Ryan Westmoreland and the Brain Surgery That Sidelined 'Left-Handed Mike Trout'October 6, 2017
The telemarketers won't stop calling.
Ryan Westmoreland swears this isn’t normal. Spring is the slow season at In the Zone Baseball Club, and his dad, Ron, owns the batting cage. Ryan gives lessons on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. The phone usually doesn't ring this much, but for whatever reason, this Monday in September is the day these telemarketers chose to flood the office with calls. It's a change in days that often blur together, Ryan notes. He springs toward the phone every time it rings.
"Hello, this is Ryan," he says before hanging up the phone without another word.
Westmoreland sits behind the counter organizing the cage's schedule as his dog, Pedey (named after Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia), falls asleep amid a scattering of tennis balls. He spends a lot of his time here now, splitting half the profits with his dad. The air conditioner purrs in the otherwise quiet facility. The walls are painted Fenway green, with a tarp draped over the far north wall decorated as the Green Monster.
There's a lot of time to kill, especially when the New England weather still permits players to train outside. Sometimes, Westmoreland stares at the jerseys that hang over the Pop-A-Shot in the waiting area. There are three of them. One is a Red Sox jersey, facing forward—his favorite team growing up in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. The team that believed in his potential as an 18-year-old. The second is an American League Single-A All-Star jersey, from 2009, a reminder of the greatness that once landed him at No. 21 on Baseball America's list of top prospects just one season into his pro career. The third is a second Red Sox jersey, turned backward. His name and the number 25 are on the back, the future superstardom that never came.
"It's nice to look at sometimes," Westmoreland says.
He stares at an Excel spreadsheet for much of the day. It's organized by age group, teams and lesson instructor. Above two used Fenway Park seats (given to him as a gift by the Red Sox), between two of his Lowell Spinners jerseys, lies a small, rounded, brown wood frame with a quote from Jason McLeod, the former Red Sox scouting director who pushed the team to select Westmoreland in 2008 and who now works for the defending world champion Chicago Cubs.
"Ryan Westmoreland was the most talented player I've ever drafted," the quote reads. "He would have been Boston's lefthanded Mike Trout. A New England kid. It was a great story. He was a racehorse, 6-foot-3, strong, and as fast as can be. Raw power. Great defender. He could have been Boston's center fielder for 15 years."
He still dreams about that first home run in pro baseball. Sometimes, Westmoreland will be in bed, and as his eyes close, he'll be right back at LeLacheur Park as the Spinners public address announcer calls his name. He's watched the YouTube video so many times that it's become imprinted in his 27-year-old mind. It had been a long time since his last home run, 15 games into the start of his professional career in 2009. He was anxious to get it out of the way.
The first pitch from Tri-City ValleyCats pitcher Justin Harper was a slider up and away.
He still remembers his thought process clearly. He's going to throw a fastball in so he doesn't fall behind in the count, Westmoreland thought.
"I knew it was coming," Westmoreland says.
It came, and he smoked it. The pitch went soaring over the right-field wall. There was a sense of relief, that things were finally going the way they were supposed to. As he rounded the bases, Westmoreland heard his mom. You can hear it in the YouTube clip too. It's the high-pitched shriek Westmoreland still hears in his sleep. He's greeted by his teammates.
He gets lost in that memory, sometimes.
"Can you bring up the video on YouTube?" Westmoreland asks. "I want to make sure I remembered it correctly."
As the clip plays on an iPhone, Ryan stares intensely. Sometimes, he says, he'll see his players crowd around and watch it together. Many of them are too young to know his resume, that he agreed to a $2 million signing bonus to forgo a scholarship at Vanderbilt. How Boston buzzed about having a local star to man center field for the next decade.
In 60 games in 2009, his first season in pro ball with the Lowell Spinners, Westmoreland hit .296/.401/.484 with seven homers, 35 RBI and 19 stolen bases. His professional debut threw a mountain of coal into the hype train. At 19, he was already the Red Sox's best prospect, on the fast track to success, and one scout went as far as to compare him to Mickey Mantle.
But Westmoreland realized something was wrong at spring training, the start of his second professional season. He was playing Call of Duty on his Xbox when he felt his thumb grow numb. He wrote it off as nothing. He was a professional athlete in very good shape. He was the hometown kid whose dreams of hitting walk-off homers at Fenway Park grew more tangible by the day. It didn't hit him that this was different from a strained hamstring or torn labrum until the next day.
While stretching on the field, he felt his entire right side go numb, like it had fallen asleep. Team doctors told him to get an MRI immediately.
Doctors pointed at the big golf ball-sized blob on the scan: a cavernous malformation, they told him, a life-threatening congenital irregularity that made him susceptible to brain bleeding. If left untreated, he could've been blinded, paralyzed or killed. He decided immediately to have the surgery, March 16, 2010, a date now tattooed on his right bicep.
"I'll be fine," Westmoreland said to himself. "I've already come back from injuries before."
On the iPhone screen, Harper throws the first pitch. He'd remembered correctly, Westmoreland notes. Slider up and away, and then fastball inside for the homer. He hears his mom's shriek, making sure to point it out. The clip ends as Westmoreland is walking back to the dugout, high-fiving teammates. I turn toward him, and a single tear drips down his left cheek. That side of his face became partially paralyzed after the surgery, and his eye involuntarily wells up multiple times a day as a result. The image is no less striking.
Normal things became hard after the surgery. Tying shoes took nearly two minutes. He could no longer touch a stove because the numbness in his hand could leave his hand toasted without his feeling a thing. He struggled to walk. Balance was the real issue, especially with his right foot. Westmoreland limps today. When his right foot touches the ground, he doesn't feel the weight of the floor under his feet, making each step a balancing attack and a hobble.
