For Ramsay, love gets the save
Former reliever beats cancer with assist from his bride
He didn't bring it up when they met at Washington State University. He didn't mention it on their first few dates. In fact, weeks passed in their courtship before Samantha Spink learned the extent of Rob Ramsay's baseball obsession.Samantha would talk about studying to become a dietitian and playing on the school's volleyball team. Rob would talk about his love of hunting. But he stayed away from the baseball topic. He wanted to be appreciated for the man he was, not the sport he played professionally. He wanted a partner, not a gold digger. It wasn't until a mutual friend on campus gave her the inside scoop that Samantha began to understand Rob's main motivation in life. "That guy is all about baseball," the friend told her. "Baseball is his life."
The headaches began on the drive to Peoria, Ariz., in early 2001. Rob was 27 and fresh off a solid rookie year in the bullpen for a Seattle Mariners team that reached the American League Championship Series. Toward the end of the 2000 season, Rob had brought Samantha along on a road trip to New York City and proposed to her atop the Empire State Building. His personal life was blossoming, and his professional career was sure to follow. The Mariners saw promise in Rob. In his first extended exposure to the big leagues, he had posted a 3.40 ERA in 37 appearances, serving as a second lefty reliever behind Arthur Rhodes. Now, Seattle wanted to see what he could potentially bring to its rotation. In camp, he was expected to compete for the club's fifth starting spot. The headaches, however, were persistent. Rob went to the team's medical training staff and explained he wasn't feeling quite right. He felt lethargic and uncompetitive, which was unlike him, as Samantha could attest. "He used to be in the weight room three or four times a week, and he'd run an extra two or three miles a day before going to the field," Samantha remembered. "I was a college athlete and in pretty good shape. But I'd try to go jog with him, and he'd run me in the dirt."
|"He used to be in the weight room three or four times a week, and he'd run an extra two or three miles a day before going to the field. I was a college athlete and in pretty good shape. But I'd try to go jog with him, and he'd run me in the dirt."|
|-- Samantha Ramsay|
By season's end, Rob wanted no part of the Mariners, his hometown team. He had quickly and clearly disappeared from their plans, and he was praying for a fresh start elsewhere. It arrived when the Padres claimed him off waivers that fall. Rob would arrive at Spring Training in '02 with a new team and a new chance to prove himself in the 'pen. His happiness, however, was offset by the headaches. They came back with a vengeance. "I couldn't get out of bed," Rob said. "Samantha's like, 'You need to go see a doctor about this.' But I figured they'd just tell me to take Aleve. I didn't know it was so severe."
|"I couldn't get out of bed. Samantha's like, 'You need to go see a doctor about this.' But I figured they'd just tell me to take Aleve. I didn't know it was so severe."|
|-- Rob Ramsay|
It was January 2002 when Rob got the official diagnosis that he had glioblastoma multiforme, a particularly virulent form of brain cancer. True to his spirit, though, his goal was to have the tumor removed, go through oral chemotherapy and radiation therapy and be back pitching in the Padres' organization by the summer. The Padres gave the Ramsays one less thing to worry about when they informed Rob they would be keeping him on their roster for the length of the season, which meant his paychecks would keep coming and his insurance would be set. And the 13-hour craniotomy, performed by Dr. Mitchel S. Berger of the University of California-San Francisco Department of Neurological Surgery, was deemed a success. Rob's travails, however, were just beginning. Every two weeks, doctors would have an MRI scan taken of Rob's head to ensure there was no regrowth of the tumor. And for several months, those scans came back clean. Rob, naturally, was already planning his baseball comeback, throwing to friends in neighborhood parks. But a grim reality arrived that June. Rob's cancer had returned. "I got hit with this sledgehammer phone call," he said. "It was like my mortality check. I can remember telling Samantha at that point that I really thought I might not make it." That's when Samantha brought a sledgehammer of her own. Previously content to let the traditional treatments run their course, Samantha got aggressive. She was finishing up her Master's thesis and had done extensive research in nutrition and oncology. This was her chance to apply what she had learned about the effects of diet on the immune system. It was her belief that while nutrition alone can't beat cancer, a healthy diet and lifestyle can team with traditional chemo to form a holistic approach that kills cancer cells.
|"This was a wakeup call for both of us. Sometimes athletes you know can accomplish something just need somebody to kick their butt harder to get where they want to go."|
|-- Samantha Ramsay|
For the three months that followed the news that his cancer had returned, Rob underwent various forms of chemotherapy and radiation treatment and did his best to abide by the demanding diet prescribed to him by his wife. He knew statistics would provide some skepticism about his ability to beat a deadly disease, but he was not deterred. The competitive spirit that once drove Rob to become a better pitcher was now applied to his fight against cancer. And he had the ultimate coach in Samantha, the strong-willed and determined woman who loved him. But in September 2002, Samantha nearly lost Rob. Rob had gone to the doctor for yet another MRI early that month when the radiologist asked him if he had recently had surgery. It seemed a strange question, but Rob didn't think much of it until three days later, when he was driving his car and suddenly discovered he did not have the ability to make a left-hand turn. Less than a day later, Rob realized he was no longer able to walk down the stairs. "He was losing all function in his left side," Samantha said. It was Rob's left arm that had once delivered the pitches that made him a big league reliever. Now, he could barely lift that arm. Nor could he walk in a straight path. As Rob was beginning to deal with these abnormalities, his doctors examined the latest scan of his brain and found a blood clot had developed in his right frontal lobe. It was pressing his brain to the extent where the physical ability on his left-hand side was compromised.
