08/17/11 9:15 AM ET
One-time prospect dealing with his bad break
Forced to quit by rare condition, Cumberland takes up coaching
By Corey Brock / MLB.com
That is where you'll likely find the Cumberlands every Friday night, tucked away inside a booth, catching up on a long week. Randy Cumberland works out of town for United Parcel Service, traveling home each weekend to be with his family.
But there's an empty spot at the table, the spot where the Cumberlands' 22-year old son, Drew, once a talented shortstop in the Padres' Minor League system who only a year ago was playing in the Futures Game, would normally be seated.
Instead, Drew Cumberland, who this week announced his retirement as a player because of a rare medical condition, prefers to remain at home, not wanting to bump into any familiar faces, which no doubt would be accompanied with a familiar question.
Why aren't you playing baseball?
"I don't want to see anyone because I don't feel like explaining why I'm there instead of playing somewhere," Cumberland said in July. "I don't want anyone feeling sorry for me. That just eats me up inside."
The truth is that Cumberland, the 46th overall Draft pick in 2007, a player who only five months ago figured prominently in the Padres' plans, should be playing baseball, tackling the game the only way he ever has.
"With his hair on fire," said Randy Smith, San Diego's director of player development.
Instead, Cumberland's playing career, barring an unforeseen medical miracle, is over, as he has been diagnosed with a rare neurological condition called bilateral vestibulopathy, in which the portions of both inner ears that control balance are damaged.
The condition, coupled with a history of concussions as an amateur then as a professional, have led to debilitating migraine headaches as well as vision and balance problems his entire life.
For the longest time, though, Cumberland simply played through the pain.
|"I was at the Mayo Clinic in April having tests, and afterward, there were three doctors in the office and all of them looked upset. They said, 'Drew, I hate to tell you this ... but there is nothing we can do for you.' One of them said that I might have to think about doing something other than baseball. I started filling up with tears. ... Baseball ... it's my passion. It's what I love."|
|-- Drew Cumberland|
"The bilateral vestibulopathy is a rare entity but we really felt the multiple concussions he has is the real limiting factor for him."
For the longest time, though, before the bilateral vestibulopathy diagnosis was made, Cumberland searched for answers. Sometimes the news was promising, sometimes disappointing. On at least one occasion, it was simply heartbreaking.
"I was at the Mayo Clinic in April having tests, and afterward, there were three doctors in the office and all of them looked upset," Cumberland said. "They said, 'Drew, I hate to tell you this ... but there is nothing we can do for you.'
"One of them said that I might have to think about doing something other than baseball. I started filling up with tears. Here I'm on the 12th floor, looking at the window and I didn't know who to call at that moment. That was tough. Baseball ... it's my passion. It's what I love."
This has led Cumberland to the difficult decision to retire as a player, although this week he's embarked on a new career in the game -- as a coach with Single-A Fort Wayne of the Midwest League, where he played in 2009.
But the decision to walk away wasn't an easy one and one Cumberland still wrestles with on a daily basis despite the pitfalls he could face if he kept playing.
"Who knows what will happen if I get another concussion?" Cumberland said. "I talked to my parents and to the Padres about it and told them I want a family someday. I want to be able to play with my kids when I'm 45, 50 years old."
Outfielder Blake Tekotte, who has had three stints with the Padres this season, is a close friend of Cumberland's. They were teammates along their stops in the farm system, often engaging in competitions to see who could get the most hits or the most steals.
"It really breaks my heart," Tekotte said. "He's one of my best friends and for me to see just how talented he was, I mean, to be playing in the Futures Game a year ago and to be that close to making his dream come true ... that's rough."
The condition hasn't snuck up on Cumberland. Incocelda and Purcell believe he was born with the bilateral vestibulopathy. The first concussion he sustained, as a freshman tailback at Pace High, put him on alert.
"I was unconscious for two hours and woke up in the hospital," Cumberland said. "It was after that I would wake up in the morning and be dizzy. Sometimes, it would last all day, or a couple of days. Then it would go away for two or three days."
Cumberland was given eye exercises to do that occasionally would ward off migraines as they approached. There were times when he would still feel dizzy, though he was hesitant to tell anyone for fear of being labeled "soft."
The tell-tale sign for the day would come the exact moment he opened his eyes each and every morning.
"On days when I would wake up dizzy, I would wonder how I was going to get through the day," Cumberland said.
Yet, somehow, he was able to keep playing.
The Padres thought highly enough of Cumberland to pick him during the 2007 First-Year Player Draft. He performed well at every level and was a .316 hitter in his first four years in the system, slowed only by injuries, though, oddly enough, few of them had to do with concussions.
