Here is the conclusion of my conversation with Ryan Westmoreland. The audio is available on pawsox.com, under multimedia on the homepage. Click video highlights. (This is an audio only interview)
While you were in Arizona getting set for the fight of your life, the Portsmouth basketball team paid tribute to you during the final timeout of their state championship victory. What did that mean to you?
It was amazing. I didn’t know it was going on. It was a day or two before surgery and Coach Lunnie sent me a text. It kind of felt like everything was focused in Arizona. Not too many people knew about it yet, but to have the people of Rhode Island back home thinking about me was really special.
The Red Sox have gone out of their way, it seems, to make things as easy for your family as possible. Tell me about your relationship with them.
When it first started, it was just another injury with the trainers. Once i got the results from the MRI, the whole organization switched from employer to family. It was amazing. I can’t say enough about the organization. From plane flights to hotels. Everything you could imagine. They took care of it all. They are a first class organization. It was special. They had “my back”. It was just like I was a part of their family.
Obviously, the people of R.I. love you and the Red Sox care a great deal about you. Who did you hear from that may have surprised you?
I got letters in Boston and Arizona flying in. Mail from people who we had no idea where they were from. Some unsigned, telling me stories of hope and inspiration. Kids and their parents who had cavernous malformations just like me. All of them were positive, all living normal lives. To read that kind of thing was special and inspiring. At the time I was down on myself, not knowing what was going to happen. To read those stories gave me a lot of motivation to keep going.
You are working hard, rehabbing every day. What do you consider a victory today?
Every day in therapy, I like to finish with a positive attitude. I’ll look back a week or two to see if I could’ve done then, what I did today. Most of the time the answer is ‘no’ and I feel really great when I do something I couldn’t do a couple of weeks before that. That’s kept me going and as long as I keep an even head with therapy, don’t get too up or down on myself, when I ask myself that question, it’s a good feeling.
Obviously, you’re a very gifted athlete. Is it strange for you to take gratification in throwing a ball or running the bases?
It’s different, that’s for sure. It came naturally before and now it takes a lot of effort. I’ve come to terms with what’s happened and I understand that it’s not going to come naturally right now. I know that I have to work through it and that’s what I’m going to do.
We talked about the pressure of being a top prospect. Is there a different type of pressure as people are now banking on you making a miraculous comeback?
We’re definitely hoping it’s going to be a pretty good story, starting as a top prospect and going through this whiole situation. I’m really motivated to get back on the field. Not necessarily to be the top prospect again, but to get back out on the field. Even if I’m not the top prospect, I’ll be able to inspire some kids with what I’ve gone through. Returning to become a top prospect would be great, but getting back on the field is the only goal.
You were at Fenway Park when your friend Daniel Nava had a “goosebump” moment, making his Major League debut, hitting a Grand Slam in his first ML at bat. What was that like and what’s it like watching guys like Daniel and Ryan Kalish play while you’re out?
Ever since I signed and first saw Nava, I knew he’d get to the Big Leagues. He’s got an unbelievable way of going about his business. On the field, he’s a great player. Kalish is the same way. I can’t imagine it will be too long before Kalish is up there. Seeing those guys get up there is special because those are the guys I played with. To see that they’re moving up motivates every minor league player, it inspires us all. Especially Nava. I’ve always looked up to him. To see him doing what he’s doing, is very special.
I’m sure I know the answer. It’s always the same, no matter who you ask. What do you miss most while you’re out?
You really miss just hanging out with the guys in the clubhouse. The clubhouse is a place where not too many people get to go. It’s a place where the team just bonds and has a good time. You hang out there before the game and once you get on the field, you’re all just one unit. You play together. But the clubhouse, yeah, that’s what I miss most. It’s really important.
What goals do you have right now? When do you expect to back on the playing field?
I don’t have a specific time frame. I’m just trying to get through this rehab as soon as I can without skipping any parts. I’m throwing and running and stuff. I’m working on smoothing things out. Working on my coordination and balance. I have no timetable, but after three months I am running and throwing. I hope that within a year or so, I’ll be smooth with everything and we’ll go from there.
I have to admit, I didn’t know what to expect, talking to you today. I want the people to know, you look good. You look like you’re on the road. How comfortable are you being out in public and what message do you have for all those who care so much?
