If everything had gone according to plan, Ryan Westmoreland would be looking forward to having people root for him at Fenway Park this year.
Things didn't go according to plan for Westmoreland, but he's still going to have people rooting for him this year. And the year after that and the year after that.
The only thing that's changed, really, is that the rooting won't be taking place at Fenway Park.
Westmoreland decided to retire from professional baseball on Wednesday. The Boston Red Sox drafted him in 2008 and he looked like he was on his way to becoming a star major leaguer, but his career was put on ice by brain surgery in 2010 and all but ended by a second brain surgery last July.
In an email to Brian MacPherson of The Providence Journal and other members of the press, Westmoreland wrote:
With a clear mind and heart, as well as the unwavering support and friendship of my family, friends, agent(s), doctors, therapists and the Boston Red Sox, I have decided to voluntarily retire as a professional baseball player. Although it is a very difficult decision for me, it has become clear that the neurological damage caused by the most recent cavernous malformation and surgery leaves me with physical challenges that make it impossible to play the game at such a high level.
Ryan Westmoreland. Age 22. Done playing baseball. Forever.
A shame. A damn shame.
But if we're being honest, Westmoreland's premature retirement from baseball was coming sooner or later. The health issues that waylaid his career are no joke.
Westmoreland was only 19 when he underwent surgery in March of 2010 for a "cavernous malformation of the brain." It sounded bad just to say it, and Gordon Edes of ESPNBoston.com dug up some details that made it clear just how dire Westmoreland's situation really was:
The malformation is located on the brain stem, according to multiple sources, and there has been an episode of bleeding in the brain. Typically, any further bleeding could cause severe neurological damage, according to Dr. Joseph Maroon, the vice chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and team neurosurgeon for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
A cavernous malformation, Maroon said, 'is a congenital abnormality of small abnormal capillaries [tiny blood vessels] that are connecting vessels between the arteries and veins.
'These capillaries have very thin, weak walls and are susceptible to bleeding because of their thin walls. And the cortex, or brain stem, is an extremely sensitive area from which to remove [the malformation]. It's very unusual to find these abnormalities in the brain stem.'
Neurological damage resulting from a cavernous malformation could affect movement and eye function, depending on where the malformation is located, Maroon said.
Maroon also clarified that Westmoreland was facing a life-threatening situation, and that his recovery would depend on "if there are any neurological deficits or not" and "how well he tolerates it."
The writing was on the wall at that point: The situation is very serious, the recovery won't be easy and to call baseball a distant second priority would be a colossal understatement.
Upon reading the writing on the wall, the first thought that crept into one's head was that it just wasn't damn fair. As far as baseball players go, Westmoreland had been dealt the bad hand of all bad hands.
Up until 2010, Westmoreland's career had been developing along the lines of a baseball folktale. He had a shot to be the Red Sox's version of Joe Mauer: a local kid becoming a star for the local nine amidst much local fanfare.
Westmoreland was born in Newport, RI. and starred at Portsmouth High School, drawing attention from major league scouts as both an outfielder and a pitcher. "The Natural in Portsmouth red and blue" was what The Providence Journal called him in 2008.
Ben Cherington, then the Red Sox's vice president of player personnel and now the club's general manager, walked up to Westmoreland after one of his high school games and asked him to take batting practice with a wooden bat. He must have liked what he saw, as the Red Sox made him a fifth-round draft choice and ultimately gave him a $2 million bonus to keep him from going to Vanderbilt.
After he was drafted, Westmoreland didn't bother to hide his giddiness at the fact that he was going to be a Red Sox.
"It was overwhelming when I heard my named called out," he said, via The Providence Journal. "It would be one thing just to be drafted, but then to go to the Boston Red Sox - my favorite team since I was eight years old - takes it to a different level. To be drafted by the World Champions and to be associated with that ball club is just great."
It didn't take long for Westmoreland to establish himself as a player who could one day be a star for the Red Sox. His first pro season with the Single-A Lowell Spinners in 2009 saw him post an .885 OPS and hit seven home runs with 19 stolen bases in 60 games. He wasn't caught stealing once.
In response to Westmoreland's strong showing, Baseball America ranked him as the No. 21 prospect in baseball for the 2010 season, ahead of guys like Aroldis Chapman, Freddie Freeman, Matt Moore and Jarrod Parker.
Then came the diagnosis and the surgery, which put all the brightest hopes for Westmoreland's career on hold. There was a flicker of hope many months later when he was able to take batting practice in the fall, but there was never any real timetable for him to start playing competitively again.
In July of 2012, Westmoreland did an interview with NESN (h/t Hardball Talk) in which he was still dealing with complications from the surgery, namely a sensation in his right hand and balance issues.
A couple days later, the Red Sox announced that Westmoreland had gone in for a second surgery to clear up a complication from his original surgery. Not that baseball really mattered at that point, but the second surgery may as well have been the unofficial end to Westmoreland's playing days.
The official end came on Wednesday. Westmoreland ceased to be Ryan Westmoreland, baseball player and became simply Ryan Westmoreland, person.
But there's still a story to be told here. Westmoreland is moving on as a regular person and is going to do regular person things, such as get his degree. But he also said that he's driven to be so much more than just regular:
I believe that there is a plan for me that will utilize my experiences, however painful some may have been, to do something special in my life. It is time for me to find that path, and to pursue it with the same focus and effort that I pursued the dream of playing professional baseball.
What is the "something special" Westmoreland is going to do with his life? His guess is probably as good as anybody else's. Maybe he'll go on to come up with some sort of crucial invention. Maybe he'll become a doctor and cure all diseases. Maybe he'll be the first man to shake hands with aliens from outer space.
Or maybe Westmoreland will just live a humble and happy life before one day finding his way back to baseball. It's a door he left open, saying "hopefully one day [I'll] be in a position to get back into baseball in some way."
Fine by me, and I assume fine by everyone else. As petty as baseball is in the grand scheme of things, there's always going to be something extraordinary about it for regular Joes like you and I.
Especially when it comes to all those who get to wear a uniform for a living. Westmoreland never got to do that in the big leagues as a player, but maybe he'll get to do it in some other capacity down the road. There may yet be a spot in a dugout in his future.
In between now and then is the path Westmoreland means to put himself on, and you want to believe him when he says that special things await him. Not only that, you want to root for him to see these special things to materialize. You want to root for good fortune to find him.
After all he's been through, I daresay he's owed some.
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