Westmoreland says. “It was tough getting those expectations thrown on me after surgery—’He’s hitting BP now and in two weeks he’ll be hitting in games.’ More and more people are grasping that that’s not going to happen right away. It’s not an overnight thing.”
Still, Westmoreland does not hedge when outlining his goals for where he hopes the process will end. The Sox are the ones who articulate the goal of getting him into a professional game. Westmoreland speaks about getting to the game’s highest level.
“It still is my dream to get to the big leagues,” Westmoreland said.
No one can say definitively that he will ever set foot on a baseball field in a professional game. But based on the progress of his recovery to this point, no one can say Westmoreland can’t. And if he continues the trajectory that he has traveled, the odds will continue to shift in his favor.
As such, he has learned to be patient, and to appreciate each measure of progress he makes. He is comfortable with the fact that there is no timetable for his return to games, and that he cannot even say whether such an outcome will be achievable in 2011. At age 20, Westmoreland remains young enough that time is still his ally rather than his enemy in an uncertain, yet remarkable, comeback effort.
“For me to have already made this progress at the age of 20 gives me a lot of confidence that I’m going to get back, that I’m still going to be fairly young if not a normal age for a big leaguer to have,” he says. “Whether I don’t make it or I do, the fact that I’m trying it, I’m doing things that people didn’t think were possible, whether I get back or not, whether I get to the big leagues or not, I’ve already come a tremendous way.”