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stan grossfeld

10 years after brain surgery, Ryan Westmoreland courageously carries on

Ryan Westmoreland, shown wearing a Red Sox jersey that was a gift of the team, has faced his adversity head-on and never given up.
Ryan Westmoreland, shown wearing a Red Sox jersey that was a gift of the team, has faced his adversity head-on and never given up.Stan Grossfeld/ Globe Staff

PORTSMOUTH, R.I. — He has the date tattooed on his right arm: March 16, 2010.

“The worst day of my life,” says Ryan Westmoreland, once the No. 1 prospect in the Red Sox system. "That’s when everything changed. That’s when my old dream was taken away.”

Ten years ago, he was being groomed to be the team’s center fielder of the future, then suddenly he was worrying whether he would even have a future.

Doctors had discovered a cavernous malformation, about the size of a golf ball, that twice had bled into his brain.

He was 19 years old, totally blind and half deaf, and he couldn’t even stand up. He underwent emergency brain stem surgery in Phoenix on that fateful March day.

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He vividly remembers being wheeled down the hall at Barrow Neurological Institute to the operating room.

“I was starting to get some medications running through me, so things were kind of starting to get fuzzy,'' he says. "But I do remember thinking, ‘Is this it?’ ”

The Portsmouth native made a promise to himself. He decided he wouldn’t quit. Ever.

"I felt like I had a lot more to give, whether it was in baseball or not,” says Westmoreland, who was drafted in the fifth round in 2008 out of Portsmouth High School and signed with the Red Sox for a $2 million bonus.


The scar from Westmoreland's first brain surgery, in 2010.
The scar from Westmoreland's first brain surgery, in 2010.courtesy Ryan Westmoreland

Now, despite numerous physical challenges, he’s coaching baseball at the college level as an assistant at UMass-Dartmouth.

"Westy,” as everybody calls him, is also co-director of the Ocean State Makos, a youth baseball program he runs with his father. He also raises awareness for the Angioma Alliance, whose motto is, "Brains shouldn’t bleed.”

On this day, the 10th anniversary of his biggest nightmare, he got up early and fed his yellow lab Petey, who was named after Dustin Pedroia. Then he posted the original MRI showing the scary tumor on social media along with a message thanking family, doctors, nurses, therapists, and supporters.

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Having undergone 17 brain-related surgeries so far, Westmoreland has a lot of people to thank.

The original MRI, showing the tumor in his brain.
The original MRI, showing the tumor in his brain. Stan Grossfeld/ Globe Staff
Comeback, then setback

Westmoreland has long since abandoned the "why me” attitude. There always will be unanswered questions. No one will ever know how good he could’ve been with the Red Sox.

Jason McLeod, the former Red Sox scouting director, said Westmoreland was the most talented player he ever drafted.

He played just one season with the Lowell Spinners, in 2009. In 60 games, he hit .296 with 7 homers, a .401 on-base percentage, and a .484 slugging percentage. A speedster, he stole 19 bases without being caught.

"He would have been Boston’s lefthanded Mike Trout,” said McLeod in 2016.

Baseball Prospectus listed Westmoreland as the 14th-best prospect in the nation in 2010. Trout was 53rd.


Westmoreland remains a student of the game, in his role as assistant coach at UMass-Dartmouth.
Westmoreland remains a student of the game, in his role as assistant coach at UMass-Dartmouth.Stan Grossfeld/ Globe Staff

After the first brain surgery, Westmoreland vowed to come back, despite the overwhelming odds. He had to relearn how to do even the simplest task. Tying his shoes used to take 10 seconds, now it took a half-hour.

Things looked bleak, but he still believed he would return to baseball.

By December 2011, he was defying doctors and baseball experts, taking swings in the Dominican Instructional League against professional pitchers.

"That was unheard of,” he says.

In his first game back, he was a designated hitter because his balance was still off.

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He bravely dug in, only to spin around and get plunked in the neck by an errant fastball.

Now he laughs at the thought.

"Back then I was pissed,” he remembers. “What are the odds of that?”

Despite his amazing progress, the cavernous malformation — tangles of blood vessels — re-formed in July 2012. He required a second brain stem surgery. The tumor was successfully removed but the collateral damage left him more debilitated.

“Everything physically was way worse,” he says. "I’ve got to do all of this all over again, but a thousand zillion times harder. There’s no chance I was going to ever play professional baseball again. Zero.”

He retired from baseball at age 22.

He even stopped watching the Red Sox.

“I think mentally one of the worst possible things for me was watching Red Sox games on TV,” he says.

He saw a steady parade of guys he played with in the minors — Will Middlebrooks, Daniel Nava, Jackie Bradley Jr., Xander Bogaerts, Christian Vazquez — make their big league debuts.

"It’s not that I wasn’t happy for them — we are friends for life — but I was thinking that should be me,'' Westmoreland says. "I should be making my big league debut right then. I remember I had to turn off the TV. I didn’t watch the Red Sox for a long time.”


He kept his Red Sox batting helmet and his glove from his days as a top prospect.
He kept his Red Sox batting helmet and his glove from his days as a top prospect.Stan Grossfeld/ Globe Staff

There also was the constant pain.

