By Tim Casey
Shortly after the Red Sox defeated the Rays in the American League Division Series this month, Ryan Westmoreland made a vow. Like the Red Sox's players, the normally clean-cut Westmoreland decided not to shave until they were eliminated from the playoffs. Nearly three weeks later, the organization's former top prospect is still sporting the unkempt look, although his beard is not as long and scruffy as would be expected.
"Not at all," Westmoreland said on Saturday afternoon, laughing. "I don't grow facial hair very well. It's more of just a gross-looking peach fuzz."
Once projected as a starting outfielder for the Red Sox, someone who could be playing and starring in this year's World Series if not for a series of setbacks, Westmoreland is now relegated to supporting from afar the team he grew up rooting for in Rhode Island. Westmoreland, who retired in March after undergoing two brain surgeries, is 23 years old and living in Estero, Florida. His house is 20 minutes from the Red Sox's spring training and player development complex in Fort Myers, where the teenaged Westmoreland once amazed the organization's brass with his power potential, plate discipline, speed and smarts.
Westmoreland is now a student, businessman and diehard fan. This fall, the ex-National Honor Society student in high school enrolled in an online English writing course at Boston's Northeastern University, his first college class. He is also selling supplements and nutritional products for AdvoCare.
And yet, the itch for baseball hasn't faded. Westmoreland, who is 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, is working out most days and staying in shape, although he hasn't thrown or taken batting practice recently. Despite announcing his retirement, Westmoreland is not ready to stop dreaming of playing in the majors. As of now, he has no time table on when he'll be able to give the sport another shot, but he still holds out hope that one day he'll return.
"If I felt like I was ready and could compete at that level again, I would do it in a heartbeat just because it's always been my passion," Westmoreland said. "If I ever got the opportunity, I would take it right away. Right now, I just don't feel like I'm physically ready, but I'm doing everything I can to be physically ready. Once that comes up and I feel like I can do it again, I'm going to try."
Before the 2010 season, Baseball America ranked Westmoreland as the Red Sox's best prospect and 21st overall in the sport even though he had less than a year of professional experience and hadn't even played much outfield. Westmoreland, who was drafted in the fifth round by the Red Sox in the 2008 draft and received a $2 million bonus, made his debut with short-season Class A Lowell in 2009. He was mostly used as a designated hitter because he had undergone shoulder surgery the previous November.
In 60 games, Westmoreland hit .296 with a .401 on-base percentage and a .484 slugging percentage. He also had seven home runs, 15 doubles and three triples and was successful on all 19 of his stolen base attempts. Westmoreland's versatility propelled him past every other minor leaguer in the organization.
"It was a little surreal seeing the list of guys there and me being at the top of the list," Westmoreland said. "It was pretty special. I was grateful for it, but at the same time, I wanted to go out and prove myself as a player. To all of the doubters and people that didn't believe that I should be number one, I wanted to go out and prove them wrong."
In February 2010, while playing video games, Westmoreland noticed his fingers felt like they were asleep. He didn't think much of it, though. The numbness soon spread to his right arm and leg, but he ignored the sensation because he was so focused on the season. During a stretching session a week or so later, the right side of his body fell numb and weak, so Westmoreland told the Red Sox's doctors. He underwent an MRI, which revealed bleeding in his brain. If Westmoreland had waited to alert the Red Sox and had not had the exam, he could have died.
On March 16, 2010, Westmoreland underwent brain surgery in Arizona. By then, he couldn't walk, see or hear, complications that the physicians had warned him might happen.
"I was a little bit ready for it," Westmoreland said. "But at the same time, it's not every day that a pro athlete goes blind and deaf. It was a little shocking. But I knew that this could be a possibility. I was able to kind of take it. It was a shock to me and everyone seeing me in such bad shape. It was very, very unnormal."
Within a couple of months after the surgery, Westmoreland could walk without the aid of a wheelchair or cane. His hearing and vision returned to normal even sooner. Still, it took him a while to get back into baseball shape. In December 2011, Westmoreland played in the Instructional League in the Dominican Republic, his first game in more than two years. It was the initial step on what he hoped would be a return in the 2012 season.
"I wasn't ready yet, but I was certainly on my way," Westmoreland said. "I think everyone could see that. I knew that I was going to do everything I could to get back."
In July 2012, during a break from training in Florida, Westmoreland and his friends were playing golf in Rhode Island when he received a call on his cell phone. A routine MRI had shown another abnormality on Westmoreland's brain. The news stunned Westmoreland. Unlike the last time when he experienced numbness and weakness, he had experienced no warning signs or symptoms. He said he felt as strong and healthy as he ever had.
Soon, Westmoreland boarded a flight to Arizona to visit Dr. Robert Spetzler, who had performed Westmoreland's first brain surgery more than two years earlier.
"I was just like a normal guy getting into a hospital bed undergoing this crazy, life-threatening surgery," Westmoreland said. "It was a little weird. Thankfully everything went well and I woke up."
Westmoreland still has not found out the explanations for why he's had two brain surgeries, but he said Dr. Spetzler told him the abnormalities are gone. The recovery and rehabilitation from the second operation again lasted a long time, so Westmoreland conferred with his family and the Red Sox and decided to retire in March.
He remains in contact with some players and members of the organization. Raquel Ferreira, the senior director of minor league operations, sends Westmoreland text messages on a regular basis to check in on him. He also hears from Red Sox doctors, trainers and therapists who are interested in hearing his progress.
"It's so great to see even though I retired that they didn't just drop off the face of the Earth," Westmoreland said. "They're still wondering how I'm doing. They're still offering to help me any way they can. It's really been great to see the support I've gotten from that whole organization."
Although he's working out and hoping to play again, Westmoreland is preparing for other avenues. He plans on continuing his studies at Northeastern or at a school in Florida and pursuing a business management or sports management major. Someday, he could see himself working for the Red Sox or another professional sports team in a front office role.
For the first few months of this season, he didn't watch the Red Sox too often because he missed playing so much. Around July, though, he began tuning into every game on NESN, the Red Sox's television network.
Westmoreland planned on watching Saturday night's World Series game at a local sports bar. He was preparing to wear his Red Sox gear and joked that he would be an "obnoxious" fan screaming at the television.
"I'll probably have my fair share of Cardinals fans that give me an earful," he said.
He's become accustomed to the ribbing, and he's OK with the good-natured criticism. He may still want to return to playing one day. For now, though, he's just a boisterous fan, one who has superstitions, particularly when it comes to his facial hair.
"No one's used to me having a beard," Westmoreland said. "Everyone asks, What am I doing? What am I thinking? But I'm a firm believer in the playoff beard right now. No one's going to tell me to shave it, and I'm never going to shave it."
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Tim Casey is a freelance sports writer and a former Sacramento Bee sports reporter. He works for HMP Communications, a health care/medical media company.