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When Tragedy Struck, This Local Kid Boosted Spirits of Top Red Sox Prospect

by on August 10, 2017 5:00 AM

By any measure, Ryan Westmoreland’s professional baseball career was off to a spectacular start.  

After his 2008 graduation from Portsmouth High School in Rhode Island, Westmoreland accepted an offer from the Boston Red Sox that included a $2 million signing bonus. Theo Epstein, then the general manager for the Sox, told ESPN, “We saw him as an impact player in the big leagues a few years down the line. One scout dropped a ‘Mickey Mantle’ on him after seeing a particularly good performance.”

Just four years later, however, Ryan was no longer a “can’t miss” prospect. In fact, he was a “can’t play” former athlete.  

What could possibly have ended Westmoreland’s career so dramatically? And how did a young Red Sox fan from State College help offer hope to this heartbroken former outfielder?

The story begins in 2009, Westmoreland’s only year of professional baseball. In that one season, he hit .296 for the Lowell Spinners, posted a .484 slugging percentage and proved successful on all 19 of his base stealing efforts. Local fans were treated to his most towering homer, a shot that carried perhaps 450 feet—far beyond the elevated bleachers in right field at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park.

UNTIL THAT ONE NIGHT…

“I exceeded all expectations,” Westmoreland later told the Boston Globe. “I was ranked the Red Sox’ No. 1 top prospect. The future was looking really bright. I got to see my name pop up on websites and magazines, ‘This Westmoreland kid is going to be at Fenway a lot sooner than anyone thought.’ That was all being said about me until one night.”

On that night in March of 2010, Ryan woke up unable to see, hear, balance or sit up straight. A variety of tests revealed he had a “cavernous malformation,” a raspberry-shaped tangle of blood vessels in his brain. He endured brain surgery for this life-threatening condition and then fought through an arduous comeback effort to recover his motor skills (even learning to tie his shoes), depth perception and balance.  

Featured in an April, 2011 show called “Ryan’s Hope” on ESPN’s E:60, Ryan gave this answer when asked if he would play baseball again: “Absolutely. I’ll say that until somebody looks me in the eye and tells me, ‘Ryan, you’re not going to ever play again. I’m not where I was, but I’m thankful that I’m alive. I definitely see a light at the end of the tunnel, that I’m going to be completely normal like I used to be.”

ANOTHER AFFLICTION

But in July of 2012, Ryan’s tragic path took an even crueler turn.  Just as his hopes began to soar for a comeback, another cavernous malformation was discovered and another surgery was performed. This time, there would be no comeback. Ryan’s reaction time was well below par, not nearly adequate to hit the 90 miles per hour fastballs of professional pitchers.

And so it was that Ryan Westmoreland announced his retirement from baseball on March 6, 2013. Still just 22 years old, his big league dreams had been pulverized and he faced times of great discouragement. Fortunately, his spirits were boosted by legions of former fans — including a special young man from State College.

*          *          *

Even though Ian Wagner grew up in the midst of Pirate country, he cannot remember a time when he did not root for the Red Sox. It started when he was just a 2-year-old and watching the Sox on television along with his dad, Donny. Ian noticed David Ortiz and his “Big Papi” persona, and the result was baseball’s version of love-at-first-sight. “I think he hit a home run,” Ian says. “From there on out, I loved the Red Sox.”

Ian was only 5 ½ years old when Ryan Westmoreland came to Happy Valley for the 2009 New York-Penn League All-Star Game, hosted by the State College Spikes. Ian attended that contest with his grandfather, Donn Wagner, and Donn decided to purchase Ryan’s all-star jersey in the silent auction that followed the game. It took a pretty penny — more than $500 — but Donn wanted the shirt as a birthday gift for Ian that would carry value for years to come.  

“I knew this jersey would be special for him,” Donn says, “and I really thought Ryan would go on and make the major leagues.”

After opening his birthday gift that December, Ian kept a close eye on Ryan’s career. Unfortunately, the following March brought discovery of the first cavernous malformation, so Ian was forced to read about medical reports rather than baseball statistics. But even after reading the 2013 retirement announcement, Ian held out hope for several years that Ryan might somehow return to playing.

Finally, in 2015, the State College boy came to two major conclusions. First, there would never be a comeback for Ryan Westmoreland as a baseball player. Second, the 2009 all star jersey might be even more precious to Ryan than it was to him.


