Friday Reflection #15: Of Medicine, Baseball and Other Distractions
A reflection to mark the arrival of pitchers and catchers
RM is a 72-year-old man who comes to the office for routine follow-up of spinal stenosis, hypertension, and peripheral vascular disease. It is March. He answers my question, “How are you doing?” with a question. “Do you think the Cubs have a chance this year?”
I spend a lot of time thinking about medicine: at work, on the way to and from work, and, too often, at home. Like all of us, I have other interests that fill my time and consciousness: music, travel, sports, collecting, reading, ceramics. Medicine and these “extracurricular activities” exist separately for me; the extracurriculars are necessary distractions, or escapes, to keep my mind wandering. Sure, I think I’m a better doctor because I do things that take my mind off medicine, but I don’t give much thought to the similarities between my vocation and my diversions. Their similarities, however, are probably why they all remain parts of my life.
I’ve loved baseball as long as I can remember. I still have the woolen New York Mets uniform that my father gave me in the hospital when I was born. It was 1967. I was obsessed with the sport long before I began telling people, “I want to be a doctor when I grow up.” I remember graphing my favorite players wins, losses and ERAs on a single sheet of graph paper with multiple colored pencils. I can still hear my father’s exasperated, “If you spent as much time on your actual math homework as you do on those graphs…”
My relationships with medicine and baseball have mirrored one another. I played baseball at a time when I gave only passing thoughts to a career in medicine and I became an observer of baseball at the time I started being an active participant in medicine. Someday I expect to only be an observer of both.
Neither medicine nor baseball can be mastered and both take a whole lot of time to even approach mastery. I’m embarrassed to think how long into my medical career I was that the time I’d spent on medicine surpassed the time I’d spent on ball fields. Nobody wants to play baseball or practice medicine in front of an audience until you have gotten pretty good. I remember games during which I was more worried about the spectators than the opposing pitcher. I also remember being videotaped interviewing a patient in medical school, and being more concerned about my classmates watching the video than about what the patient was telling me.
Baseball and medicine have conveniently complementary schedules: medicine takes up my days and baseball, primarily the Cubs radio broadcasts, evenings. This conveniently overlooks the reality of occasional night call or glances at televised highlights on patients’ TVs during rounds.
The pace of my specialty (general internal medicine) and my sport have a lot in common. Cases and games unfold slowly over time and what happens in the early innings affects what happens later. Surprise endings are common. I dread the bad ones.
Baseball and medicine are physical activities. General medicine may not be orthopedic surgery but I sometimes get home physically exhausted. More than that, however, they are both activities of the mind. No elaboration is needed for medicine but one need only review the careers of Rick Ankiel or Steve Sax, careers upended by the yips, to recognize the cognitive side of baseball.
Medicine and baseball are collaborative tasks. Success in either requires great teammates. Specialists and generalists are necessary and valued in both. I often think of my go-to electrophysiology colleague when a team puts in that speedy pinch runner in the top of the ninth.
Baseball and medicine lend themselves to hero worship; the people you idolize even when they are no longer in or on the field. I still think of Tom Seaver, the great Mets pitcher and my boyhood hero, or Don Mattingly, the most human of great players, when I listen to games. When I do teaching rounds, Jeremiah Barondess, an old-school internist at my medical school, leaps to mind.
I love listening to stories about baseball and medicine. In baseball these often come from great players recounting episodes from their career—I’ve probably listened to Bob Gibson interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air a half dozen times. Even my former teammates recounting games charm me. In medicine, stories are cases. Sure, I learn something from listening to a colleague describe a case, but I also just enjoy the narrative arc of a clinical vignette. Not surprisingly, I sprinkle books about baseball and medicine into my “pleasure reading.” Do No Harm, The Bronx Zoo, Diary of Our Fatal Illness, and Game Six are some of my most recent distractions.
Neither medicine nor baseball is perfect. Both continue to struggle mightily with diversity. I do think, however, that both have done a bit better than our society at large with this issue. Some of my heroes in both fields—Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier, Curt Flood, who challenged the reserve clause, James Bowman, a giant at my own institution and Beatrix Hamburg, who managed to be an idol for me and my father—distinguished themselves in these struggles.
Like most loves, medicine and baseball occasionally disappoint me. I wish medicine progressed faster and I wish baseball would stop feeling the need to change. I wish money had less of an influence in both.
I have tried hard to pass on my passion for medicine and baseball to my children. There are few things I like more than playing catch with them or answering one of their medically adjacent questions. I have had a little success kindling interest in medicine, but less so with baseball.
I look forward to going to work each day, and, during the summer, tuning into games at night. I know I would enjoy both more if I was less obsessed with outcomes. But maybe their ability to incite that degree of concern is another similarity.