The scene would have been fitting for a visit by the President.
Every member of the Pawtucket Red Sox sat in front of his locker in full uniform. When the special guest walked into the home clubhouse at McCoy Stadium, every player stood up and applauded before eventually approaching the individual for a personal greeting.
But the visitor was not Barack Obama or another dignitary. It was 20-year-old Red Sox prospect Ryan Westmoreland.
(photo courtesy of Kelly O’Connor)
The date was April 29th and it was Ryan’s first visit to Pawtucket since having surgery to remove blood vessels from his brain stem six weeks earlier. After a stop in the manager’s office, Westmoreland walked into the clubhouse with Torey Lovullo.
“Without a doubt, the single most emotional moment I’ve had as a manager,” Lovullo said. “I’ve been in this game for 24 years and to see the impact of his presence was startling and emotional all in one because the guys were so excited that he was going to be there. When he walked in, everybody was right there waiting for him and they all stood up and gave him a standing ovation. It lasted for a good 25 or 30 seconds and then the guys one-by-one came up and gave him a hug and welcomed him. Ryan was in the middle of the room with his teammates and friends and it’s one of those things you don’t see in sports very often. People have asked me about Daniel Nava’s grand slam and that’s the second-most excited I’ve ever been in baseball. The Ryan Westmoreland moment was easily the most impressive and emotional moment I’ve ever had in sports.”
35-year-old Joe Nelson was still with the PawSox at the time and helped organize the greeting.
“Four or five guys on the team knew him pretty well and we didn’t know what to expect,” Nelson said. “We weren’t sure how far along he was going to be in his recovery, but he looked great. We got a heads-up that he was coming in, so we all went to our lockers so that he could walk into a full clubhouse. We wanted him to feel like he was part of our team. There were a lot of hugs and handshakes and afterwards, Torey said that he was pretty emotional. We tried to make it as normal but as special as possible. Our hearts all went out to Ryan because we all want to see him get back and do what he’s always wanted to do.”
“If you weren’t there, it seems like it was very orderly and scripted, but that wasn’t the case at all,” Lovullo said. “I just gave the guys a heads-up that there was a really good chance that Ryan was going to visit the clubhouse and they made him feel welcome. It was one of these special impromptu moments and that’s the impact that this guy has on so many people at so many levels. That’s how much of an impact his fight has had on these guys. He is never far from our thoughts. We care for him – those that know him and those that don’t know him – we care for him on an incredible level.”
It’s been three months since Ryan’s surgery and the Portsmouth, RI resident is making tremendous progress. Dan Barbarisi wrote an outstanding story this week in the Providence Journal about Westmoreland’s road to recovery that I highly encourage you to read if you haven’t already.
Westmoreland spoke to reporters on Wednesday and said his goal is to return to professional baseball.
“I feel a lot better,” Westmoreland said. “If you asked me three months ago, the progress has been amazing. I heard from a bunch of doctors and the progress has been remarkable. I’m just excited to keep it going.
“From the doctor’s point of view, not one of them has set a time-table as to when I’m going to get back to playing. I can think in my head, I’m really confident. And going to see the Portland games and the Pawtucket games and the Boston games just gives me that extra motivation and confidence that I’m going to get back again but as far as the time-table, I’m not really sure. I’m just really focused on the next day ahead and just trying to get better every day.”
Hopefully one day, Ryan will walk into the home clubhouse at McCoy Stadium as an active player. But he is already welcome to walk in as a member of the PawSox family.
“The clubhouse is a sacred place among players,” Nelson said. “Occasionally we’ll bring our kids in and they get to come through, but our wives have never been in the clubhouse and that’s a place that’s a safe haven from the outside world when you’re a ballplayer. Every day when you go to work, that’s the place where you go to clock in. We wanted Ryan to remember how special the clubhouse can be and how your teammates are a family. He hadn’t been in a clubhouse since spring training and we wanted to bring back that special feeling of home for a ballplayer. It was important for us for Ryan to feel like he was back home.”
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When I called Joe Nelson for this story, I was happy to reach him in Tacoma, WA where he has just joined the Seattle’s Triple-A team in the Pacific Coast League.
Nelson began the year in Pawtucket and earned a promotion to Boston after going 3-2 for the PawSox with a 2.49 ERA in 16 outings.
But after posting a 9.72 ERA in 8 games with the Red Sox, Nelson was designated for assignment on June 11th. After clearing waivers on June 17th, Joe declined an assignment to Pawtucket and told reporters he had probably thrown his last pitch.
But the Mariners changed his mind.
“It came out of nowhere,” Nelson told me. “I had kind of hung it up. I didn’t pick up a ball for about eight days. The Red Sox were the team I wanted to be with and they gave me a chance – I just didn’t throw well. I was disappointed, but they didn’t owe me anything. I got everything I wanted – I got an opportunity, I got enough appearances, and I just didn’t produce. That was frustrating and I think that was why I was planning to stay home with my family. But after about eight days my wife said, ‘Are you sure?’ I got phone calls from about three or four teams that said they were interested in having me come to Triple-A and that it could be for a short time. Seattle came with a pretty good offer and they said that they had some needs to fill. I could have walked away from the game with no regrets but this opportunity presented itself and you have to weigh each one individually. I feel like this is a good spot for me to be right now. The Red Sox were great. Tito and Theo and Ben and my teammates were unbelievable – I loved being up there. But I felt like I had probably fallen too far down on the depth chart and it was going to take a lot for me to get back to the big leagues.”
Seattle is clearly looking for veteran bullpen help. In recent weeks the Mariners have also signed Billy Traber and Scott Patterson to minor league deals. Traber pitched for Pawtucket last year, but did not get any offers as a free agent and wasn’t in a spring training camp. Patterson was expected to pitch for the PawSox this season, but was one of the Red Sox final cuts in Ft. Myers.
Nelson realized his goal of making it back to Boston for the first time since 2004 when he earned a ring after making three regular season appearances for the Red Sox.
“The last time they let me go they won a World Series so maybe they’ll go ahead and get that done again.”
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The PawSox will have Felix Doubront on the mound on Friday when they open a 4-game series at Syracuse. I hope you’ll join us for radio coverage beginning with the pre-game show at 6:45 on the PawSox radio network and pawsox.com.
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