I’m comfortable. I like to do all the things that any college-age kid likes to do. Go out with my friends, hang out by the pool. I’ve come to terms with what I’ve gone through. If people look at me when I’m out, they can think what they want to think, thats fine. I know what I went through and the people who are close to me, know what I went through. I’m definitely comfortable. As far as any message- I want to thank everyone for the unbelievable support I’ve gotten through this whole thing. Texts, letters etc. from people I did and didn’t know. I want to thank the Red Sox for all they’ve done. My teammates too, I realize I have a lot of true friends in the organization. Guys who have kept on me and stayed in touch and kept track of what’s going on. The support has just been amazing.
(I would like to thank Ryan and his mother Robin and father Ron for allowing me access to their home and a look inside their lives.)
Here is part one of my conversation with Ryan Westmoreland. The audio is available on pawsox.com. On the homepage click multimedia. Then click video highlights. It is an audio interview only. It is about half way down the page. I hope it inspires you
Everyone knows you as the top prospect in the Red Sox organization. They also know what you have had to endure over the last few months. Let’s talk about how you are feeling both physically and emotionally.
Physically, I definitely feel great. It’s been a little over three months since the surgery. Knowing that it’s only been three months since a pretty serious operation, from where I was to where I am now, I feel great. Emotionally, it’s been a roller coaster for me and my family, especially the time leading up to the surgery and the time immediately after. We’ve gotten over it, everything’s positive and we have a good attitude about it.
Let’s go back even before you knew there was anything wrong. What’s it like to be a local kid and the top prospect in the Sox system?
It’s an honor. Playing with some of those guys, hanging out with those guys. Players like Lars Anderson and Ryan Kalish, who are always at the top of that board. To be honored in the top 5, never mind the top 1 is amazing. I try to not let affect me at all. Just go out and play. Let the people off the field do all the talking. I tried to control what could. How I played. I was really excited going into the season. It’s too bad.
Is there added pressure, being the #1 guy?
I can’t lie. I’d say there definitely is. Everybody knows it. The guys mess around with you. You’re not going to be able to block it all out, but you do the best you can.
Let’s go back to Spring Training in Fort Myers when you started to see your symptoms manifest. Hitting instructor Victor Rodriguez said you were crushing the ball at batting practice early in the day.
I felt beyond great. I was hitting the ball great. The coaches were all happy. All of a sudden I felt a numbness and tingling in my fingers. I didn’t know what it was. I played through it for about a week. the trainers were keeping an eye on me. It didn’t go away. We still didn’t think it was anything serious. One day the ball felt really heavy in my hand and I had to use a lighter bat. I was still hitting and throwing the ball well. Something still wasn’t right, although I wasn’t experiencing any pain. I knew something was wrong. A day or so later, I felt very weak on my right side. That sent up the red flags. I went for an MRI and that’s how it all started.
You were diagnosed with a “Cavernous Malformation.” As best as you can, explain it to me.
Honestly, I’ve heard from multiple doctors. You could call it a stroke or any number of things. Whatever it was, it bled out and when it bled, that would trigger the symptoms. I had the first bleed and the first numbness. The second bleed triggered more symptoms and that’s when we knew we were in for surgery…They all said “you’ve had this since birth”, it was just unlucky this happened now.
The words “brain surgery” are two of the most frightening words you could encounter. What goes through your mind as you process that?
We knew that it was a sensitive and serious matter, going through the surgery rather than sitting around and waiting. It was frightening. In Arizona, a couple of days before surgery, Dr. (Robert) Spetzler laid it all out. The risks of the surgery included death, coma and paralysis. He just laid it right out and that’s when it all set in. It was a pretty emotional time.
You go through the surgery. I imagine just waking up was an incredible relief.
That was the number one goal. Just wake up. For me, it seemed like ten seconds, for my parents, it was the longest eight hours of their life. We were in the Intensive Care Unit and I’m thinking “Thank God I’m alive”. It was amazing waking up and having my family and my girlfriend Charlene there for me. We saw progress within the first few days. The goals became bigger. I wanted to get up and walk. I wanted to be able to eat. Some of the goals, I’ve reached. Some of the goals are more long term.
I read a great story about how you met Charlene, It took swagger to do what you did. Still have that swagger?
