Kalish poised for another comeback

PAWTUCKET, R.I. -- Two days after Ryan Kalish had cervical fusion surgery, he's already feeling better than he has in almost two years.

Dr. Robert Watkins performed the procedure Tuesday in Los Angeles on the 25-year-old outfield prospect for the Boston Red Sox. Even though this was Kalish's fourth surgery in less than two years, he thinks he'll be ready for spring training in 2014.

"I've already seen some changes and it's been only two days since I've had the surgery," Kalish told ESPNBoston.com in a phone interview Thursday. "It's been only 48 hours since I had surgery and I'm already feeling good, so I'm positive about all of this."

For the next six weeks, all he'll be able to do is walk and move his neck around naturally. He should then be able to begin the rehabilitation process.

His health issues stem from playing the only way he knows how -- all out.

On April 21, 2011, he injured himself when he made a leaping catch and slammed into the outfield wall at McCoy Stadium. He suffered a labrum tear in his left shoulder and a neck injury.

Kalish's stint on the disabled list lasted until Aug. 8, 2011, when he was reinstated to the PawSox's roster. He played just eight games before he began to experience symptoms in his neck and was shut down for the remainder of the season.

Kalish visited with Dr. Watkins, who recommended then he have the cervical fusion surgery. At the time, he also had another opinion from Dr. Joseph Maroon in Pittsburgh. Maroon suggested Kalish have a different procedure, a microdiscectomy, to repair a bulging disc in his neck.

"At that point, it was like a tiebreaker scenario, so I sought out a third opinion in Boston and that doctor said, 'Yeah, try [Maroon's procedure] first,' so I went with that," explained Kalish. "Honestly, it was one of those things that nothing really ever changed with my neck. It was something I could deal with, but on an everyday basis it was there. Even when not playing baseball it would tingle."

He had the surgery on Sept. 14, 2011, and two months later underwent another procedure to repair the torn labrum in his left shoulder, which was performed by Dr. Lewis Yocum.

The pair of surgeries pushed back the start of Kalish's 2012 season, and after rehab stints at all three minor league levels, he finally returned to the big leagues on June 17. He now admits the pain in his neck never went away. He kept playing through the discomfort, until the Red Sox finally shut him down late last season.

"All this stuff was going on with my neck and I was just trying to get through," he said. "It was one of those things the tingling was still going on and I was still having symptoms."

In January, he had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder, which he thought would fix the problem. He arrived at spring training, only to be once again disappointed with another setback. As camp broke, he remained in Fort Myers, Fla., rehabbing and trying to return to the field.

Throughout the summer, his neck wasn't right. He was able to perform all the necessary baseball activities, but Kalish knew he wouldn't be able to deal with the pain any longer.

"I really didn't believe I could play at the highest level that I wanted to with that pain," Kalish said. "If my body can hold up through all this and I can get myself strong and ready, I want to play for a long time and help the Red Sox win on a daily basis."

He decided to see Dr. Watkins again. It had been a couple of years since his original visit, so a fresh look served as peace of mind for Kalish and the Red Sox. It was then decided he would have the cervical fusion surgery.

When Kalish met with Watkins, he was walking through the doctor's L.A. office, where the hallways were filled with autographed jerseys from all kinds of professional athletes. One jersey grabbed Kalish's attention. It read: "Thanks for saving my career."

"I'm hoping to be one of those guys," Kalish said.

He's only 25 and decided to have the surgery now because he wants to be ready for spring training.

"I know it's crazy, with the season still going on and watching the games and seeing the guys play so well, it's been fun but I'm already thinking about next year because that's all I have right now."

Kalish was told the rehab from his neck surgery would take 3-6 months. NFL quarterback Peyton Manning had a similar procedure, which is a rare one for a baseball player. Kalish said his own procedure included the removal of a disc in his neck, the use of his own bone to replace it, and the insertion of a metal plate to fuse it together.

"It's pretty intense stuff," Kalish said.

His hope is if Manning and other NFL players can resume their careers after this surgery, so can he.

"If they can come back, and they're playing a game where they're smashing head-first into somebody on a weekly basis, and that's not what I have to deal with," Kalish said. "Baseball is its own challenge with being a rotational sport, so it'll be a challenge. But seeing what those guys deal with, I'm very confident it's something I can handle. There's a lot of time between now and the start of next season. I'm not excited, obviously, for what happened and this recovery is going to be a pain in the butt, but I'm excited to feel good again. It's been a really long time since my body has felt strong. I'm looking forward to the challenge."

While Kalish remains in Los Angeles, his former Class A manager Gary DiSarcina, who is now with the PawSox, is wishing him well.

"I know in spring training he was down because of where he was physically. Rehab beats you up mentally, more than anything," DiSarcina said. "You feel like you're alone. You feel like there's no light at the end of the tunnel."

When told Kalish's goal is to be healthy for spring, DiSarcina smiled and said he's not surprised.

"Hearing that coming from him, it's positive," DiSarcina said. "You have to have that mindset, but I do know he's human and he feels like he's beat up. There's nothing worse than being on a rehab for an extended period of time. I'm sure he feels like he hasn't played baseball in 10 years. We all wish him the best. We all want him back out there. We just miss him."

Despite the numerous surgeries, Kalish doesn't think his career is over. He's motivated to prove any naysayers wrong. He's not feeling sorry for himself. In fact, it's the complete opposite.

"The word that comes to mind when describing the way I feel right now is, it's kind of crazy, but I really feel appreciative," Kalish said. "As far as overall health, I have my sight. I can hear. I can smell. I can taste. There are people in the world who can't do any of that stuff and they're dealing with a lot more than me. I feel real appreciative of what I have. I have a great family and friends. I'm going to continue to work hard. I'm working on building a pretty cool story."

It also helps that he's receiving some encouragement and motivation from good friend Ryan Westmoreland, a former top prospect for the Red Sox. Westmoreland was forced to retire last winter after a pair of life-threatening brain surgeries ended his career.

One of the first text messages Kalish received after his surgery came from Westmoreland.

"He's obviously feeling bad for me, but I'm keeping it all in perspective with what he's been through," Kalish said. "He's another reason why I appreciate what I have and I still have a chance to come back and be what I wanted to be my whole life. I still have that chance to be an impactful big leaguer.

"You look at Ryan's story, he got snatched by a bad stroke of luck. Talking with him and keeping his story in my head and I feel I'm not just carrying this torch for myself, I'm carrying it for him and for everybody else who had their opportunity taken away from them. I still have that chance, so it's something I'm keeping in my mind. I'm very appreciative of what I have."

Still, many questions remain and the road to recovery will be a tough one for Kalish. His goal of playing the next 10 years at a competitive level was the reason he decided to have the cervical fusion surgery. He wants to help the Red Sox win.

"I really think this is the end," he said of his health issues.

"This is it. I just want to play."

It's another new beginning for Kalish.