A son's gift to his mom: a final inning

Ryan Powell's playing career ended three years ago, and the former minor league catcher made a transition to scouting that keeps him close to the game he's loved and lost.

Powell, an independent league scout for the Orioles, gave everything to baseball. He toiled in independent leagues for years. The battle scars are both physical — he has the marks left by eight incisions from his wrist to the top of his shoulder from surgeries on his throwing arm — and mental, like the time he lived in his car while playing for a team in West Texas in 2009.

But now he wanted to give his cancer-stricken mother, Wendy, one last memory of his playing days. While his mother was sick, Ryan decided to make and post a video of him catching a bullpen session so Wendy could see him playing again. He caught five pitches, then said into the camera, "Keep fighting. We're going to get through this. I love you."

The video received about 10,000 views, and it drew interest from the Orioles, who invited Ryan, 30, to sign a one-day contract to play one more game, an inning in a Single-A spring training game at Twin Lakes Park in Sarasota.

That inning came Tuesday morning.

Neuropathy as a result of her treatments means Wendy Powell, 64, a former associate human resources director at Michigan and now an adjunct professor at Palm Beach State, must use a wheelchair. She endures intense physical therapy sessions three days a week focused on teaching her how to walk again. On Wednesday, an Orioles cap covered the scar from the surgery to remove a malignant tumor from the left side of her brain.

With dark storm clouds looming, Ryan walked from the on-deck circle to the batter's box. And as he did so many times during his playing career, he looked back through the backstop to catch his mother's glance. She wore a smile Ryan said was too priceless to describe.

"I'll never forget it," Ryan said. "That's the memory I'll keep, and I'll never forget what this organization has done for my family."

Ryan acknowledged being nervous. His mind was swirling. He fell behind in the count 0-2, then lined a drive to deep center that was caught for a flyout.

"It was just what I had hoped," Wendy said. "That ball went about 400 feet. We were just all so excited cheering. I went over and stood next to the fence. That was my goal."

Once he left the game, Ryan went over to his mother, gave her a hug and draped his jersey over her wheelchair.

"He came over and he hugged me, and he told me he loved me and he told me, 'This was for you,'" Wendy said. "And I believe it. He handed me his jersey. It was very emotional."

Ryan called it "very magical."

"You can walk into any room in America and everyone in the room has been affected by cancer in some way," he said. "This is way bigger than the game, but what better way to bring families together than through the national pastime?"

Ryan's brief return to the playing field was the culmination of months of hardship for the Powell family. Their world was turned upside down by a grim diagnosis.

"This battle began in June, and we've been to the doctor 100 times since that period," Ryan's father, Terry, said. "... So everything we need to do, [we're going to do]."

Ryan and Terry delivered the details of Wendy's diagnosis back in June.

"From the moment we told her she had brain cancer, her response had just been unbelievable," Ryan said. "It was, 'OK, we're going to fight this.' My jaw dropped. I could not be more proud of her. It was the hardest news I ever had to deliver and she just took it like a champ. It was unbelievable."

Ryan had to overcome obstacles as a player. Now he's responsible for scouring the independent leagues for hidden gems, but it wasn't long ago that he was one of those players clinging to the dream of playing affiliated ball.

Besides spending part of the 2009 season living in his small SUV while playing for the Big Bend Cowboys in Alpine, Texas, he blew out his elbow trying to throw out a base stealer that season. He missed the next season after Tommy John surgery. He was a Can-Am League All-Star in 2011 — and even served as player-manager when the skipper was fired — but tore his labrum and rotator cuff during the All-Star Game. Between the elbow and shoulder surgeries, he endured 29 months of physical therapy.

Ryan worked hard to get back into playing shape, and he received an opportunity to try out for the Orioles in 2013 in Sarasota.

But he wasn't signed, and that's when he moved into scouting with the organization.

The Orioles found out about Ryan's desire to play again through an online article. They talked to Ryan to get his take on it and then went through the proper procedures. Executive vice president Dan Duquette was immediately on board, and it was also approved by player development director Brian Graham.

"When we became aware of the circumstances and the situation with his mom and his wish to play and to combine that with his true intent to raise money for a cause, it was pretty easy to facilitate and agree to," minor league operations director Kent Qualls said. "It was definitely a great moment for Ryan and his mom and family. It was definitely a touching day."

So after working out all the details, Qualls called Ryan two weeks ago.

"I think we can make this happen," Qualls told him, giving him two dates when the Single-A team would be playing at home.

The Victus bat company made 15 custom bats for Ryan to use Wednesday. Not only is his signature on the barrel of each, so is the inscription "One more game for you, Mom."

Ryan visited the Orioles clubhouse after the game to get the bats signed by the entire team. The bat he used in the game will go to his mother, and the other 14 will be auctioned, with the proceeds going to cancer-related charities.

One of those 14 bats will be auctioned on the Orioles team website with the proceeds going to Shannon's Fund, an endowment at University of Maryland Medical Center dedicated to providing financial assistance to patients and their families. In 2008, the club created Shannon's Fund in memory of Shannon Obaker, the club's director of community outreach, who died of cancer in 2007 at 29.

As for Wendy, overcoming her neuropathy has been a struggle, but she's improving with every physical therapy session. There's no sign of cancer cell growth, but she's not in remission. Every two months, she goes to Duke University for an MRI to make sure the cancer hasn't returned.

Her next visit to Duke is April 20. If no cancer is found, it will be the fourth straight visit with no cancer found.

"And then we sit down and say, 'OK, what are the next two months going to bring us?'" Terry, 60, said. "Cancer is a war, and you have battles."

The Powells still have several battles ahead of them, but thanks to the Orioles, they will go through those fights with one unforgettable memory.

"When my mom, when she was looking at me play, she just wasn't seeing me in black and orange in an Orioles uniform coming out of retirement," Ryan said. "She was seeing me as a 6-year-old kid. She was seeing me as a middle-school kid, she was seeing me in high school. … She was seeing me in a chronological order through my entire life, through all the struggles."

eencina@baltsun.com

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