 

Ian Wagner and his grandfather decided to send a special gift to Ryan Westmoreland

A STARTLING IDEA

“Ian had made the 10-year-old Little League all star team,” Donn recalls, “and he still wore that jersey every chance he could. So, one day, he said to me, ‘Pappy, Mr. Westmoreland is never going to play baseball again, and that was the only professional all-star jersey he’ll ever wear. I think it would be nice if he got it back.’ ”

“Wow, I was flabbergasted,” says Donn, a former teacher who retired after 30 years at Radio Park Elementary School. “At 12 years old, I was surprised he had that much empathy for another individual. It brought tears to my eyes. And I was really proud of him. That’s what everything’s all about — it’s not just about ‘me.’“

It took a year or so for the Wagners to contact the Westmorelands, to try to coordinate busy schedules for a personal meeting, then to realize it would be easiest to simply mail the jersey to Ryan’s home in Rhode Island.  But when the baseball shirt finally arrived, it struck a deep emotional chord within the former player and his father.

“It made me feel incredible,” Ryan says. “I was so excited and so grateful to that family for going out of their way to do something so nice for me after what I had gone through.”

To him, it was even more meaningful in coming from the heart of such a young person as Ian.

“It’s such a mature thing,” he says. “I’m forever grateful. It was truly remarkable.”

A PRECIOUS MEMENTO

Ryan’s father, Ron, had also been his coach from Little League through high school baseball.  

“I’m a baseball-aholic,” Ron says, “so everything I have from Ryan’s life means a lot to me. That was one of the highlights of his short professional career — to play in that game — so when Donn told me that his grandson was willing to part with that jersey… it was one of those special things you just can’t express. As I’m talking to you right now, I’ve got goosebumps.”

As for Ian himself, he’s a bit more matter-of-fact about his own decision.  “It was the right thing to do,” he says. “Obviously, I felt really bad for him. He had to give up the one thing he loved the most.”

And although it’s true that Ryan was forced to give up his playing career, he was not forced to surrender his professional attachment to baseball. He’s now devoting himself to coaching, following in his father’s very impressive footsteps. That means he’s tutoring young hitters at his dad’s coaching center, the “In the Zone Baseball Club” in Somerset, Mass., while also coaching the 17-and-under “prospects” team that is based at the center. And, by the way, the all-star jersey that Ryan received from Ian Wagner is now prominently displayed at “In the Zone.”


Ryan Westmoreland wears the all-star jersey after it was returned by the Wagners.

HAPPY TO COACH

“It’s great to work here at a baseball facility,” Ryan says. “I grew up loving this game and unfortunately, I can’t play anymore. Right now, I love coaching kids and teenagers because of the rewarding feeling you get from teaching them certain things and seeing them produce on the field. As I get older, I’d like to coach collegiately or even professionally.”

Ryan also offers insights and encouragement to others who are afflicted with brain afflictions such as cavernous malformation.

“None of us know why this happened to this kid — he’s such a great kid and such a great player,” Ron says. “But over time, I think we’re going to see that he has a message, and that message is going to mean more to the world than being a great baseball player.”

*          *          *

It’s inevitable that when an all-star game pops up in the middle of a sports season, various commentators will suggest that the contest is somehow “irrelevant.” But irrelevant to whom or what?  

Of course, the 2017 New York-Penn League All Star Game, to be played Tuesday night in Troy, N.Y., will have no bearing on the battle for a league championship. But the 2009 game was highly relevant to Ryan Westmoreland, marking the zenith of his short professional career. And it was also extremely important to Donn Wagner and his grandson, Ian — providing them with a meaningful opportunity to reach out to Ryan.

As for Ron Westmoreland and Ryan’s mom, Robin, they will certainly never forget State College. They’ll always cherish their memories of the game. And even though they didn’t meet Ian while in State College, they clearly associate him with our community.  “State College has had some not-so-great publicity,” notes Ron, “but if Ian is representing the people in State College by this gesture, then that’s an incredible town.”

(Top photo by Joy R. Absalon/MiLB.com)



Bill Horlacher is a native of Happy Valley, a 1970 graduate of State College High School and a 1974 graduate of Penn State (journalism). He has spent his last 30 years in service to international students, helping them with personal, cultural and spiritual adjustments to America. After 39 years of living in California, Maryland and Texas, Bill returned to State College in 2013 along with his wife, Kathy.
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