Baltimore native Dr. Mark Hamilton, who played for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2010 and 2011, recently graduated from the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell on Long Island. He is scheduled to soon join the fight against COVID-19, which has hit New York particularly hard.
Drafted in the second round of the 2006 MLB Draft out of Tulane, Hamilton played in parts of nine minor-league seasons. Mostly a first baseman, Hamilton was a career .272/.362/.457 minor-league hitter and racked up 227 major-league plate appearances. He had a chance to play in his hometown ballpark in 2011.
Hamilton, 35, joined Glenn Clark Radio April 10 to discuss his Baltimore roots, his journey to the big leagues, his decision to quit baseball for medical and the battle against COVID-19.
PressBox: When I saw that you were from Baltimore, I said, “I’ve never heard this before.” I know you didn’t stay here through high school, but what’s your background in Baltimore?
Dr. Mark Hamilton: I was born in Baltimore. I grew up there until I was about 12 or so. My dad was the assistant director of pathology at Johns Hopkins in the city. I went to Friends School in Baltimore for a while, then I went to Gilman for one year. I was planning on staying at Gilman through high school up until my dad changed jobs and took the position as the director of pathology at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
PB: Obviously, you come from a medical family. You’re playing baseball, you reach the major-league level, you’ve had a lot of success in the minors, you probably still have opportunities in front of you. Did you always know you were going to go into medicine when your career was over? What was your thought process of when the right time was?
MH: I kind of grew up in a medical family and around a lot of medical research and oncology. I have to give a little shout out to Overlea little league here, where I first got my big break being part of the Overlea all-stars. I still keep up with some of those guys. So basically, I had planned on going to medical school and obviously I hoped to have a chance to play professional baseball as well. By the time I got into high school, it was pretty clear — I had been scouted — that that might become a reality where I’ll be able to get professional time. I went to Tulane University for three years, played on a couple incredible teams there. We made the College World Series in 2005 and played in a couple super regionals. Then I got drafted by the Cardinals in the second round, ascended through the minor leagues, had a lot of success there and finally got into the big leagues in 2010.
PB: When you end up back in the minors, was the thought process then like, “I’ve lived the dream. I made it. I can start thinking about my next move in life?” Or was there something that happened that led you to say, ‘It’s time for me to shift away from baseball?’
MH: My wife, Lauren, and I actually talked about that when I first got drafted because I definitely aspired to go into the medical field. And we said, “If you look at the way professional baseball goes, very few guys get to the major leagues. Of the guys that get to the major leagues, very few guys stay for a long duration.” Obviously, you have some people who turn it into a very significant career. I felt like at 30 years old, if you weren’t established within the major leagues that it was extremely unlikely that you would end up being established after that age. So we actually set a timeline on it. I said, ‘At 30 years old, if I’m not established in the major leagues, that’s going to be the cutoff and I’m going to go back and go to med school.’
I spent time in the major leagues in 2010 and then about half the year in 2011 with St. Louis. I found myself in the minor leagues. I gave it another two years, played with Boston. Actually was having a really good season then broke my wrist, which derailed that. Then I spent a year with Atlanta. Right before my 30th birthday, I find myself a minor-league free agent again after being done with Atlanta. We kind of took a step back. We thought about it and said, “You know, I said 30 was the date.” Obviously, there was part of me that wanted to keep playing, but after having two conversations with my wife and really discussing what I wanted with my future, we agreed that that plan of trying to go back and go to med school was in fact the best plan. We had had good foresight there.
PB: You make the decision that you’re going to go to medical school. When we say medical, that’s a huge world. What’s the actual direction that you got into once you got to medical school?
MH: The joke is every athlete that goes into medicine, whether they’re a college athlete, high school athlete, professional athlete, that they’re all going to do orthopedic surgery. I was definitely one of those guys. When I came into medical school, it was orthopedics or bust. In the first two years of med school, you work on basic science. You learn everything about the body, physiology, pharmacology, pathology, all these things. I just absolutely fell in love with medicine as a whole, and I felt like orthopedics was very much a segment of it. Incredible work, and definitely my career was prolonged by several orthopedists.
But I started wanting to be more involved in other disease states, other illnesses, and eventually I came to find interventional radiology, which is a field a lot of people are unfamiliar with. It’s a minimally invasive surgical field. People who practice are radiologists first, and then you get a second board certification to be an interventional radiologist. And what we do is we treat all kinds of different disease states, from trauma to cancer to prostate issues to uterine fibroids. We do it in a way where you enter the arterial or the vascular system using needles, and then under real-time X-ray, which is called fluoroscopy, we navigate wires that can be seen on X-rays to different parts of the body that are a lot of times very inaccessible to other surgeons. So we kind of do the surgery from the outside instead of opening it up.
PB: Was the date for your graduation from medical school actually moved up based on what’s going on in the world?
MH: It did. I know that there’s been some good news come out of New York lately. It looks like the flattening of the curve, social distancing and isolation precautions are helping, but certainly we’re amidst a pandemic where I think the big concern that a lot of people have is what happens if the health care providers get sick? What if they’re no longer able to care for the people that are coming in? So Gov. Cuomo, being proactive, said we have a lot of medical schools here in New York, my school — the Zucker School of Medicine, Hofstra/Northwell — being one of them. He basically said we can accelerate these graduations at least a month, move them up so we could be credentialed in order to enter the hospital depending on need, depending on a lot of factors, that we could be involved more quickly to kind of help curb this pandemic.
