FORT MYERS, Fla. – Thwack.
It is a familiar sound, so common in spring training that it barely registers.
It is the sound of ball hitting wood in batting practice. It is a skill that is taken for granted in this setting, where it represents routine for dozens and dozens of Red Sox major leaguers and minor leaguers.
A year ago, the sound created by Ryan Westmoreland was a bit different than his peers. There was an explosiveness at the point of contact when barrel met ball, a sound that separated the 19-year-old from other players, a noise that turned scouts’ heads and helped to establish him as the top prospect in the system.
Westmoreland was destroying the ball in spring training in 2010, taking rounds of batting practice that would leave team hitting instructors shaking their heads, knowing they were witnessing the start of something special.
Then the prospect’s ascent was altered dramatically, shockingly. It was roughly a year ago that the signs started to emerge that would change the course not just of his career but of his life. The symptoms started appearing – 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 – last February.
Those were the first signs that led to the discovery of a cavernous malformation of cells in his brain stem, which forced him to leave spring training to see specialists on March 4 and to undergo surgery – potentially life-threatening – to remove the mass of cells that had started bleeding into his brain on March 16.
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-learn” (the operative word guiding much of the rehab process) how to tie his shoes.
“For something simple to be so hard makes people take things less for granted,” said Westmoreland.
Some fine motor skills remain elusive. There are the challenges of tying shoes. He is still rehabbing from Bell’s palsy, a condition that created partial paralysis of the left side of his face and that still affects his speech (though that has been less and less the case over time). 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.
And yet while he continues to work towards restoring himself to his pre-surgery condition, there have been glimpses of what might be possible this spring.
The most important aspect of his recovery, the assurance that he will enjoy a normal quality of life, has been accomplished. And now, Westmoreland – who was seen at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston for a routine checkup on Tuesday – 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,” said Sox farm director Mike Hazen. “I think we’ve progressed beyond that point now. There is obviously nothing set in stone to know what we’re dealing with overall, but 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.”
A big part of that, of course, is batting practice. Westmoreland takes it three times a week – there is little question that he hungers to take it more – where he is once again making regular, hard contact. For the most part, the sound of the ball and bat blends in with what might be heard from other players in his batting practice group or in an adjacent hitting cage.
But there are exceptions. Sometimes, the clean contact is replaced by a “plink,” the ball finding an area off the barrel and dribbling away, a reminder that he is still working back towards his prior balance and timing. But on a few occasions, the other sound has come back, the one that put Westmoreland on the map as one of the top prospects in the game.
As of Saturday, that had translated once to the most tangible of outcomes on the baseball field. The moment came just a little while before droves of Sox players began crowding into Fort Myers for spring training.
Westmoreland, who had been working out at the Sox’ Player Development Complex since Jan. 7, received a welcome reminder when he turned on a pitch a couple weeks ago and sent it over the chain link fence of Field 1. The ball bounced and rolled into water.
Chip Simpson, the Sox’ rehab coordinator whom Westmoreland describes as having been “pretty much my brother” through his recoveries from three surgeries, yelled to pitcher Jennel Hudson to get the ball. When Hudson, who was shagging in the outfield during the batting practice round, hesitated at the prospect of clearing the 10-foot fence, Simpson took matters into his own hands.
He sprinted from near home plate to the fence, hopped it, ran into the water and retrieved the ball. Both he and the ball were soaking when he returned to Westmoreland with a keepsake that now sits in the rehab coordinator’s office.
“I’ll definitely always remember that,” said Westmoreland. “That trajectory, I’d almost forgotten what that felt like. Right off the bat when I hit it, I said, ‘That’s gone.’ I actually threw the bat and started walking down the first base line. It was nice to get that little mental picture.
“I remember in Lowell when I played and I hit one, I would know right off the bat that I got one. It was cool. That was the first time I’ve gotten that feeling since then. It was nice to get that little picture, to see the trajectory and you’d be able to say that ball is out,” he added. “It was really big for me. It’s great hitting line drives up the middle. But that feeling of hitting the ball out, which I’ve done in the past – I’m not saying I’m a big power guy – but to be able to hit the ball out of the park for the first time since last February was special.”
