|A year after having brain surgery, Ryan Westmoreland is making dramatic progress. (File/J. Courneau for The Globe)|
Homer of the brave
Westmoreland’s BP an inspiring sight
FORT MYERS, Fla. — A year ago, Ryan Westmoreland was the No. 1 prospect in the Red Sox organization. Today, it takes him two minutes to tie his shoes.
And he’s still planning on making it to the big leagues.
What do you say about a 20-year-old who tries to come back from brain surgery that could have killed him and almost left him deaf and blind? What do you say about a kid who’s hitting against live pitching even though one side of his body hasn’t quite caught up to the other half?
You say that he is extraordinary. He is brave, tough, mature beyond his years, and supported by a professional sports organization that has become more family than employer.
But maybe you don’t need to say anything. The tattoo on the outfielder’s right biceps says it all. Westmoreland’s body art features a hitter, fully extended, at the end of his swing, under heavenly stadium light towers and the words, “St. Christopher . . . Protect me.’’
The bottom of this flesh fresco immortalizes March 16, 2010 — the day doctors removed a cavernous malformation from the stem of Westmoreland’s brain.
He had the tattoo done in May. “I figured the best time to get a tattoo is when you can’t feel your arm,’’ he said.
It was just about this time last year that Westmoreland noticed things weren’t quite right.
Coming off a terrific 2009 season with Single A Lowell, he was listed by Baseball America as the Sox’ top prospect. But in the spring, he felt some numbness in his thumb and pinkie while playing video games, and he seemed unusually tired after standard workouts.
An MRI revealed a golf ball-sized mass that was bleeding into his brain. At significant risk, the mass was surgically removed in Arizona.
Nobody was talking about his baseball career in those days. It was a life-and-death issue.
When he came through the surgery, it became a quality-of-life issue. Doctors said it would be two years before they could assess the damage and recovery.
One year into the plan, Westmoreland hit a batting-practice pitch over the outfield wall.
“It was amazing,’’ he said yesterday after a morning session at the Sox minor league complex. “I’m happy just hitting line drives, but that feeling of hitting a ball and knowing that it’s gone right away was something I hadn’t seen in a while.
“I knew it was gone right away, and it gave me a lot of motivation that things are getting really good. That was a great moment.’’
There is nothing routine after brain surgery. Westmoreland has to retrain his body to do what once came naturally. His motor skills are not yet symmetrical. You notice when he walks, talks, and throws.
“The toughest thing is tying my shoes,’’ he said. “Right after surgery, it was making that one loop and pulling, and that was therapy for the whole day.
“I’ve come a long way. Tying my shoes is something that you look at as so simple and it’s so hard for me. It took me a month to learn how to tie my shoes again, and now I’m doing it within two minutes.
“I have gone from where I was throwing 10 feet out to 100-plus feet. There’s certain aspects of balance that I’m still working on. But I started out with basically nothing and now I’m at an advanced level.
“Doctors have seen videos of me hitting and they are all surprised. Most of them didn’t expect me to be doing the things I’m doing now coming up on a year after the surgery.’’
Nothing like this happens without moments of despair.
“There was that thought of ‘Why is this happening to me?’ ’’ he said. “A period of time when I let that affect me. I’ve learned to come to terms with what happened. There was no reason. There was nothing I did that made this happen. I was born with it. I just accepted what happened and tried to move on.
“It was just to get through the surgery alive and then lead a normal life. As soon as we all realized I was going to live a normal life again, when I got my eyesight back, everything was becoming more normal. We kind of just said, ‘You’re going to play baseball again.’
“It’s not perfect, but I’m not expecting it to be. I’ve seen improvement, which is really what I’m looking for. I started out not even being able to really see the ball on the tee and now I’m getting a lot of batting practice and seeing it pretty much fully.
“It takes a lot of vision to be able to hit a moving ball. The fact that I’m doing that now gives me the drive to keep going and tells me that things are getting better.’’
Sometimes people expect too much — as if Westmoreland had his appendix removed and then would be able to return to normal. Not quite.
“It was tough getting those expectations thrown at me after the surgery,’’ he said. “You know: ‘He’s hitting BP now, and in two weeks he’s going to be playing in games.’
“I think more and more people are starting to grasp the fact that that’s not going to happen right away. It’s not an overnight thing. More and more people are coming up to me and appreciating what I’m doing now because they look back and say, ‘Look what he went though.’
“When I feel like I’m going to be able to perform well, I’m going to go out there and play. The goal at the end of the day is always to get to Fenway. If it happens, it happens; if not, it doesn’t.
“I’m just hoping for the best every day. If I play, it’s going to be meant to be. If not, it’s also meant to be.
“It’s taught me to not take anything for granted. I remember before, you’d do the monotonous activities on the field. You don’t take them that seriously. Now I look at that as my goal — to go out there and be able to participate in those activities.
“I think I’ve inspired other players not to take things for granted and to go about their work more seriously.’’
He may not make it to the big leagues, but he already has won the toughest battle. Ryan Westmoreland inspires all of us.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.