In my first season, I was playing in Lowell and I heard some girls shouting to me “#25, #25″. I didn’t know what to do. I was a young guy on the team. Kason Gabbard told me to put my name and number on a ball and get it to her. I figured “why not?” I had nothing to lose. Later in the game she got onto the field to do the “chicken dance” and I thought “Oh Geez, she’s nuts!” It has worked out great. She has been there the whole way. I don’t really have that type of swagger anymore. At least right now, I don’t. When I get back out on the field, I’ll be confident. Never cocky, but confident. I try to never show weakness to an opponent, always stay confident.
Mike Lunnie, the Athletic Director at Portsmouth High School told me that as soon as you got your first check from Boston, you made a donation to your alma mater. What did you do?
I was thinking about giving something back to the high school in the baseball area, but I played soccer and basketball too. I wanted to do something for the entire school and the athletic program so we went out and bought a 60 inch flat screen TV for the new weight room that was just put in. I felt it would suit all the sporting programs at the school and not just one thing. I wanted it to benefit the whole school.
To Be Continued.
In this world, you never know where your inspiration is going to come from. Today, I got an enormous dose from a 20 year old man. Ryan Westmoreland, the super prospect from Portsmouth, RI and I sat down on the back patio at his family’s home and covered a lot of territory. I will write about it in the coming days. Today, though, I give you my impressions of the kid who is battling to recover from brain surgery.
I set up the interview with Ryans’ dad, Ron. I have known Ron since we were both kids growing up in Newport. I wanted to wait until I knew he was willing to do press. Ryan and his family have endured enough since the cavernous malformation was diagnosed during Spring Training. We lament this ones’ foot injury, or that ones’ arm problems. I’m not minimizing anyones injuries. I guarantee you, though, very few could make it through this hardship and still come out smiling, like Ryan Westmoreland.
I had run into the Westmoreland family (Ryan, Ron and his lovely wife Robin) on Fathers’ Day at the Brick Alley Pub in Newport. It was the first time I had seen Ryan since his ordeal began. I admit I was a bit emotional as we shook hands and exchanged pleasantries. The first thing I thought of was how good it was to see him out in public. Sure, he was moving a little carefully in the crowded restaurant, but so what. This was a kid that was battling for his life just a couple of months earlier. I knew the time wasn’t appropriate to ask to sit down for a chat, so I didn’t. After reading Dan Barbarisi’s outstanding article in “The Providence Journal” I figured that the time was as good as any. Ron set it up and I met Ryan at his house. There’s a basketball hoop at the end of the dead end street , a beautiful pool in the backyard and plenty of room for wiffleball or any ohter childhood avocation. It’s a place where Ryan honed his skills as a young man and finds comfort today.
Like any other 20 year old on summer vacation, he was sleeping in. Robin said she began prodding him about a half hour before our appointment. When I arrived, he was there and ready to go. He moved easily and steadily and spoke articulately about all that has happened to him. I am not ashamed to tell you, I was a little nervous as we began. I’ve been interviewing people for the better part of the last 25 years, and I don’t get nervous. I wanted him to be clear and he was. My nerves turned into emotion as I heard his answers to my questions. I was so impressed with this young man, I had all I could do not to hug him and tell that we are all behind him and that we love him.
I guess the point I’m trying to convey came a little later in the day as I spoke with Ron on the phone. He told the story of a most unlikely source of inspiration for the Westmoreland family. While Ryan was recuperating in the hospital in Arizona, he got a visit from the “Big Unit”. Future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson heard about Ryan and decided that he had to pay a visit. The gigantic lefthander had a simple message, according to Ron Westmoreland. “He told Ryan that he hoped all would go well and he would eventually return to baseball. He also told him to be prepared, in case that wasn’t possible. Johnson told him to share his story of inspiration, of recovering from brain surgery, whether he shared it with soldiers returning from war, or children afflicted with a malady, share it. Johnson spent about an hour with Ryan. He was unbelievable.”
Here’s what I think. Whether it’s handling the pressure of being the number one prospect in the Red Sox system or coming back from a life threatening condition, Ryan Westmoreland is a winner. He always has been and he always will be. No matter what.
The interview will be available on pawsox.com and you will also hear it on the PawSox radio Network over the next several days.