"It was mental pain. Physical pain. Emotional, you name it,'' Westmoreland says. "It was way too much for a young kid to handle and to be able to somehow come out of this and be OK with everything.”

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He’d torture his own soul, lying on the couch watching YouTube videos of him crushing a home run.

When he cried, he couldn’t even blink away the tears. They just ran down the left side of his numb face.

Despite his earlier vow to himself, he spiraled into a dark place, contemplating suicide.

"I would have these thoughts all the time that I should just take pills and end it,” he says. "I didn’t want to burden my family, friends, and loved ones on this journey a second time around.”

But he also felt the strong tug of his parents’ love in his heart, and remembered that nothing could be worse than that date on his arm. He also had another reminder tattooed above his heart. "Never, never, never give up,” it said. He chose life and became stronger in the broken places.

Return to the game

Westy still looks ripped in his upper body, like he could still smash balls into the right-field seats at Fenway.

"I realized what I can and can’t control, and nutrition and health and physical activity was something that I could control, and I’ve been doing that,” he says.

Today he moves easily, with just a slight limp.

But the left side of his face "doesn’t work” and the right side of his body has varying degrees of numbness.

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"There’s some parts of my body where you could take a knife and stab me and I’d have no idea,” he says.

Despite the physical challenges he faces, Westmoreland works out to stay in the best shape he can.
Despite the physical challenges he faces, Westmoreland works out to stay in the best shape he can.Stan Grossfeld/ Globe Staff

Doctors aren’t giving up. They took a muscle from his left thigh and grafted it into his face, and took a nerve from his right ankle and strung it around his upper lip. They hope that the new nerves will grow together and spark movement.

In addition, doctors inserted micro-weights in his left eye so it could close. He has learned to adjust to life with double vision.

But he always had an eye for beauty. He met Libby Pinkham, a social worker, on an online dating app. Both were immediately smitten.

“She’s incredible,” says Westmoreland. "She’s very in tune with emotions and how to deal with trauma and different aspects of life.”

Pinkham admires Westmoreland’s spirit and honesty.

"He’s not always sunshiny and positive,” she says. “He struggles and is honest about that part of it. But at the end of the day, he looks to the future and what’s ahead and doesn’t dwell in the past.”

They are scheduled to be married in June in Newport.

Westmoreland says baseball and his loved ones saved his life. He returned to the game in 2013, helping coach his alma mater at Portsmouth High and also coaching summer league kids.

When UMass-Dartmouth coach Bob Prince hired Westmoreland this season, he was immediately impressed with how he handled himself.

"Very honestly, there’s not much he can’t do, besides tossing batting practice,” says Prince. "He’s a great guy, a very calming, even-keeled guy.

"What he can provide our team and me is invaluable, especially to our kids who are 18- to 22-year olds. They feel like superheroes and indestructible. It was inspirational for our guys to be around him.”

The Corsairs got off to a 9-1 start this season, their best in more than 30 years.

Westy immediately made everyone comfortable with his humor.

“Hitting is hard,” he told them. "But it’s not brain surgery.”

Westmoreland with one of his loved ones, Petey.
Westmoreland with one of his loved ones, Petey.Stan Grossfeld/ Globe Staff

Westmoreland says he had a lot of fun, even at 5 a.m. winter practices.

"I was able to tell them what I went through and hopefully help them along the way in pro baseball but also in life,” he says.

Third baseman Mike Knell says Westmoreland quietly took him aside one day when he was in a slump.

"He’s awesome,” says Knell. "He gave me some pointers and everything started clicking. He got me my swing back.”

He showed compassion for some of the seniors when the season was canceled in mid-March while they were playing in a tournament in Florida. He knows a little bit about loss and that bad things happen to good people.

"His attitude is the best,” says Knell. "I think it feeds off his passion for the game. I know it gives us energy, and I feel like we give it back to him. ”

Approaching his 30th birthday in April, Westmoreland says this is the happiest he’s been since that fateful March day.

He still wants to get a college degree, having passed up a Vanderbilt scholarship to sign with the Sox.

He hasn’t ruled out getting to Fenway Park someday, either.

"I’d love to coach in The Show,” he says. "There’s a bazillion guys that are qualified as far as their knowledge of the game. But I certainly have a different perspective on dealing with adversity than the next guy.”

The tattoo on his right arm is a reminder to Ryan Westmoreland of what he has been through, how much he has persevered, and how far he has come.
The tattoo on his right arm is a reminder to Ryan Westmoreland of what he has been through, how much he has persevered, and how far he has come.Stan Grossfeld/ Globe Staff

His dream of playing died 10 years ago, but it almost always resurfaces each year around the time of the anniversary. It’s always the same dream. He’s a young healthy kid, a speedy blonde rookie, and the field of dreams, of course, is always Fenway Park.

“I just dreamed of running out to center field at Fenway with a packed house,” he says. "Everything is silent and in slow motion.”

He’s in no hurry to wake up, and he just looks around, takes it all in and savors the moment.

"I’m just seeing everyone and thinking ‘I made it!’ ’’


Stan Grossfeld can be reached at stanley.grossfeld@globe.com.