09/09/10 1:01 PM ET
Slow, steady is Westmoreland's mantra
Red Sox prospect in latter stages of remarkable recovery
By Bill Ballew / Special to MLB.com
In the waning dog days of the 2010 campaign, Westmoreland was on the verge of accomplishing his second major goal of the year. He not only survived the mid-March surgery to remove a cavernous malformation from his brain stem -- after nearly six months of grueling rehabilitation and brief stints with Class A Lowell and Greenville, Westmoreland is headed for instructional league in what may be the only aspect of his life that will follow the agenda he had in mind prior to the season.
"I don't think I'll be playing in any games in instructs, but I'll be doing a lot more baseball things with the team in addition to my rehab in the training room," Westmoreland said of his expectations once he arrives in Fort Myers, Fla. "I'll be stretching with the team and taking early [batting practice]. That's really what I'm looking forward to. I'm just looking forward to taking it day-by-day and progressing in every way possible. Based on the way I feel right now, hopefully I'm going to make even bigger leaps and more progress while I'm down there."
Westmoreland looked to be the picture of health upon his arrival to Spring Training in February. After a stellar professional debut in the New York-Penn League in 2009, the Portsmouth, R.I., native and life-long Red Sox fan entered camp at 6-foot-2 and more than 210 pounds. Ranked by Baseball America as the top prospect in the Boston farm system, Westmoreland had the build and skill of a five-tool talent. Experience, said the scouts, was all he needed in order to blaze a trail to the game's top level.
His path became blocked unexpectedly some 10 days prior to the start of Minor League Spring Training games. Westmoreland experienced numbness in the pinky and thumb of his right hand, a sensation he happened to mention to his girlfriend, Charlene Colameta. At the encouragement of Colameta, whose mother survived a stroke, Westmoreland sought the opinion of the Red Sox's trainers, who wanted the outfielder to see specialists in Boston and New York. He headed north on March 4, and to everyone's surprise, a brain scan revealed a significant growth on the stem. The location could not have been worse, for the stem controls nearly all of the body's motor functions.
Surgery was deemed risky enough that his ability to survive the procedure was far from guaranteed. A single drop of blood had leaked from the mass into the brain to cause the numbness, and the doctors agreed there was an 80 percent chance that Westmoreland would never have a recurrence. Only a few days after the first event, another one occurred. This time the effects were unmistakable.
"In that bleed, I went blind," Westmoreland said. "I went completely deaf in my right ear; I couldn't get up without falling over. It went from something wasn't right to something was really wrong. We determined that surgery would be the best option, because we saw how bad the second bleed was and we didn't want to see how bad a third bleed could be, regardless of what the statistics say."
Westmoreland and his parents, Ron and Robin, along with Colameta flew to Arizona to meet with Dr. Robert Spetzler, an expert in brain procedures. Spetzler did not sugar-coat the risks involved, with potential outcomes including paralysis and death. Westmoreland believed the best route to catching fly balls in the future was to go under the knife. In the meantime, he set a simple goal of living to see another day.
The surgery could not have gone better. The doctors were thrilled with the way Westmoreland responded. He said he never felt such euphoria than when he awoke from the anesthetic and realized he could see and hear better than before the procedure. While his ability to speak -- among other skills -- would not return for some time, the early returns suggested a landslide victory.
"I was in bed rest for about two months straight," Westmoreland said. "The first month or so, not knowing what was going to lie ahead, it was tough thinking about whether or not I'd play again or walk again. Once I saw the progression and how quickly everything got better -- my eyes, my legs; and physically, my strength got a lot better -- to see that gave me a lot of motivation to keep going. I lost a lot of strength and motor skills that I'm slowly gaining back. Some things have come faster than others. I started out in a wheelchair, but then a week later I tried a walker. Then I used the walker for only two days and then they put me on a cane. Then one day I just ditched the cane and tried to walk on my own. That's what I needed, because I wanted to push myself."
He pushed himself in other ways, too. On Opening Day, Westmoreland was at Fenway Park watching the Red Sox host the Yankees while sitting in general manager Theo Epstein's private box. He made other ballpark excursions over the next few months, including a return visit to Fenway as well as trips to Triple-A Pawtucket and Double-A Portland. At every stop, he was greeted like royalty by his fellow players, who expressed genuine concern regarding his health.
