© 2011 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.
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."
How many players know the feeling? Greatness, after all, takes dedication to the craft, and more than anything else in life, Rob Ramsay wanted to be great at baseball.
Like most of us, he grew up collecting cards, playing Little League, making ground rules for the de facto "field" in the backyard (over the trees out back was a home run, over the neighbor's fence was an out). On family hunting trips to Salt Lake City each fall, Rob would listen to the World Series on the radio, letting his imagination bring the games to his mind's eye, in Technicolor.
Unlike many of us, Rob had aptitude to match his affection. He was tall, he was strong, and perhaps most important, he was left-handed. He had an advanced feel for pitching that began to reveal itself in a dominant senior year at Mountain View High School in Vancouver, Wash. That led to junior college and then Washington State, where he caught the eye of Major League scouts and became a seventh-round Draft pick by the Red Sox in 1996.
"Rob was a guy who kept getting better and better and better," said Steve Canter, his former agent. "He was a legitimate four-pitch guy. And he worked his tail off."
He was two seasons into his pro career when he returned to Washington State to take more classes and to train. That's when he met the woman who would help him realize there's more to life than baseball.
That's when he met the woman who would help save 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
For reasons that wouldn't be understood for months, that drive was dying.
Based on the symptoms Rob explained, the Mariners' trainers assumed Rob had a sinus infection and gave him some medication. Maybe the drugs really worked, or maybe they just had a placebo effect. Either way, the persistence of the headaches seemed to dissipate a bit, and Rob kept pitching.
"What stayed with me, though," he recalled, "was my lack of motivation to become better."
Rob had a rough spring. Not only did he fail to claim a rotation job, but he was cast out of the big leagues altogether. The Mariners optioned him to Triple-A Tacoma, where he would plod his way through a ho-hum season. His performance was regressing, and he wasn't putting in the work behind the scenes to get better.
This was not the man Samantha knew; the man she fell in love with. When they had first met, Samantha had been reluctant to date anybody, let alone a traveling ballplayer. But Rob won her over with his humility and his spirit. She had begun to understand that baseball wasn't a potential wedge between them. It was Rob's passion, his outlet for the kind of dedication that would make him not just a successful player but a successful partner.
What she saw throughout that summer of 2001 was somebody else entirely.
"He wouldn't want to go lift, he wouldn't want to go train," Samantha recalled. "He would normally leave for the field at 10 or 11 in the morning. But he started to leave at 12 or 12:30. I'm sitting there going, 'I'm all for you playing baseball, but hey, you don't get anywhere if you're not working hard.'"
When Samantha would question Rob about the change she saw in him, he'd shrug.
"I don't know," he'd tell her. "It's just not there."
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
Samantha finally got her way one day in November, when Rob came home from bird hunting and complained about a particularly severe headache. He gave in and decided to see a doctor. And the first order of business was to get an MRI of Rob's head, just to take the worst-case scenario out of the picture.
"No problem," Rob said.
He had no idea.
The result of the MRI was not pretty. Rob had a mass in his head the size of a racquetball. Yet his first instinct was the kind you might expect from a professional competitor.
"Let's get that thing out," he told the doctor. "I want to pin it up in my locker."
But Samantha, who was finishing up her Master's degree in human nutrition and was, therefore, more familiar with medical terms, understood the gravity of the situation.
"I knew," she said, "my husband of one year had a pretty bad scenario."
Samantha was distraught, and understandably so. Few marriages begin with the kind of adversity the Ramsays were enduring. And the threat of losing Rob in the physical sense was abetted by a symbolic loss that had occurred just a few days earlier.
Rob was out for a walk with his chocolate Labrador retriever, Sadie, when he lost his wedding ring. The band had been loose around his ring finger so that he could easily take it off before games or workouts, but that looseness allowed it to slip off his hand and somewhere into the half-foot of snow that had accumulated near the Ramsays' western Idaho home.
"We went," Samantha said, "from this wonder couple to being like, 'Weird stuff is going on here.'"
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
This was just nine years ago, yet Samantha presented her plan at a time when oncologists didn't make nearly as many dietary recommendations as they do today. The doctors treating Rob had no problem with his wife's ideas. But they also knew his prognosis was terrible, either way. Dietary changes couldn't hurt, but there was also no guarantee that they would help.
Samantha put the rules down for Rob, and they would not be easy ones to live with. Rob had gone his whole life eating basically whatever he wanted, yet suddenly his wife would be subjecting him to a strict diabetic diet, with a heavy focus on fruits and vegetables. Beer and burgers would give way to soybeans and tofu.
"No cheeseburgers," Rob said. "That was the worst part."
But he followed the rules, because he trusted Samantha's wisdom. And she diligently researched every avenue of possible treatment because she knew this was a fight to save her husband's life.
