Rob Ramsay has baseball on his mind, now that he no longer has a baseball-sized tumor on his brain.
Barely a year removed from the 10-hour operation that saved his life, Ramsay is back on the mound. The former Washington State star drove from his home in Pullman to Arizona to join the San Diego Padres for spring training, and he continues to train in Arizona -- and undergo chemotherapy treatments every six weeks. He hopes to pitch in his first official game in two years later this month.
"I count my blessings every day that I'm just alive and with [wife] Samantha," Ramsay says. "To be able to play baseball is just icing on the cake."
Ramsay's ongoing battle with cancer, not to mention his survival of a life-threatening operation, is the stuff of legend. A zipper-like scar extends from ear to ear atop his bald head, which he now covers with a helmet when pitching.
"He looks great and feels really good," says Ramsay's wife, the former Samantha Spink, who played volleyball at Coeur d'Alene High School and Washington State. "We don't try to look too far into the future. We're enjoying everything we can." Samantha, a registered dietitian who was the nutritionist for the Washington State football team last season, now oversees a special diet for her husband. Ramsay loads up on whole grains, vegetables and fruits and avoids foods with high levels of polyunsaturated fats and sugars.
"Samantha is my favorite little dose of medicine," Ramsay says.
Ramsay, a Vancouver, Wash., native, sat out last season. The tumor was discovered during a medical exam ordered by Samantha after Rob complained of constant headaches.
The 29-year-old Ramsay pitched for the Seattle Mariners in 1999 and 2000, then spent the 2001 season with their top farm club in Tacoma. San Diego acquired Ramsay on waivers after the 2001 season, but soon learned the big left-hander would miss the 2002 season -- and quite possibly never pitch again, even if he survived the operation.
San Diego general manager Kevin Towers, a former Spokane Indians pitching coach, responded by signing Ramsay to a contract that paid him $250,000. Just as important, Towers kept Ramsay on the disabled list all season so the player could receive full medical insurance benefits.
"The Padres have been unbelievable to us," Samantha says. "We are so thankful."
Ramsay pitched a perfect inning of relief in his spring training debut, but he has not regained full strength since a November operation to remove a blood clot and a pool of blood that had formed in the cavity where the tumor was located.
"He's looked pretty good since the second operation," says Bobo Brayton, the legendary coach (now retired) who has remained friends with Ramsay since coaching him at Washington State. "They had to get the blood out. He had no balance. I took him fishing, and he could barely get in and out of the boat. He could barely stand up."
Ramsay says he does not experience the severe side effects that many chemotherapy patients suffer, but he expects he'll need a day off after each treatment. He's currently signed to a minor league contract, so he would not be eligible to play in the majors until May 15.
The Padres can certainly use pitching; they set a major league record by using 37 pitchers last season. Ramsay, 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, can start or relieve. He was used primarily out of the bullpen in Seattle.
"It's great to see him out here," says San Diego manager Bruce Bochy, a former Spokane Indians manager. "It's been inspiring for all of us. We're proud of him."
"I've always been a laid-back guy... I don't think I've changed that much," Ramsay says. "Maybe I'm a little more aware of how blessed I really am."
The Ramsays will soon receive a further blessing: Samantha recently learned that she is pregnant with the couple's first child. For the Ramsays, all things considered, 2003 is shaping up as a whole lot more enjoyable than 2002.