MANAGING THE MONOTONY
Progress is not always so glaringly apparent.
The process of Westmoreland’s efforts to resume his baseball career features the sort of repetition that can easily be viewed as painstaking. It is a common refrain among players who are rehabbing that they can’t wait to get out of Fort Myers, that they feel as if there’s nothing to do.
Westmoreland, who owns a condo in the city, has a different perspective.
“It’s actually not too bad,” he observed. “Anything is better than a hospital bed. That’s where I was for too long.”
When he got out of surgery, his recovery was measured in leaps as his senses of sight and hearing returned. Now, the advances on and off the field are less obvious, which is why the Sox chart Westmoreland’s work every day so that they can measure his progress over the span of weeks and thus offer a reminder of the steady progress that has occurred.
Westmoreland does not take the process for granted as he had when recovering from a pair of previous surgeries (one in 2008 to repair a torn labrum, another in 2009 to help heal his broken collarbone). He embraces what must be done.
“Rehab used to be go in, do your shoulder work, try to get out of there,” he said. “Now it’s a complete 360. I feel like it’s something I want to go through everyday. I want to get better. Doing things not to their full potential, that’s going to hurt me and so I just give my all everyday and that’s how I’m going to get back. It’s not recovering from a broken bone. That’s going to heal itself. I’ve got to work at it.”
That was true in the hospital, where his activities were almost unchanging on a day-to-day basis, as well as in Fort Myers, where he went to commence baseball activities in the fall, roughly six months removed from the surgery.
He was able to resume weight lifting aggressively in the last few months, and the outfielder is now physically robust. At roughly 6-foot-3 and about 212-215 pounds, his physique is again the hard-chiseled one of an athlete, a testament to the tireless work he has invested to make up for the lost strength and weight while he was in a hospital bed. He notes proudly that he has less body fat and more lean mass than he did pre-surgery.
Now that his rehab is taking place outdoors, he has been able to commence a number of undertakings that would have been impossible in another setting. The Sox try to challenge him with new activities, as when the high school soccer star kicked a ball for the first time since his surgery a couple weeks ago.
In terms of baseball activities, hitting is the area that feels most natural. That explains why he felt comfortable enough to achieve his most recent milestone.
Westmoreland started taking batting practice on the field not just with the small group of eight or nine fellow rehabbers with whom he’s been working since the fall, but in the large packs of minor leaguers who are in Fort Myers for spring training. He had been anxious about the discomfort – both his own and that of his teammates – and potential embarrassment of looking different than other players.
“I didn’t know if I was comfortable in front of the other guys because I didn’t want to fail and have them see me. But certainly the biggest milestone to date is getting out there with the team, not getting any exceptions just because I went through what I did,” he said. “I’m out there just like any other guy taking batting practice. I feel like I’m holding my own.
“When I was uncomfortable, it was really being afraid to fail and to have everybody see me and just feel not a part of the team. I’m completely comfortable now. People know what happened. If they don’t, somebody does and is going to tell them. They’re not going to point fingers and laugh.
“If I fail at something, it’s because I had brain surgery. Guys understand that now. I don’t ever go out and shy away from doing anything. I’m not afraid of anything. I feel comfortable around the coaches, the players and pretty much everyone that can see me.”
He takes one-handed flips as well as batting practice fastballs thrown by minor league hitting coordinator Victor Rodriguez. There have been no breaking balls, nor have there been the sort of fastballs that Westmoreland will ultimately have to handle if he wants to be ready for games.
That said, Westmoreland suggests that his swing just clicked back into place once he received the green light to hit. He has seen video of himself swinging, and has been “pleasantly surprised” with how he looks.
He is not yet at the point where he is receiving instruction about mechanics, as the Sox are simply letting Westmoreland find his own comfort zone with his swing. For now, that means embracing a line drive stroke. Power – the one home run notwithstanding – can come later.