Cumberland sustained a deep laceration to his left knee last season with Double-A San Antonio, the result of chasing a ball into foul territory. He's had injuries to his hand, fingers and oblique as well -- the result, the Padres believed, of continually pushing himself.
"He has great passion and is such a great competitor. He's had some freak injuries from playing too hard. But that's just how he is, it's in his blood to give everything that he has got out there ... for the guy next to him, for the pitcher on the mound," Tekotte said.
Despite the injuries, the Padres believed they had their shortstop of the future in Cumberland, playing a position at which it has been difficult for them to draft and develop. And better still, he appeared to be close to reaching the big leagues.
"He's an offensive catalyst, a table-settler with speed and some extra-base power," Smith said. "He could get on base and run. His stolen-base success rate was tremendous. He's a guy who fits well at PETCO Park because of his speed, his ability to hit line drives.
"He's the kind of guy we're looking for ... high energy, he's a winner. When Cumby got on base, he made things happen."
Deep down, though, even as he was working his way up the Minor League chain, Cumberland was waging a daily battle with migraines, dizziness and vision issues.
"Last year was the first time I ever mentioned it to the Padres," he said. "I had to come out of two or three games prior to that, because I was afraid I was going to get hit in the face because I couldn't focus."
It wasn't like he had a broken arm or leg -- something tangible that he could point to. There was something wrong with him, and if he didn't know what it was, how could he expect his teammates to understand?
"On days when I woke up feeling great, I couldn't wait to get to the ballpark," he said. "But on the days when I woke up dizzy, baseball wasn't something I wanted to do. I was testy. I was stressed.
"I'm wondering, 'How I'm going get through this game?' I didn't want to screw up for the team. They didn't understand. I kept wondering, 'Do people think I'm faking this?' Sometimes I felt like I was crazy."
|"It's a new chapter and he's excited about it."|
-- Donna Cumberland,|
Then it came time for Spring Training in the first week of March, when all of the Padres' Minor Leaguers reported to Peoria, Ariz.
"I get out there and I'm feeling great," Cumberland said. "But with about a week to go [in camp], I dive for a ball to my right and really smacked my head on the dirt. I got up and tried to throw the guy out and immediately felt really dizzy."
By the time Cumberland returned to his apartment that night, his head was throbbing and dizziness had kicked in. He had to keep the room dark because of sensitivity to light. The next day brought more of the same.
"For the next six days, I couldn't think about baseball," he said.
Cumberland later embarked on a wild four-month odyssey for what he hoped would result in a clear answer as to what was wrong with him -- and a remedy, one that would lead him being able to play.
He criss-crossed the country searching for answers, from San Diego to San Antonio to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where he was administered a battery of tests. He knows more about his inner ear than one might imagine, yet was still left with many questions.
"I've been all over the U.S.," Cumberland said. "And the more they've explained it to me, the more it [symptoms] made sense. But at the same time ... they still didn't know what was wrong with me."
Only after spending time at the Senta Clinic did the clouds begin to clear for him, as he started getting answers to what troubled him.
Finally, on a trip to San Diego in late June, Cumberland put himself through a few drills at a local park. Under conditions that typically brought on the migraines -- dehydration and fatigue -- Cumberland dove for balls and quickly got to his feet to make a throw. He felt fine that night.
The next morning was a nightmare.
"My head was hurting and I felt like it was time to go home," Cumberland said. "I told them [Padres] that I don't think I can play baseball anymore if I can't dive. That's how I've always played. My mentality is to go after everything 100 percent. If I can't, then I can't really process that."
Cumberland returned to his family home in Pace, where he steered clear of anything in the way of baseball on television. He mowed the lawn to keep himself busy; he hung out with friends but stayed close to the house, not wanting to explain to anyone why he wasn't off chasing a baseball around somewhere.
Several months ago, the Padres asked Cumberland if he would be interested in coaching. Initially, with his mind still set on playing, he balked. But he warmed to the idea and this week made the drive from the Florida Panhandle to Fort Wayne.
"It's a new chapter and he's excited about it," Donna Cumberland said.
The old chapter still haunts him, though. His body is healthy and he won't turn 23 until next January. He's moving on but Cumberland hasn't completely cast aside his dream of playing in the big leagues.
"I would really like to play again," Cumberland said. "I have always loved this game, the camaraderie you have, and I still hope and pray that something crazy will happen and all of it will be fixed. That's my dream.
"All of those sleepless nights I've had, laying in bed wondering how I'm going to feel the next day. ... I think about what it would be like to wake up and have all of that gone."