“Pitchers and catchers report to spring training.” It’s a date baseball fans look forward to all offseason. Ryan Powell used to be one of those catchers, albeit only once for a major-league franchise. He’s 30 years old and retired from playing now, working a job he loves as the Head of Independent League Scouting for the Baltimore Orioles. He is also the loving son of a mother who has always loved watching him play ball, and as she battles cancer he would love to bring her that joy one more time.
Powell and his family are natives of the Detroit area, where baseball takes a back seat to hockey and football. To work on his swing, Ryan would take batting practice off a tee in his cold garage with a jacket on surrounded by feet of snow. He would play ice hockey on the pond in the backyard, mostly to stay in shape for baseball season.
Ryan’s mom, Wendy, worked as the associate human resources director at the University of Michigan for 23 years. She made appearances as a business analyst on all the major news stations and is a two-time author, writer, and business professor. With her recent health challenges, she is unable to teach and write.
Powell and his family are no strangers to hardships. Michigan’s economy, especially in the Detroit area, has been bad the past several years. When Ryan was 19, his father, Terry, received a job offer in Florida that forced him to relocate. Wendy’s job was in Michigan, so she had to remain there until retirement. With Ryan in college in Maryland at the time, suddenly the family was temporarily spread across the eastern half of the country.
After college, Powell bounced around playing independent professional baseball. While playing in West Texas in 2009, he had no place to live and was living out of his car during the season.
Later that season, Powell blew out his elbow trying to throw out a base-stealer, and the subsequent Tommy John surgery completely erased his 2010 season. In 2011 Powell signed with a team in the Canadian American League, but the day before opening day he was traded out west to New Mexico. That’s when things turned upside down.
At the age of 25 fresh off his Tommy John rehab, Powell’s manager was fired two weeks into the 2011 season, and Powell was asked to take over as player-manager. He later became the youngest professional player-manager to play and manage in an All-Star game.
During that All-Star game, Powell tore his labrum and rotator cuff. As manager of his team he couldn’t really take time off, so he finished out the remainder of the season despite extreme pain. Independent-league baseball is not the most glamorous lifestyle, and financial restraints often led to nights when there were ten guys sleeping in a hotel room. In October of that year, Powell finally had surgery on his shoulder.
In 2012, Powell managed the Trinidad (Colorado) Triggers in the Pecos League and led them to the postseason. He was managing and part of the active roster, while training and staying in top baseball shape. “You can always manage,” he said, “but you can’t always play. Being a player has its shelf-life.”
In both of these managing jobs, Powell came into team situations that were less than ideal and fought to make them better for the sake of his players. At the same time, he was undergoing extensive physical therapy from late 2009 through July 2012, an agonizing 29 months to get back on the field.
In February 2013, the 27-year-old catcher was invited to spring training with the Orioles. Though his tenure didn’t last long, Powell said that all the perseverance of rehabbing for 29 months, the nights slept in his car, and all the other challenges were worth it for the chance for his family to see him wearing the Orioles black and orange. The last time Powell’s parents saw him play, he was finally healthy, but he retired at the end of the 2013 season. After all the grueling months of physical therapy, he decided he wanted to help others. He stayed with the Orioles organization, hiring on as their Head of Independent League Scouting.
Through all the ups and down of Powell’s career, his parents stood by him and helped him battle. They didn’t know that their most important battle was yet to come.
For all the struggles Powell has endured in his career, perseverance and struggle have taken on new meaning recently for him and his family. On June 16, 2015, Ryan, Wendy, and Terry returned to their home in Florida from a family member’s funeral in Michigan. They were relaxing at home after an emotional week. Wendy was sitting at her desk writing an article while Ryan made the two of them lunch. As the two were eating, Ryan looked up and noticed the right corner of his mom’s mouth was drooping. He asked if she was okay, but Wendy was unable to speak.
Ryan and Terry immediately rushed Wendy to the emergency room. After hours of tests, the doctors concluded that she had suffered a stroke. The doctors said it was in the best interests for Ryan and Terry to go home and get some rest. They went home, but they were skeptical as to why they were told to leave and were convinced that there had to be more to the situation. Early the next morning their suspicions were confirmed; they were informed that Wendy had a brain tumor and that doctors needed to do surgery to remove the tumor from the left side of her brain as soon as possible.
After the diagnosis, Ryan and Terry rarely left Wendy’s hospital room. Ryan refused to leave his mother’s side, staying up for 72 straight hours and holding her hand throughout the night to support the woman who has done so much for him.
On June 25, Dr. Viola of Martin Memorial Hospital in Stuart, Florida, removed the tumor from Wendy’s brain. Ryan and Terry waited as patiently as possible with loved ones. As the neurosurgeon left the operating room to determine if it was cancerous, you could hear a pin drop. The doctor spoke with Ryan and Terry in the hallway and told them the devastating reality: the tumor was, in fact, malignant. Wendy had brain cancer. Through tears and weak knees, the father and son held each other as they processed the shocking news.
With Wendy in the intensive care unit recovering from surgery, Ryan and Terry emotionally delivered the terrible diagnosis to her. In a moment that Ryan said made him as proud as ever to call Wendy his mother, the men listened in awe as she said, “Well, it is what it is. I’m going to fight this.”
