Westmoreland working out, making miraculous progress


Westmoreland working out, making miraculous progress

By Sean McAdam

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It is a warm but breezy morning at the Red Sox player development complex at the end of Edison Avenue.

On two fields, the organization's youngest minor-leaguers are gathered at the team's Instructional League program, a sort of after-season tutorial with an emphasis on fundamentals. Sprinkled in between are a handful of more advanced prospects such as Casey Kelly and Jose Iglesias, who aren't here for the remedial lessons, but rather, a baseball environment to continue seasons cut short by injuries.

But this morning, it's a third field that is drawing the most attention. There, Ryan Westmoreland swings at ''flips'' -- soft underhand lobs from coach Victor Rodriguez -- and serves them into the outfield.

It's an unremarkable display until one considers where Westmoreland was only months ago.

Westmoreland is no stranger to Instruct, as it's called by its attendees. He's been here before to work back into shape after two baseball injuries, so he knows the training and therapy staffs well.

On this morning, he's under the watchful eye of Chip Simpson, the organization's rehab coordinator and physical therapist. He also works closely with strength and conditioning coach Pat Sandora and head trainer Brad Pearson.

Speaking of Simpson, Westmoreland says: ''He's rehabbed my labrum and my collarbone. But I'm pretty sure he's never rehabbed a brain before.''

Westmoreland's brain is, actually, already ''rehabbed,'' having recovered from a procedure last March when the 19-year-old was found to have a cavernous malformation in his brain stem, requiring immediate and incredibly risky surgery.

Westmoreland, who was confined to bed and wheelchair before graduating to walker, then cane, now lives a normal life. He spends time with his girlfriend and friends in his hometown of Portsmouth, R.I. He can drive a car again and lead a relatively normal life.

That is not satisfying enough, as amazing as his progress has been. Without taking his recovery to date for granted, Ryan Westmoreland wants to continue, to resume the promising baseball career that was cruelly, unexpectedly cut short last March.

He states this without any false bravado, without any trace of self-delusion. Westmoreland almost oozes determination, reflected in the ferocity of his workouts, both on and off the field.

In addition to his gradual ramp up of baseball activities, Westmoreland frequently works on motor skills, balance and hand-eye coordination for three or fours, six days per week.

"He's working like he wants to play a game tomorrow,'' says Mike Hazen, the Red Sox' director of player development. "And there are no ifs about it.''

In truth, of course, no one knows whether Westmoreland's goal is physiologically realistic. As Hazen points out, there is very little data on people recovering from brain injuries and playing professsional sports.

But throughout the Red Sox organization, there exist many who now give Westmoreland the benefit of the doubt. He may have a long way to go -- Westmoreland himself says when it comes to recovering his baseball ability, he's currently at about 50 percent -- but he's already made incredible, some would say miraculous, progress.

''To be doing activity, baseball-related, at all is special,'' acknowledges Westmoreland. ''There are definitely some days when I look over nodding toward a nearby field where baserunning drills are ongoing and say, 'Man, I was wish playing in the game today, hitting second and playing center field.' But then I take a deep breath and think about where I was seven months ago. When I think about it like that, it really puts it into perspective about where I was and how far I've come in a relatively short period of time given the circumstances of what happened.''

On Opening Night of the baseball season, Westmoreland watched the Red Sox and New York Yankees play at Fenway from general manager Theo Epstein's box. He was shown seated on the telecast, with sunglasses on. At the time, he couldn't walk at all and could barely see. His speech was slurred and the right side of his face drooped.

That Westmoreland can now take live batting practice, sprint in the outfield, and uncork strong throws again is enough to think that his recovery, miraculous as it seems, is not finished.

"I'm probably surprising a lot of people that I'm doing this much, this early,'' says Westmoreland. "But I'm just trying to take an aggressive path and keep working.''

Even with advanced science and understanding of the brain, there is no definitive window for how long a patient's rehab can continue to progress. On the low end, the best estimate is 18 months; some believe it can last as long as two years, and for someone as young and athletic as Westmoreland, the period might last nearly 36 months.

But Westmoreland doesn't seem to be taking any chances. Unsure of how much time he has to restore himself, he seems intent on maximizing the time to its fullest. Told that yoga could improve his balance and flexibility, he began practicing immediately.

"Some of the stuff he's doing to get back is mindblowing,'' states Hazen.

He will not be cheated.