The second surgery turned things for the worse. He'd fought all the way back the first time. He was hitting pitches in the cage again. Things were looking bright again, like Westmoreland could fulfill the potential that everyone knew he had. He even played in a Red Sox Dominican instructional league game in December 2011. But two years after the first surgery, in July 2012, doctors found a second cavernous malformation, bleeding. He needed a second surgery.
He woke up from the anesthesia deaf in his right ear, blind in his left eye. He knew he needed to retire, and he did officially in March 2013.
"I can't play anymore," Westmoreland told himself. "I can't try to do this anymore."
After the second surgery, he shut himself off from the rest of the world. For two months, he sat in his parents' basement eating chips and candy. He passed the days with TV, therapy and sleep. He fell in love with the show Friday Night Lights, and his favorite character became Jason Street, the paraplegic former quarterback whose in-game spine injury took away a scholarship at Notre Dame and a chance for a football career. He refused to turn on a baseball game, even his beloved Red Sox. Seeing then-Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine, an abject disaster in Boston, wear his No. 25 infuriated him.
"I really didn't want to be like, 'That could be me,' or 'I'm better than him,'" Westmoreland says.
Everything he'd been working toward for years disappeared. He was 22 years old, and the future everyone told him he'd have was already gone. He'd ask himself questions: Why is this happening to me? What did I do to deserve this? He thought about endings things himself.
"Part of me just wanted to be done with it," Westmoreland says. "I didn't think I could handle it anymore, and I really didn't think I could."
He's patient with his players. At one point, one of the high schoolers Westmoreland coaches gets off balance and hits a ball off the end of the bat, way out in front of the soft-toss pitch. From behind the net, Westmoreland whispers something to the batter and tests his balance. He tosses another pitch, and THWACK, the ball zips to the opposite end of the cage.
He slowly brought himself back to the game. Three months after shutting out the world, he began to drift back. Things started to change when he saw his friends make the majors. First came guys like Will Middlebrooks and Daniel Nava. And then Jackie Bradley, Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts. Westmoreland wanted to support his old teammates, so he flipped on NESN to see his friends' successes.
"I loved the Red Sox, and I love those guys," Westmoreland says. "I couldn't not watch them."
A year and a half after the surgery, he decided he wanted to coach and began to work at In the Zone. He set sights on a career in the front office, something he doesn't feel quite ready to pursue. Maybe five or so more years, Westmoreland says.
"There's a part of the front office that needs a guy who knows baseball, who isn't maybe, obviously, as smart as the Harvard, Cornell, Yale, Dartmouth guys, but has a different side of knowing how players are doing and feeling," Westmoreland says. "The front office should always have a spot that is dedicated for someone who has played and knows the game."
In June 2015, Westmoreland returned to Fenway with his dad as an honored guest of the Red Sox. In front of a sold-out crowd, Westmoreland had the opportunity to throw out the first pitch. Instead, he opted to have his dad throw it out because he didn't feel comfortable. But as the pitch zipped past home plate and the Boston crowd roared, Westmoreland couldn't help but take it all in.
"I had always wanted that in a different instance, like jogging out to center field," Westmoreland says. "It wasn't that, but to be there, and get the ovation I got with the players that knew me, it was really exciting. They all knew who I was. They knew my story."
The one thing the surgery never took away was his swing. Doctors told him his swing was so ingrained in his muscle memory that any physical limitations—walking, tying his shoes—didn't extend to the plate. It's still a thing of beauty. Quick, powerful and fluid.
On this Saturday, Westmoreland takes some swings off the tee. He does this from time to time, sometimes facing the pitching machine, maxing out at 80 mph. The parents and students in the cage stop what they're doing and watch Westmoreland swing. Even four years after retirement, Westmoreland catches everyone's eye.
He still dreams about what his pro baseball career could've been. All the time. He watches the Red Sox on TV, sees Jackie and Mookie on the field and thinks, "Well, that could be me." He knows there's nothing he could do to change things. He lives a regular life now, living with his girlfriend and taking classes while working at the cage. He gets MRIs every six months to check up on himself. He loves coaching the kids too, getting excited every time his players get a scholarship offer. He appreciates everything the surgery gave him, the new outlook he received on life.
"It's easy to look back and go, 'God, that sucked. That was just the worst,'" Westmoreland says. "I obviously lived through it. Maybe if I had not gone through it, I don't have as good of appreciation for the little things that a lot of people take for granted. Right now, everything I think about how hard used to be with me, tying my shoes and how that used to take 10 minutes. Maybe if I had not gone through it and been in the big leagues for 10 years, I would not have had as great an appreciation for those things."
He thinks he would've been good. Real good, and a lot of people do. He could hit to all fields. He could hit balls on the outer half of the plate. At the old In the Zone location in Fall River, Westmoreland's uniform hung in a mural next to other Red Sox legends. Josh Beckett. Jerry Remy. David Ortiz. Carl Yastrzemski. Two years ago, when the Westmorelands opened the new location of the batting cage, the mural didn't make the trip.
Doctors told him the paralysis in his face and the numbness on his right side could disappear one day, but Westmoreland isn't counting on it. At this point, any positive developments are just icing on top.
Westmoreland wraps up on the tee, and we pick up the balls together. It still feels good, that sensation, the crack of the bat hitting a baseball. He can still hit 80 mph off the pitching machine, but he usually limits himself to the tee. As we lug the bucket out of the cage, a player's father who's been watching the swings comes up to Westmoreland.
"Ryan, it looks like you could still crank one over the center field wall at Fenway," he says.
Westmoreland laughs. He turns around and responds.
"And then I woke up."