“Last year, you’d have the rounds where you’d feel good and wait for that inside pitch and try to hit it over the fence,” said Westmoreland. “For me, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m not going to be able to do that right now. I’m just looking to hit the ball hard.
“If there are guys who are hitting 400 foot jacks and I’m hitting line drives up the middle, that’s fine with me. I know that my strength continuing to improve is going to lead to more one day. I’m just trying to make sure that the mechanics of my swing are sound, that all the little things I’m doing are right before I take that step, before I start trying to hit balls a mile.”
In other areas, he continues to work to regain his athleticism. He feels the progress (“I can see that’s a big step”) that he has made with his running and speed, even though he acknowledges that there is ground to make up.
He is still rebuilding his throwing arm as well, though it would be difficult to undersell the progress that he has made in that regard, particularly given the point at which he started.
“The first time throwing, I couldn’t even get it 10 feet. I was like, ‘Uh-oh,’” he said. “Now I’m throwing about 120 feet pretty easily. I remembered a long time before, having a great arm before the labrum surgery in high school. [Throwing 120 feet] was a nice, healthy reminder of where I used to be.”
But he wants – and is striding towards – more than reminders.
A GOAL THAT REQUIRES PATIENCE
Westmoreland is realistic. His maturity about the process, particularly given that he is just 20, is startling. There is no sense of self-pity, a pointless emotion. There is only purpose.
And Westmoreland does not hedge when outlining his goals for where he hopes the process that started on March 16, 2010, 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,” said Westmoreland. “I’m glad to tell my story. Hopefully it’s not nearly over yet. Hopefully it will end with me being in the big leagues. But I’ll find that out when that opportunity comes.”
During the initial months of his rehab, he did not stay far from baseball. He would make appearances at Fenway Park, in Portland, in Pawtucket at games.
But then, he resumed baseball activities and spent a few days working out with the Lowell Spinners and then the Greenville Drive (a team that featured several of his teammates from the 2009 Spinners club) near the end of last season.
By the time he got to Fort Myers to work out and watch games during the Florida Instructional League, the desire to play had become a longing.
“It’s amazing. Watching the game in instructs, I was like…,’” Westmoreland said with a sigh. “That’s when it really hit me. Greenville was a little different because I was more in the stands. But instructs, I was right out here [by the field] and I was like, ‘God, I just want to get in there and play.’
“I had to take a deep breath and say, alright, I’m not ready to play right now. That’s cool. I just want to play again and try to forget it. It’s tough going out there and watching games. But at the same time, if you realize what you went through, you’re like, okay, I just had whatever happened and I’m just taking it slow.”
There is no timetable for when Westmoreland will play in a game. That can only come when his physical skills will match the pace of the game, when he is able to duck out of the way of a stray high-and-tight fastball even when he is anticipating a breaking ball.
The absence of target dates would be difficult for any athlete to accept, and Westmoreland is no different. He became an elite player because he was able to blitz through the setting and fulfillment of goals.
The challenge of remaining patient becomes all the greater thanks to the steady, well-intentioned questions from friends and well-wishers who are struck by how healthy he looks. He estimates that he has encountered the inquiry roughly “a zillion” times: When are you going to play in a game?
He has had to accept that he cannot answer that question with a specific date or even a month or year. In the interview, he mentions that he is not looking to a return in April, or for that matter August or September. He is just trying to make progress so that at some point he will be ready to play.
“I want to smooth everything out: smooth out my swing, smooth out some of that running, smooth out the throwing. I’m not trying to set a goal and say, ‘I want to play by April.’ If it comes, it comes. If not, I’m ready to wait,” he said. “I know what I need to work on, and it’s not like I’m expecting to play in April. I’m expecting to play when I’m able to play.
“It’s very difficult, but I realize that I can’t rush anything. I don’t want to go out there and be premature, start trying to play and fail miserably. I want to play when I’m ready. When that opportunity comes, I’ll know that I’m completely ready to play. I’ll hopefully be successful on the field.”
Patience has been easier because progress has been regular. At the time of the surgery, no one could say with any certainty whether Westmoreland would ever again be able to walk, let alone knock a ball over a fence in batting practice.