"This was a wakeup call for both of us," Samantha said. "Sometimes athletes you know can accomplish something just need somebody to kick their butt harder to get where they want to go."
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
Samantha drove Rob to Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, Wash., to see a neurosurgeon. But as Rob got out of the car, he collapsed to the ground.
"He was having so much swelling in his brain that he was basically shutting down," Samantha said. "There was a period of an hour where he was fading out. That's when I realized ... he just might not be there anymore."
Thankfully, Rob couldn't have picked a better place to collapse. He was quickly wheeled into the hospital and administered a steroid to reduce the swelling. His functioning was still affected, but he was alive.
The blood clot, however, remained. For the next six weeks, doctors continued to take MRI scans of Rob's brain, and the clot grimly stood out each time.
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
This time, when the call came, it wasn't a sledgehammer. It was a blessing.
Miraculously, Rob was cancer-free.
"It was," Samantha said, "surreal."
Rob had so many people to feel thankful for in that moment. The doctors who treated him and the friends who encouraged him.
But mostly, he thanked his wife.
"If not for her support and guidance," he said, "I might be taking a dirt nap right now."
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
"But I'm not going to lie. When he was on the mound, I was concerned."
It was early March when Bochy approached Rob about pitching in a Cactus League game the following day. Bochy expressed his concern about a comebacker, but Rob, who now wore a helmet when he pitched, quickly reassured him.
"'What I've been through," Rob told his skipper, "having a baseball come back at me is the least of my worries."
Rob got into the March 4 game against the Giants in the seventh inning. The first batter he faced was Ray Durham. To most players, the drudgery of spring exhibitions all adds up to a muddy picture. But Rob won't soon forget that moment.
"I go out to the mound, and I'm kind of nervous," he recalled. "I hadn't felt nervous in a game in a long, long time. Then I look up in the stands, and I see Samantha. It gave me a calming effect."
Samantha was sitting down the first-base line. And she was two months pregnant. In the wake of battling and beating brain cancer together, Rob and Samantha had decided to start a family. So Rob was finally back doing what he loves, with the woman he loves watching on, and a child on the horizon.
That first outing back will forever go down as one of Rob's greatest baseball memories. Durham hit a ball back to the mound that a leaping Rob deflected with his glove. The second baseman scooped it up and threw to first for the out. The next two batters were retired on fly balls. Rob threw five pitches and retired three batters.
Maybe the game didn't matter. Maybe his fastball, worse for the rust, was topping out in the low 80s. Maybe he was destined to begin the season in Class A ball. Maybe he was still receiving regular chemotherapy treatment to keep the monster that is brain cancer at bay.
But in that moment, Rob Ramsay was a Major Leaguer once more.
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
Further perspective, as if Rob needed any, hit home shortly after that spring debut in Scottsdale, Ariz. Samantha had a miscarriage, and the Ramsays were tested once again.
"By no means were we going to give up," Rob said.
They faced this latest hurdle as they had the others: together. Samantha followed Rob around as he pitched in nondescript Minor League parks throughout the California League, cheering him on at every step, even if she knew that his chances of returning to the bigs were slim.
The following spring, Rob was offered a Minor League contract by the Orioles and reported to Spring Training in Sarasota, Fla. But toward the end of camp, he suffered a seizure, which resulted in a hospital stay. Knowing he was already a medical liability to his team, even before this latest incident, and longing to settle into some semblance of a "normal" life with Samantha, Rob opted to hang 'em up. For good.
"After everything he'd been through," Samantha said, "he was like, 'You know what? It's just a game.' He would have never
said that before."
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
But if you want to understand the passion that matters most in Rob's life these days, look to the ring finger on his left hand. There, amazingly, sits the wedding band he once lost in the Idaho snow.
It was just a few days before Rob's first craniotomy. Samantha was out for a jog with Sadie. Her husband had just received a potentially deadly diagnosis. She was emotionally exhausted, her mind in a fog.
She stopped in the large soccer field near the home she shared with Rob and said a prayer.
"You know, Lord," she said, "I really want to find that ring. I need something to hold onto. Something to know things are going to be OK."
Just then, Sadie nudged her in one direction. Samantha looked to the ground, and there it was. Rob's platinum band stared back at her, like an embrace from above.
To her, that ring, which already symbolized so much, now had added meaning. It meant she and Rob had faith, had each other and could overcome anything.
When she got home, she was smiling. It was the first time she had smiled in days. She approached Rob, pulled out the ring and proposed on the spot.
"Will you marry me?" she asked.
Naturally, he said, "Yes," for he had already said, "I do." And Rob Ramsay was beginning to learn that in sickness and in health, with baseball and without, love conquers all.