“In life, there are things that can’t be explained that test families and people you care about,” Ryan said, “but how you react to them is what puts things into perspective.”
Terry said, “Wendy and I have been married for 38 years. There are daily battles and we have to win the war in which cancer surrenders.”
From the moment they broke the news to Wendy, the family knew that although the road ahead was uphill, they would face it together with optimism no matter what.
Ryan and Terry wanted to do everything they could for Wendy, and that included getting her the best medical care possible. Extensive research led them to Dr. Allan Friedman and the world-renowned cancer team of Duke University. While Wendy was recovering, Ryan searched for every piece of information that he could find about the Duke team. He found that Dr. Friedman is regarded as the top neurosurgeon in the country — Ryan referred to him as the Rob Manfred of brain cancer.
Although Wendy’s diagnosis shook their family, Ryan refused to be negative, the same way he approached both his baseball career and life in general. He has been determined to show his mother compassion and strength, two qualities that she instilled in him. In a baseball family, they had strong work ethics and knew that they could achieve their goals if they remained united as a family. Since her surgery last June, Wendy has had regular grueling chemotherapy and radiation treatments near their home in Port St. Lucie, Florida. Every two months, the Powell family makes the eleven-hour drive to North Carolina for additional treatment at Duke.
Through it all, Wendy has turned heads and proven to be an inspiration with her attitude and perseverance. Terry has also been a rock during this trial, standing by his wife’s side with strength. Ryan has gained an increased pride in both of his parents, and despite being just 30 years old, he has been a source of strength for both of them, too.
“You’re dealt a hand in life,” Ryan says, “and what’s most important is how you handle it by having faith and trusting that you’ll see your way through it.”
Wendy’s treatment has taken its toll, but she has continued to show strength and courage throughout her 90 (and counting) hospital visits. Despite facing the most difficult trial of their lives the past eight months, the Powell family has endured the sleepless nights and often-painful days with a positivity that can inspire other families facing similar struggles. They are keenly aware that many other families face the same trials, and they are striving to set an example of how to stand together as a family throughout.
Then there’s the matter of work. Although Terry and Wendy are both retired, Ryan has had to juggle his work schedule through all of this. When Wendy was first diagnosed, Ryan called his boss Fred Ferreira, the International Scouting Director of the Baltimore Orioles, someone he has known for over ten years. Ryan completely broke down telling Ferreira — in fact, eight months later Ryan still gets emotional talking about it.
Throughout the Powell family’s journey, the individuals Ryan speaks with on a regular basis within the Orioles organization have been completely supportive. Every time he talks to any of them, they ask him, “Hey, how’s mom doing?” As Ferreira said, “Ryan’s parents have always been there for him throughout his playing career. Now, Ryan is doing the same for his mother and her battles with cancer.”
“Ryan has been a warrior and and a champion,” said Joel Bradley, an international scout for the Orioles and Ryan’s close friend. “During times like these, it’s most important to keep family, faith, and love first.”
Recognition and admiration for the Powell family has spread far and wide within baseball, not just within the Orioles organization.
“When it comes to family and people you care about,” Ryan said, “there are no team names on the jersey.”
Wendy’s treatments have caused severe neuropathy, which has restricted her ability to walk. But to use a baseball analogy, Ryan, Terry, and Wendy keep swinging for the fences with a smile.
Ryan has been active on Facebook, by providing motivational updates of her condition with optimism and passion. He retired from playing and went into scouting at a young age because he wanted to help other ballplayers get to the major leagues, but lately his mother has been asking to see him play. So on February 17, Ryan came out of retirement, put on the catcher’s gear, and caught a major-league pitcher on video for his mother. It was the three-year anniversary of the last time his parents had seen him in uniform.
Ryan’s post with the video and other words of encouragement has caught the attention and hearts of thousands, seeing how much love this family has for one another. While the brief video put the three of them to tears, it would mean the world for Wendy to have seen it in person. During Ryan’s darkest days, there were times when he would think about where exactly he got his strength and perseverance from. After embarking on this journey together, he knows exactly where it came from: his family.
The Powells’ resilience and optimism are inspiring thousands who are fighting the same fight. Wendy’s positivity is infectious, even just in a brief phone call with a baseball writer, and it is easy to see why and how she has inspired and touched so many. Her battle for the past eight months has been inspirational as she continues to show the same strength and courage that made her the woman she is today.
Although Wendy was able to see the video that Ryan surprised her with, wouldn’t it be so much better if she could see it in person?
Spring training is a wonderful time for baseball fans. It’s a time when peanuts and Cracker Jack and hot dogs are back, when the sights and sounds and smells of baseball emerge from their long hibernation. The Powell family has scratched and clawed for every inch, and they have proven to be an inspiration of how to stand as one. Life takes many twists and turns, but the Powell family is the benchmark for the word fight.
For a family such as this, why not one more game? One more inning? One more at-bat? At this time of the year, let’s start the season off the right way with a standing ovation for a family within Major League Baseball that couldn’t be more deserving. Even if just for one last inning…