PB: Do you know what your timeline is, Mark?
MH: As of right now, I’m starting in mid-June. It could be earlier. It depends on exactly what happens. But I think personally, by no stretch of the imagination are we going to be out of the woods by the time I start. I think that it’s definitely a little bit of daunting task. We didn’t expect to be walking into this scenario [when] graduating. It was expected to be something very different, even just several months ago. But ultimately, we’re ready to take this head on. Myself, my classmates, the other people that are at the great medical schools here in New York, we’ve all been preparing four years to become doctors and now that we’re here, we’re going to do what we can.
PB: Other things are still happening. People didn’t stop getting cancer because coronavirus came along. People are still dealing with medical issues. For those of us who just want baseball and football back in our lives, can you speak to what it is that we’re doing as someone who’s seeing it up close?
MH: I think that’s a really good point and I try to bring it up on other places that I talk about it is just because you’re experiencing this — and it’s an enormous influx, it’s an enormous problem, obviously; there’s been a lot of tragedy associated with this outbreak – it doesn’t stop the other causes of hospitalization from occurring. We’re still having people come in with heart attacks. We still have traumas. You’re still having cancer patients. Having worked at Northwell Health and a bunch of the hospitals that Northwell runs around the city, including a couple of the emergency departments, we were always busy. So this is on top of that. Whenever you’re serving a population like New York that has a wide range of walks of life and a lot of diverse patients, you see every illness and those things don’t stop. Part of this coronavirus issue is when we’re taking care of this large influx of patients that we’re also protecting the patients who are there for other things, who may not have already been exposed. That’s definitely a big challenge.
PB: Do you have a feel for really what this does look like at Ground Zero, if you will?
MH: I was in medicine my final rotation actually of my fourth year. I was in medicine at LIJ, which is Long Island Jewish Hospital, one of the Northwell hospitals. We started to hear about it. The first couple positives in New York started showing up. We didn’t have it yet in my hospital in the rotation, but we started having patients coming in with different respiratory symptoms, and the tests were taking time. The tests were not coming back right away. Turned out that the several patients that I dealt with that we were suspicious for turned out to have other illnesses, thank goodness for them. But we did start to see it coming into the hospital toward the very end of my rotation.
I haven’t been firsthand at this point managing COVID patients, but a lot of the people that I know in medicine — it’s a tight-knit community just like baseball — a lot of the people that I know that are ahead of me that have already graduated or that are in residencies at other hospitals that I worked in, they have seen it. So I’ve got a little bit of insight into it. It’s definitely very difficult. A lot of people are very sick. And with any respiratory illness, when you’re coughing you’re kind of throwing virus particles into the air. One of the biggest challenges that we’re seeing is in emergency departments that are already so busy from all the other medical problems that we deal with regularly: How do we make sure that we’re not just marinating all those patients with this new pandemic? So it kind of becomes a dichotomy of how do you manage one population that’s new and we’re not 100 percent confident on exactly what has to be done, and then how do you manage the population that you’ve been managing before?
PB: Mark, not to be trite about this, but can you compare the nerves, anxiety, excitement, whatever it is, of stepping in now in this role at this time to the first time you stepped in the box as a Major League Baseball player or something along those lines? Are the feelings similar? Are they different? What’s it like?
MH: There’s definitely some comparison there. I think that comparison is pressure creates the chemical reaction in our bodies and our brains that is relatively similar regardless of the pressure. It’s based more on the magnitude of the pressure. So if you feel like you’re under stress or high intensity to perform or to accomplish something, that feeling is not really all dissimilar to when it occurs in another context like this. It definitely does have that nature. In my training for sure, when I’ve been involved in procedures doing stuff — medical students get to portions of different procedures as they’re learning, obviously appropriate to our level of training at the time — I think there is that anxiety to perform and there is that awareness of the gravity of the situation.
Obviously playing a game, winning a game a little bit different than having someone’s life on the table where every action you take could alter their ability to survive or to have quality of life thereafter. But at the same time that pressure, that intensity is still there, and the big thing is being able to channel that into focus, making sure that you’re taking it seriously, and you know that you have a task to do and that you’ve been trained to accomplish that task and then you execute. You can kind of appreciate the gravity of it before and afterward, but during you have to stay with the blinders on.
PB: You got to play at Camden Yards for a couple of games in 2011. What was that like for you growing up here alongside right in the infancy of Camden Yards what it was like for you to stand in the box and play games right here in Baltimore?
MH: I’ll be honest with you, definitely one of the highlights of my career. Very much so at the top because like you said, I actually remember my dad taking me to games at Memorial Stadium. I still remember it. I still remember it. It’s fading a little bit, but back in the day when [Cal] Ripken was very young and you had Jim Palmer and Eddie Murray and these guys. I remember going to Camden Yards in the first year that it was there. It was almost impossible to get seats, but my dad and I got some seats and I think we sat in the nosebleeds one or two games.
For more from Hamilton, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: St. Louis Cardinals Archive