You might think it would taunt him, the mural of the Green Monster. Here at In the Zone Baseball Club, an indoor sports facility in Somerset, Ryan Westmoreland watches hopeful high schoolers in the batting cages, swatting at the genteel offerings from a pitching machine.
The backdrop of the famed left-field wall of Fenway Park is an inspiration to these young players from Rhode Island's nearby Portsmouth High School. If they’re good enough, there's a slim chance that they’ll find themselves patrolling the real Fenway some 50 miles away, playing for the Red Sox.
Westmoreland was in their same position not so long ago, on the cusp of stardom, hailing from the very same high school. That was before the Red Sox took the outfielder in the fifth round of the 2008 entry draft. Before he went on to hit .296 with seven home runs, and 35 RBIs in his lone season with the Single-A Lowell Spinners. Before he became one of the top prospects in the organization, a player described by former general manager Theo Epstein as more than just a fairy tale.
“There’s no daydreaming with him,” Epstein told the Providence Journal during spring training in 2009. “He can play.”
It’s been five years now since the surgery, a half-decade since Westmoreland’s seemingly perfect track to the big leagues was derailed when doctors discovered a cavernous malformation in his brain. He has March 16, 2010, the day Dr. Robert Spetzler performed the first surgery in Arizona, tattooed on his right bicep.
It is a constant reminder of what could have been.
“When March 16 comes up, I think back to what I’ve been through, what I’ve gone through,” the 24-year-old said recently, one day after his five-year anniversary. “But having said that, it’s also just another day. I just say, ’It already happened.’ I just move on with my life and try to take it day by day.”
Last summer, that included a move back to Rhode Island. Westmoreland had been living in Florida since officially retiring from the game in 2013, following a brief comeback bid that came only months after a second surgery had to be performed on his brain in 2012.
His father, Ron, the varsity baseball coach at Portsmouth High, suggested Ryan coach the freshman team at his alma mater. It was a chance to get back into baseball at the teaching level.
“It’s something that I had always been interested in, helping younger kids,” Westmoreland said during a break from tryouts in an office at the baseball clinic his father owns. “I get a chance to do that now.”
There are still lingering effects from the surgeries. He’s not yet allowed to coach third base because his reaction time isn’t as good as it needs to be. Westmoreland has an assistant, Nick Grande, who is ready to step up and fill in any role that might put him at risk.
Limitations aside, the return to baseball clearly excites him. He no longer thinks in terms of how he should be in spring training battling Mookie Betts, Shane Victorino, Hanley Ramirez, and Rusney Castillo for a spot in the crowded Red Sox outfield. He doesn’t dwell on what could have been had he been allowed to rise through the ranks of the Boston farm system, or what it might have felt like to play in the 2013 World Series.
All that really matters now is that he’s back in the game, one way or another.
“I’ve always loved baseball, as a player and now as a coach,” he said. “Either or, it’s the same game. Now it’s just in a different way. Now it’s about teaching young kids, molding minds, and giving back.”
Yet as he watches the batting practice, the Green Monster stares back. Westmoreland pays it no notice, focusing on the swings in the cages.
“The Wall giveth and the Wall taketh away,” former Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee once said.
Isn’t that the truth.
“There hasn’t been a day that’s gone by that hasn’t been frustrating,” Westmoreland said. “But overall, I think that I’m keeping a positive mindset.”
It has seemed easier with the passage of time. Following that first surgery in 2010, Westmoreland planned to recover and continue his baseball career. While he was on a golf course with friends two years later, he received the call that he'd have to go through another operation.
“At that point, I was starting to really realize that I could play again,” he said. “I was confident and ready to go, and when [the second surgery] happened, it was right away depressing.
“I realized all this work may have been for nothing.”
The following spring, both he and the Red Sox realized it was over. Westmoreland was too physically limited in what he could bring to the field.
“Defeat is a great word to describe it. Mentally, I was in a great place. I was starting to play again and get at-bats,” Westmoreland said. “I couldn’t believe it. I felt better than I ever had.
“It was really starting to become a dream come true. To do the impossible.”
Westmoreland couldn’t watch baseball for months. He became too obsessed with thinking, “That could be me. What if…what if this didn’t happen?”
He will never have the answer, but also understands that he can’t dwell on it any longer.
“Over time, I realized it happened for a reason — whatever that was — and I can’t waste time now just sulking about it, thinking about the past,” he said. “So I just try to move forward.”
He spent a couple of years hanging out in Florida, enjoying the sunshine, taking a quartet of online classes at Northeastern University, and avoiding “this winter,” as he puts it. He clearly detests it, motioning toward a window that looks out on a browning mound of parking-lot snow.
He rents an apartment about two miles from where he grew up. He’ll be enrolled full-time at Roger Williams University come September, finally getting the college education he passed up at Vanderbilt University, the school he left to play for the Red Sox and get a $2 million signing bonus to boot.
He keeps in touch with some of the friends he made in the minors, including Daniel Nava, Will Middlebrooks, Casey Kelly, and Ryan Kalish. He thinks the Sox are going to be good this season, and loves the attitude and edge that Clay Buchholz and the other four “non-aces” have brought to the starting pitching staff.
Every six months he also makes a trip to Mass. General for an MRI on his brain, a process he described as nerve-wracking: “It could go either way.” But so far, so good.
There will always be the fear that Westmoreland is not out of the woods, that the abnormality will make another appearance. It’s just not something that he obsesses about.
“I’ve learned to deal with it and really to understand,” he said. “I don’t know the reason why it happened, but it did. So the only thing I can do now instead of complain and sulk and sit in the basement all day, is try to be normal.”
But his name will always resonate in Red Sox circles, because of his unfulfilled potential.
“The outpouring of support through Twitter, Facebook, and social media, letters from around the world…it’s really nice to know I went through such a tragic thing, and that people everywhere were coming together to support me,” he said. “I’m just thankful to be able to tell my story. In one way or another it can impact kids, adults, families, whatever. That means a lot to me, to be able to give back."
Even here, at the baseball clinic, he’s had students from Portsmouth look at him in near-disbelief: Ryan Westmoreland is our baseball coach?
If his name means instant recognition in Boston, imagine what it conjures back in his hometown, where he was, and in many ways still is, one of the game's heroes.
“Kids will ask me questions about ‘How fast did you throw in high school?’ But that kind of stuff…they’ll open up to me as the season goes on, but right now they’re in that shy stage.”
You can’t say the same about Westmoreland the coach, who has embraced his new role in baseball.
“At first it was a little weird being the coach,” he said. “I just really think about all my knowledge, all my past experiences that could help younger kids. And I just try to give them that knowledge the best I can, because I feel I have a good knowledge of the game. I know how things are supposed to go at every level. I love the kids and would do anything for them, and they’re starting to grasp on and listening to me. This school has meant so much to me, so to be able to return there and see familiar faces, it means a lot to me.
“Right now we’re inside because of this winter, but I think once we get outside I’m going to be really comfortable, really excited to get back out onto the field again. Not as a player, but as a coach. That’s fine. Like I said it’s just so rewarding to be able to give my knowledge to these kids.”
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