That he is doing so less than one year removed from brain surgery underscores how much he has already accomplished. That, in turn, allows him to be patient about what can still be done.
“It hasn’t even been a year and I’m already doing things that no doctor really said I’ll be doing,” said Westmoreland. “If I just keep at this pace, just take it day by day and not look ahead to this August or September, it will happen when it’s meant to be. I’ve accepted that. I’m definitely not trying to rush anything.”
But, perhaps just as importantly, he has not had to rule out anything. His attempt to come back from this form of brain surgery to play baseball has no precedent.
As such, 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 he can’t. And if he continues the trajectory that he has traveled, the odds will continue to shift in his favor.
“We don’t look at the future from a big picture standpoint. We can’t really. We don’t know what’s out there. So we try to push him and he tries to push himself every single day,” said Sox farm director Mike Hazen. “We don’t know how the final chapter is going to play out here, but as long as we keep seeing that steady progress, we’re going to remain optimistic that this thing is going to play out in the end and he’s going to be back to playing professional baseball.”
ONE YEAR LATER
Westmoreland only wanted one tattoo. He was inked after he suffered a broken collarbone while making a spectacular catch while crashing into the fence in Lowell.
And so he got the marking. Inside an oval, a baseball player is swinging a bat, the words “St. Christopher” above him and “Protect Me” below. Above the oval is the image of a broken fence, a nod to the fact that he actually smashed part of the fence at LeLacheur Park when making his collarbone-breaking grab. Below it is the word “Livestrong,” the signature motto of seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong.
That was meant to be Westmoreland’s only tattoo.
“I said, I’m never getting a tattoo again unless something really serious happens,” he chuckled. “Sure enough, six months later, something really serious happened.”
And so, last summer, he got another tattoo with a date: March 16, 2010, the day he underwent brain surgery.
“I think it’s a good, memorable thing to look down at and be proud of: The day that I survived,” he said. “It means a lot. … I would get [another] one maybe if I debut again. That would be it, I hope. That would complete the whole thing. I’m just hoping for that day.”
In three weeks, he will get together with his parents, Ron and Robin Westmoreland, as well as his girlfriend, Charlene Colameta, at an Outback Steakhouse, a nod to the fact that the group also went to Outback last March 15, the night before the procedure.
It will be the sort of get-together that attests to the success of the surgery and rehab process, to the fact that Westmoreland is a normal 20-year-old able to live a normal life. He enjoys his friends and family, goes to the movie, golfs (badly) in his free time and goes fishing every day, joking that he suffered the greatest embarrassment of his life when his big catch last week was a fish that was no more than a couple inches in length.
“I wanted it to jump off the hook,” he admitted.
But there is also a resonance to the idea that it will have been a year since the budding Sox star underwent a surgery that was terrifying for him, his family and friends as well as his baseball organization a year ago. Westmoreland, whose journey is being documented by ESPN’s E:60, will be accompanied by a camera crew that day, “just to show where I was, how far I came one year later. I’m excited for all of that.
“One year later seems like a long time, but for me,” he added, “it’s just another day and I’m ready for the next one.”
As for Westmoreland’s career, though he has not played in a game since Sept. 2009, and his developmental as a baseball player was interrupted, time is not his enemy. Had he fulfilled his scholarship commitment to Vanderbilt instead of signing with the Sox out of high school for a $2 million bonus after being drafted in the fifth round, Westmoreland wouldn’t have been eligible for the draft until this coming summer.
He is young in life, and young in baseball years.
“I constantly remind myself and people constantly remind me of how young I am,” he said. “I realize that I’m only 20. 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.
“It’s nice being young right now. I certainly don’t mind it. It’s nice being reminded that I’m young and that I have a long way to go, not to let my age affect how I do my rehab.”
He is doing everything in his power to come back, even as he admits that the ultimate destination of his comeback path remains unknowable.
“Whether I don’t make it or I do,” he said, “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.”
But he wants more.
It is the sound of possibility.