Equally impressive was the response from Red Sox Nation -- cards and letters wishing him well poured in from throughout the world. When people recognized him during his visits, Westmoreland admits to being touched by the vast amount of well-wishers who had followed his trials and tribulations.
"It's been unbelievable," Westmoreland said. "Right after this happened, the Red Sox as an organization turned immediately into a family. They were my employer, but they didn't say to go take care of this myself. They took care of everything that I did. Now that I've been going to the different teams, the guys have been incredible, treating me just the way I hoped it would be. I received letters from fans from throughout the world. My first night here in Greenville, people came up to me and said they had been praying for me. It's a great feeling to know that many people were thinking about you when you were in such a tough position. The support my family and I have received has been incredible."
Westmoreland concedes the support from the masses helped him get through some trying times, both mentally and physically. Therapists at Boston's Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital worked their magic while bending his body in ways he never could on the diamond or as an all-state soccer player at Portsmouth High School. Simple tasks to improve his fine motor skills, such as picking up small nails with his fingers, were excruciating. Through it all, he never lost his drive and determination, which helped build the small victories into larger triumphs.
The same thing happened when he tried to perform the most basic activities that led Vanderbilt University to offer him a full baseball scholarship before the Red Sox drafted in the fifth round and signed him to a reported signing bonus of $2 million in Aug. 2008. Once the possessor of a 93-mph fastball as a high school pitcher, Westmoreland looked like he was flinging live quail, his throwing form more or less in the style of a wedding guest heaving rice. Yet the fact that he could not throw the stitched sphere more than the length of his body and oftentimes straight into the ground discouraged him only long enough to develop more resolve.
"I couldn't feel the ball, where it was in my hand, and the strength in my shoulder was down, so I was probably throwing the ball 10 feet at most and all over the place," Westmoreland said. "One day, the therapists were telling me to not even think about it, to just let it go just like I normally would. It didn't look like the way I used to throw, but my throws became more accurate, even though they weren't going that far. Now I'm up to about 90 or 100 feet. The accuracy isn't perfect yet, but it's a lot better. When I'm missing, it's high, which is good because that shows I have the strength to throw it. It's just a matter of time before the sensation comes back and I get the feel just like I used to. The strength is definitely getting a lot better, which I've noticed over a relatively short period of time."
His dedication and impressive steps in recovery led to his doctors turning Westmoreland over to the Red Sox training staff in August. Encouraged with the way he could run and take batting practice, Boston officials decided a change in the outfielder's daily routine would dovetail perfectly with his ongoing progress. Asked if a couple of days at Lowell, where he hit .296 with seven homers and 35 RBIs in 60 games last year, followed by an end-of-the-season trip to playoff-bound Greenville, where he was projected to be in 2010, would be of any interest, Westmoreland could not accept fast enough.
"The thing the Red Sox really stressed to me is they wanted me to get back in the professional baseball routine -- eating, sleeping, working out like a pro baseball player would," Westmoreland said. "Instead of going to rehab in Boston for two hours, I'm here from 10 a.m. until midnight. It's definitely taking a little getting used to, and my body is adapting to that routine, but it feels great. That's what I want to be doing. I'm still rehabbing, but I'm in the baseball atmosphere, which makes everything a lot better."
Initially, the odds of Westmoreland returning to the diamond were astronomical. No known baseball player has taken the field at the professional level after undergoing such a procedure. One athlete who achieved the remarkable feat is Spanish cyclist Alberto Contador, who underwent similar surgery in 2004 prior to becoming a three-time winner of the Tour de France. Yet such knowledge does nothing to sway Westmoreland. Instead, the 20-year-old is aggressively attacking his challenges on a daily basis while realizing that time is on his side, particularly if he follows his therapists' advice that suggests slow and steady will win the race.
"I've made it a point to not set a long-term goal," Westmoreland said. "Right now I feel great; knowing I'm doing better than I was a week ago or even the day before is a blessing right now. I really can't at this point say, 'I hope I'm playing in Spring Training.' I don't want to hype myself up and then not make it. I'm really determined and I'm going to work my butt off to get better the next day at everything, not just baseball-related activities. I need to take it slow. My therapists have told me not to rush it, to not get too high or too low. I just need to take things as they come, and I've been doing really well and it's only been six months. I feel if I keep up this routine on a day-by-day basis, it's going to work out well in the end for me."
Bill Ballew is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.