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Originally published February 22, 2013 at 9:33 PM | Page modified February 23, 2013 at 12:11 AM

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Mariners' Vasquez just happy to be here after surviving life-threatening brain issue

Anthony Vasquez had no regrets as the Mariners kicked off another Cactus League season without him. The left-handed starter, who got a brief...

Seattle Times staff reporter

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PEORIA, Ariz. — Anthony Vasquez had no regrets as the Mariners kicked off another Cactus League season without him.

The left-handed starter, who got a brief, harsh lesson about life in the majors when he debuted with Seattle late in 2011, has since learned what real problems are all about. Vasquez, 26, nearly died here last November while training at the Mariners' facility when some headaches and vision problems turned out to be from a ruptured blood vessel in his brain.

He underwent a lifesaving, 5 1/2 hours of surgery and spent the rest of the winter recovering at his home in San Antonio, Texas. And on Friday, having returned here to where everything in his life went sideways just three months ago, Vasquez said he's grateful to be alive and for the chance to resume a baseball career in which he has fought for each morsel earned.

"Trials are good, they help you," Vasquez said. "I really look at it that way."

Vasquez, dressed in street clothes, looked off toward a distant field where the Mariners were warming up in preparation for their Cactus League opener against the San Diego Padres. He didn't play for Seattle at all in 2012, when poor Class AAA numbers and a shoulder injury — which he was rehabilitating when the blood vessel ruptured — seemed just a tough carry-over from his dismal debut with the Mariners the prior year.

An unheralded, 18th round selection out of USC in 2009, Vasquez had parlayed an underwhelming 85 mph fastball and unusually-slow-but-effective changeup into a promotion from AA to AAA midway through 2011. The Mariners were desperate for pitching and in August that year raised eyebrows by vaulting Vasquez to the majors, only to see him repeatedly shelled while they rode him far longer than they likely should have.

Vasquez went 1-6 with an earned-run average of 8.90 in seven starts, yielding 13 home runs — which matched his strikeout totals — in just 29-1/3 innings. The Mariners took him off their 40-man roster that winter and he's been back in the minors since.

But these days, uncertain when the Mariners will let him try his injured arm out full-throttle this spring, let alone at which minor-league level he'll play this season, a smiling Vasquez seems at peace with his plight. He can already feel "the competitive side creeping in again" just from being here and says his mindset this spring is really no different than it has ever been.

It's only when he's alone, with too much time on his hands and a drifting mind, that he really starts to think about how close he came to losing everything.

"Sometimes, I'll just be sitting there in my quiet time, by myself, and I'll be like 'Wow, I really skated on that,' " he said. "I really could have not been here."

The neurosurgeon who saved him, Dr. Robert Spetzler, agrees Vasquez might have died had he waited even one more day to seek medical attention. In the end, geography might have saved Vasquez more than anything.

He'd been having headaches about 10 days when he began experiencing dizziness and vision issues as well. Then, on a scheduled throwing day, his headache intensified to the point where he couldn't throw and told a trainer he should see a doctor.

An MRI exam late that day by Dr. Robert Luberto, the team's physician in Arizona, turned up a ruptured arteriovenous malformation (AVM) — a life-threatening tangle of blood vessels in the brain.

Had Vasquez been in a more remote part of the country, he might not have been treated in time. But the Mariners' facility is a short car ride away from St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix, which oversees the world class Barrow Neurological Institute.

Spetzler and his team at the institute operated less than 36 hours after Vasquez first reported his symptoms.

"It's one of the most difficult lesions that we deal with in the brain," Spetzler said, adding he's amazed Vasquez emerged with no permanent damage.

"Being a professional athlete and being in great shape with no additional risk factors is what really allowed him to recover so quickly."

The malformation was on the left side of Vasquez's brain, which impacts cognitive skills like reading, writing and understanding.

"Fortunately, the bleeding was contained," Spetzler said. "So, it impacted just his vision."

But the quick containment meant the vision loss wasn't permanent. Spetzler termed it "a pretty miraculous recovery" and said the follow-up treatment involved little more than Vasquez spending the rest of the winter at home and abstaining from any physical activity.

Vasquez's father, Rudy, a scout with the Los Angeles Angels, picked him up in Phoenix and drove him to San Antonio a few days after the surgery.

"Every now and then, it's crazy to just sit back and reflect," Vasquez said. "It makes you count your blessings. It's a good feeling."

Mostly though, he's tried to set the more dire thoughts aside and views the near-death experience as another thing he's managed to put behind him in a trying 2012. Vasquez comes in daily to resume rehabilitation work on his injured shoulder, a process set back months by his medical ordeal.

He's largely happy with having had the chance to taste the big leagues with Seattle two years ago, despite the numbers.

"If me giving up a few home runs in the big leagues is going to be the worst of my trials," he said, "then I guess I have it pretty good."

He has also been told there was nothing he could do about his AVM ahead of time; that the condition forms at birth and the symptoms often go undetected for years. Doctors have cleared him to resume playing baseball, free of any restrictions, once the shoulder is ready.

Vasquez graduated from USC with a degree in policy planning and development. But for now, baseball is still the only career he has in mind and he hopes his story inspires others to deal with and overcome the difficulties thrown their way.

"I just feel truly blessed," he said. "The way everything transpired and the timing of it all, to where it happened, the discovery of it, the surgery and the aftermath. It could not have played out any better for me if you'd written it all up. I really have nothing to complain about."

Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or gbaker@seattletimes.com

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