He was recently cleared to drive by himself again, a task which he undertook with the same dedicated approach undertaken by 16-year-old would-be drivers everywhere, eager for their freedom. Even small victories can be uplifting.

Last month, as he began plotting for a baseball future, Westmoreland revisited his recent past. He went to visit with the Lowell Spinners and began the most basic of baseball workouts. The Spinners were Westmoreland's first pro team after being drafted in the sixth round in 2008, and though most of the players -- most, recent draft picks -- were unfamiliar to him, he felt at home.

Next was a trip to Greenville, S.C., the Red Sox' low Single A affiliate where, in all likelihood, he would have begun this past April before the detection of the malformation.

The Greenville team was full of Westmoreland's teammates at Lowell, who had graduated one step up the minor-league ladder while Westmoreland was re-learning how to open his eyes, speak and walk.

''You get the text messages and the e-mails,'' he says, ''but to go there and see their concern for how you're doing. They're only 20, 21 years old, but they understand what I went through.''

One of the players at Greenville, Jeremy Hazelbaker, was amazed at the progress Westmoreland had made from early September.

"The stuff he's doing now?'' asks Hazen. "Eighty percent of it he couldn't do when he visited Lowell. The progress he's made in the last month has been remarkable. Remarkable.''

Such leaps are often chronicled by the Red Sox with a video camera, if for no other reason than to remind Westmoreland how far he's already come.

And yet, to watch Westmoreland on the field is to see how far there is still to go. There are contradictions everywhere. While he can run at a good speed with only a little laboring in his form, the after-effects of the surgery are more noticeable when he walks; his right leg is sometimes stiff.

Westmoreland can, paradoxically, swing at pitches and line them all over a practice field, but can have difficulty merely picking up an errant baseball with his right hand.

In the outfield, his longtosses out of a crow hop - as if he had come up with a one-hop single in right with the intent of cutting down a runner at third -- are powerful and mostly accurate. But standing still, his throws at 60 feet or so can be awkward and off-target. Some motor skills were impacted and others weren't.

"I'm doing every activity; I'm not doing every activity well,'' is how Westmoreland categorizes his re-learned baseball aptitude. But as if to stress the progress made, he adds: "But I am doing it all. The bigger steps came earlier. Now, it's about fine-tuning and getting back into total baseball shape.''

He will spend most of the offseason here in Fort Myers, mostly isolated, with family and friends back in Rhode Island. Recalling a two-month hospital and rehab facility stay, Westmoreland will not complain. The work is liberating.

''I'm not upset to be here at all,'' he says. "I've come so far in seven months and
I don't plan on stopping. I'm doing a lot better than I was and I've come to terms with what's happened. When I do fail at something initially, I understand it's just a little setback.''

Having achieved a normal quality of life again, Westmoreland is grateful. But he catches himself settling for just that and directs his objectives to the field.

"I don't want it to be, 'Oh, well,' '' says Westmoreland of the notion of casually dismissing baseball and settling.

A ''broad goal.'' would have him fully taking part in just about all activities next spring training.

Hazen, understandably, does not want to get into projecting how much more Westmoreland can do and how soon.

"We have absolutely no timetable,'' he says. "We're not evaluating the on-field baseball stuff right now. We're just kind of building an athletic foundation. But I will say this: I don't think anyone's counting out what this kid of capable of.''

But Ryan Westmoreland has bigger, more specific plans. He planned to make it to the big leagues when he was drafted and to his way of thinking, that dream has only been interrupted, not ended, by brain surgery.

''I'm a very driven guy and I'm very motivated,'' says Westmoreland, a statement so obvious that it's almost laughable. ''and I want to get to my ultimate goal, playing at Fenway. However long that takes, that will still be my goal.''

Sean McAdam can be reached at smcadam@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Sean on Twitter at http:twitter.comsean_mcadam.

NLCS: Cubs beat Dodgers 8-4, head home with 3-2 series lead


NLCS: Cubs beat Dodgers 8-4, head home with 3-2 series lead

LOS ANGELES - Jon Lester pitched seven sharp innings, Addison Russell hit a tiebreaking homer and the Chicago Cubs moved one win from their first World Series trip in 71 years by beating the Los Angeles Dodgers 8-4 on Thursday.

The Cubs grabbed a 3-2 lead in the NL Championship Series and will have two chances to wrap up that elusive pennant back home at Wrigley Field.

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