LOWELL, Mass. -- Ryan Westmoreland stood near the mound and watched as his father, Ron, threw a perfect strike for the ceremonial first pitch Wednesday night at LeLacheur Park.
The two stood shoulder to shoulder as the fans gave them a standing ovation.
The Lowell Spinners, the Single-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox, honored Westmoreland, a former prospect, by retiring his No 25.
Westmoreland, 24, a native of Portsmouth, R.I., retired from professional baseball in March 2013 after a remarkable recovery from two life-threatening surgeries that stemmed from a cavernous malformation on his brain. The former outfielder was considered a top prospect in the Red Sox organization.
In 2009, Westmoreland was 19 and made his pro debut with the Spinners. He showed incredible promise and finished what he calls “the greatest summer of his life, one he’ll never forget” with a .296 average, 35 RBIs, seven home runs and 19 stolen bases in 60 games for the Spinners.
The following spring, the malformation in his brain began to bleed and he needed emergency surgery on March 16. After a lengthy rehab process, he attempted a comeback, but he suffered another setback and needed a second surgery on July 13, 2012.
On Wednesday, the Spinners honored him as part of “Westmoreland Night” at the ballpark.
“The Spinners have been more than generous throughout my whole career and even after it,” Westmoreland said. “I’m just really honored to be back. Like I said, it was one of the best summers of my life.”
Westmoreland was informed by the Spinners organization last December that his No. 25 would be retired and hang on the right-field wall.
“I was speechless,” he said. “It took months to set in. When I came here in 2009, I was an immature 19-year-old and this organization took me in like family and that’s huge for kid that’s been used to playing in front of 10, 20 people every day. To be able to have an organization have my back, not only when I was playing but now that I’m not, it’s special for me and my family and I’ll be forever grateful for that.”
It’s been tough for Westmoreland to forget about baseball. Since he’s decided to retire, he’s focused on the future but admits sometimes it’s unavoidable to think about what could have been.
“I can’t help but think about it, especially doing stuff here in Lowell,” Westmoreland said. “I think about at-bats I had here, games I had here. But for the most part, I’ve moved on. I don’t get two hours of sleep every night thinking about my games here.
“It hasn’t been an easy battle, but I’m doing well and I’m trying to keep my spirits up. It’s obviously tough not playing anymore. I’ve spent my whole life preparing for this dream, so it’s devastating to not fulfill it. But I’m doing well. I’m happy and I’m in a good spot mentally. It’s all I can ask for right now and I’m getting better every day mentally and physically and it can only get better from here.”
He admits he’ll watch a video of him playing baseball and think about the what-ifs.
“Mentally, I’m getting over it. I can’t say I’m fully over it but I’m getting there,” he said.
From a health standpoint, Westmoreland is doing well. He lives with disabilities but he’s learned to live with them and nothing is getting worse. Something Westmoreland has kept to himself since his second surgery is the fact that he experiences double vision.
“I haven’t told anyone, but I see double of everything. I can’t feel anything on my right side, so you can imagine how hard it is to walk when you can’t feel the ground, or hitting with a bat or throwing. But I’m doing well,” he said. “Obviously, at first it was tragic. It was devastating but I’ve gotten over it and I’m doing well. I’ve certainly gotten used to everything that I’m dealing with. I’m just trying to get better every day.”
Westmoreland explained the double vision is a normal side effect to the surgeries he’s had. It occurred after his first procedure but his vision returned to normal after three days. This time around, he’s still waiting for it to correct itself.
“I’m getting used to it,” he said. “I have special [glasses]. I can drive, I can do all that stuff, so it’s not holding me back too much. It’s different. I can’t pick up the spin on a 90 mile-per-hour slider but it’s getting better.”
After he decided to officially retire in March 2013, Westmoreland started online classes at Northeastern University. His primary focus now is getting good grades.
“I’m moving forward with my life, not so much baseball related, but I’m trying to take steps forward,” he said. “I feel good. Right now I feel like I’m getting the ball rolling with my life and we’ll see what the future holds, but I’m optimistic.”
At some point, Westmoreland would like to return to baseball in some capacity because he believes he can teach and serve as an inspiration to others.
Speaking of inspiration, former Red Sox outfielder Ryan Kalish, who is currently playing for Triple-A Iowa (Chicago Cubs), spent plenty of time with Westmoreland when both were rehabbing a few seasons ago with the Red Sox. The two lived together in Fort Myers, Florida, and any time Kalish, who has dealt with various neck, shoulder and back injuries during his career, felt like he wanted to shut it down, all he would do was think of his buddy, Westy.
“He’s an inspiration to people,” Kalish said in a phone interview. “I’m sure if he could have it a different way he would have it. With that being said, the amount of inspiration that this guy creates for whoever he touches, and he certainly touched me.
“There were times when I was going through things on a personal level that I was like, ‘Man, I don’t know if I feel like doing this anymore. I’m tired. My body hurts from five surgeries.’ Then I would think that if you gave the same scenario to Westy that I’m in, he would take that any day. So, for me to have that inspiration in my life to think of and reflect on, I don’t know if I would be doing this if it wasn’t for that guy.”
Every athlete -- pro or amateur -- wears a certain jersey number for a reason. Westmoreland has been wearing No. 25 since he was a kid in Little League. He wore it through high school for every sport he played. When he turned pro with the Red Sox, the Spinners gave him No. 25.
When Westmoreland was 11, a friend of his, John Sleeper, was a year older and wore No. 25. A year later, when No. 25 became available, Westmoreland asked his coach for the number. Sleeper was hoping to attend Wednesday’s ceremony, but could not make it. In fact, Sleeper did not realize until Wednesday the reason why Westmoreland wore that number.
“It’s awesome,” Sleeper said in a phone interview. “I was really good friends with Ryan growing up and through high school. I think it’s really cool. I think it’s awesome for him [to have his number retired]. He was such a great prospect and what happened to him was such a terrible thing.”
Prior to Wednesday’s Spinners game, Westmoreland was given a pair of home and away framed No. 25 Lowell jerseys. His dad, mother Robin, sister Sarah and girlfriend Devyn stood at home plate as a video tribute was shown on the board in left field. Former teammates, including Kalish, Pete Ruiz, Alex Hassan, Dan Butler and Christian Vasquez all taped messages for Westmoreland.
As Ryan and his father walked in from the mound after the ceremonial first pitch, there weren’t many dry eyes in the ballpark.
“To have this organization, which was so special to Ryan’s baseball career, recognize him for the person he is and the inspiration he is, is just a tremendous tribute to a kid that I just admire so much,” Ron Westmoreland said. “I’m just happy for him. I’m happy to be here today and I’m grateful to the Red Sox and the Lowell Spinners for really understanding that he’s an incredible young man, and what he’s been through, you just can’t put into words how special this is for all of us.”
In the middle of the second inning, “Westy 25” was unveiled on the right-field wall. It was the first number retired in Lowell Spinners history.
Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington, who scouted Westmoreland during his career at Portsmouth High School, attended Wednesday’s ceremony and said he did not want to miss it.
“It was important for me when I heard about it,” said Cherington, the first acting Red Sox GM to visit the Spinners in 10 years. “It was important for me to be here. I wanted to be here and out of the way just to see him out there. I got a chance to catch up with him in the clubhouse a little bit before the game. I’m proud of him. I think everyone is. I’m just really happy for him.”
Added Cherington, “Getting to know him and his family over the years, it’s a different level of happiness and pride to see where he is now. What he’s done is much harder than anything anyone does on a baseball field.”