|"He was having so much swelling in his brain that he was basically shutting down. There was a period of an hour where he was fading out. That's when I realized ... he just might not be there anymore."|
|-- Samantha Ramsay|
Surgery to remove the blood clot was set for the first week of November. Rob had been walking around essentially with a loaded rifle in his head for weeks and was desperate to have it removed. But he also knew the monster that had invaded his brain and robbed him of a pitching career that should have been in its prime was not going to go away easily. The Ramsays had no doubt where they wanted to go to have this delicate procedure performed. Back to San Francisco and back to Dr. Berger, whose attention to detail during the 13-hour procedure to remove Rob's tumor had kept Rob alive in the first place. Just as he had 10 months earlier, Berger handled this task masterfully. The blood clot was removed, and Berger also scraped the sides of the tumor cavity to have a biopsy performed. When Rob was discharged from the hospital, he and Samantha retreated to a hotel room, where they holed up for the next couple days, praying and waiting to hear the results. Had the treatment program of chemicals and dietary changes worked, or was the monster still on a mission to end Rob's life?
|"If not for her support and guidance. I might be taking a dirt nap right now."|
|-- Rob Ramsay|
The Ramsays celebrated that night in San Francisco, then returned home to Idaho, where Rob turned his attention back to his first love: baseball. In an admirable show of support, the Padres invited Rob to Major League camp in the spring of 2003, on a Minor League contract. They certainly didn't have to be so loyal. Rob had been out of the game for more than a year and had been on death's doorstep. All pitchers are an arm injury waiting to happen, but when you're talking about a pitcher coming off two major surgical procedures on his brain, the risk of, say, a sharp line drive coming back to bean him in the head is much more troubling. "We were concerned for him, because of his tumor," said Bruce Bochy, who managed the Padres at that time. "But we also knew that his passion was to play baseball. It's what he wanted to do, so it was good to see him do what he loves to do, after everything he had been through.
|"We were concerned for him, because of his tumor. But we also knew that his passion was to play baseball. It's what he wanted to do, so it was good to see him do what he loves to do, after everything he had been through."|
|-- Bruce Bochy|
The great baseball story goes like this: Rob heads to the Minors after a few spring appearances with the Padres, reclaims his fastball velocity, gets his body back in shape after the long layoff and the major weight loss that came as a result of his brain cancer battle and works his way back on the Major League roster. Add in an All-Star appearance or two, and you have the makings of a Hollywood script. Truth be known, on the day of his initial diagnosis, that's just the sort of story Rob had begun to concoct in his head. But Rob's is not necessarily a great baseball story, in the traditional sense. Rather, his is a great life story. For in beating cancer, he discovered the power of love and the passion to live. Baseball, as it turns out, wasn't nearly as important as he had once thought it was. That 2003 season was a pedestrian one for Rob. He spent the bulk of it at Class A Lake Elsinore. He was facing guys six or seven years younger than him and holding his own, but he was hardly dominating. He certainly wasn't showing signs that he would pitch his way back into the big league picture. For Rob, though, the big leagues didn't represent realized dreams quite the way they had before 2002. As his cancer battle waged on, he began to realize that the light at the end of the tunnel was a family, first and foremost.
|"After everything he'd been through, he was like, 'You know what? It's just a game.' He would have never said that before."|
|-- Samantha Ramsay|
Dr. Samantha Ramsay, 35, is now a registered dietitian and director of the dietetics program at the University of Idaho. Rob Ramsay, 37, is now a social studies teacher and baseball coach at Lake City High School in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, where the couple lives with their two sons -- Ryan, 5, and Reid, 2. Rob has been cancer-free for more than eight years. He still has annual scans to ensure the disease has not returned, but they've all come back clean. In the immediate aftermath of beating cancer, Rob suffered some mental deficits. At first, he had no sense of time, as he'd sit and watch TV for hours upon hours that felt more like a blink of an eye to him. Over time, however, he's overcome all of that. In his classes, Rob explains to his students why he's bald and why he has a big scar running across the top of his head. As is typical with teenagers, word spreads quickly through the halls of Lake City about Rob's previous profession. It's not uncommon for a student to ask him if he knows Ichiro. Lest there be any non-believers, Rob has a couple of his own baseball cards hanging up in his classroom. Mementos of a past life and a past passion. "The game," he said, "is the greatest game there is. No doubt."
|"The game is the greatest game there is. No doubt."|
|-- Rob Ramsay|
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.