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The Team Doctor: Trying Not to be Too Big a Fan

When doctors graduate from medical school they take an oath requiring them to adhere to ethical principles that put the well‐being of their patients above all else. This defines the role of the doctor as being a patient advocate. When serving the general public, this oath is not typically a problem. But, sometimes, team physicians can find themselves in the middle of an ethical balancing act.

Team physicians tend to serve in that role because they are, to some degree, fans of the sport. I don’t know a single colleague of mine in the Major League Baseball Team Physicians’ Association who doesn’t like baseball. Over the course of a season, team doctors spend a lot of time with players, coaches and staff. They see the hard work put in by the team members and share the joys of success as well as the emotional angst involved when players are pressing too hard or failing to live up to expectations.

In team sports where success is measured by wins (poor Dayton!), by making the post‐season or by winning a championship, the part of the team doctor that wants the team to win must be overridden by concern for the player’s well-being. Suppose the team has a young pitcher who’s performed well for much of the season, but down the stretch his arm is getting tender. The physician-fan may be tempted to let him pitch, but the patient‐advocate is more likely to let him sit. These conflicting interests are especially problematic for the doctor who may own part of the team. Potentially, the doctor might make more money if the team wins, so the temptation is there to put short‐term success over concern for the long-term health of the player.

However, as conflicted as the doctor may be, there really is no room for compromise. Team doctors first and foremost must be advocates for their player‐patients.

Now that I’ve addressed the high‐minded ethical discussion, I’ll share a story with you about why I try not to be quite as big a fan as some of the rest of you.

Back around 1990 there was a young umpire struggling terribly during his time in our league. I’ll call him “Smith”. Honestly, he was awful. One game toward the end of the season he umpired a game at first base here in South Bend. While he likely divided his bad calls evenly between both teams, when the game ended I thought South Bend had gotten the worst of it. After the last out, he was walking toward the umpires’ exit and I leaned over the railing in Section 107 and yelled “Hey, Smith! You were awful tonight! How long do you want to spend in the Midwest League?” His stare‐down of me was worthy of a bad Big East basketball official.

Well, I missed the game the next night when Smith, working the plate, twisted his knee in a play at home. Our trainer, Scott Johnson, told the umpire that he would set up an appointment with the team doctor (me) the next day. So the following morning, there was Smith in my office. Even today, I can’t find words to adequately express the awkwardness of the moment I walked into the exam room and our eyes met once again!

Maybe there’s something to that “No cheering in the press box” thing.

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