Swinging for the Fences

Roger McCoy, M.D., ’90, scores a sports medicine dream job and a World Series ring with the Arizona Diamondbacks

Doctor holding world series trophyIt’s not every day that a medical doctor goes home from the office with a World Series ring. But Roger McCoy, M.D., ’90, knows the feeling. As a team physician with the Arizona Diamondbacks, he is the proud owner of a ring commemorating their 2001 world championship victory over the New York Yankees.

As one of the lucky few to ever get a World Series ring, McCoy was at first baffled by an equally rare dilemma — what are you supposed to do with it?

“I wore it for a while. Some of the players’ wives had designed it, so you could still wear them back then. It’s not as big or gaudy as some of the others out there,” McCoy said. “I wore it for a few years and then eventually took it off. The most fun part of wearing it was to see how people reacted to it and to let others try it on.”

The journey of winning a World Series was exhilarating, but a trying time for everyone in the Diamondbacks organization. After getting through the regular season, the Series stretched into November. There was little time to rest for the players or the staff, who traveled back and forth between Arizona and New York.

McCoy treated lots of injuries during the run, including those common in baseball players, who tend to overuse certain parts of their bodies throughout their playing careers. Elbow, shoulder, and knee injuries in catchers and pitchers were the most common injuries.

“Even if they’re just in their mid 20s, we see a lot of junk in their MRIs. Yet, they’re throwing the ball at 90 mph,” McCoy said. “It’s hard to predict when they may or may not break down.”

He saw players who had acute injuries, from being hit by balls, running on the wrong side of bases or slamming into the outfield wall. McCoy also treated players for injuries to ankles, hamstrings, and more.

“They barely get two or three days off a month. Unless the manager is rotating his starters to give extra rest throughout the season and in the playoffs, it’s truly survival of the fittest,” McCoy said. “They have to keep in shape, but it’s important not to overdo it.”

At the time, concussions among catchers were common because of a rule permitting catchers to block home plate and allowing runners to run into them to jar the ball loose. If the ball came loose, no out was recorded and a run was scored. Thanks to a recent rule change outlawing such collisions, the number of concussions in Major League Baseball from home plate collisions has dropped by 70 percent.

The change was another highlight of McCoy’s journey with sports medicine and professional baseball, as he witnessed the long-term study that preceded the change. He also is a concussion expert, a key figure in the review structure existing to make sure that players, at the professional and minor league levels, have fully recovered from concussions and are ready to play.

Getting a World Series ring wasn’t one of McCoy’s goals when he set out to pursue a career in sports medicine. Back in the 1990s, he was chasing a dream of working in sports because they had always been a part of his life. He had tried out other specialties, but kept coming back to sports, in part because of his upbringing.

“My parents made sure we played all kinds of sports growing up. I played one year of college hockey. My dad was even drafted by the Washington Senators (a defunct professional baseball team),” McCoy said. “But I didn’t have a very deep relationship with baseball. I think I stopped playing in the eighth grade.”

Going through all the different rotations in medical school, McCoy enjoyed a lot of things. But a two-week rotation with sports medicine doctors made it clear that the specialty was the right choice for him. He got insight into how to make it as a team physician, realizing that most of those working on college and professional teams were primary care doctors because much of sports medicine is not surgical.

After graduating from the Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine, McCoy did his residency at the University of Toledo in family medicine. He followed that with a fellowship in sports medicine at Michigan State University, where he crossed paths with some famous coaches just beginning their careers.

“I worked under a guy named Nick Saban. He was the first coach I worked under,” McCoy said. Saban is currently the head football coach of the University of Alabama Crimson Tide, and has won four national championships with the team since 2009. McCoy also worked under Gary Pinkel, a successful Mid-American and Big 12 Conference football coach.

After practicing in the Midwest, McCoy moved to Arizona, where he began working with Arizona State University and in private practice with an orthopaedic group. The group was fortunate enough to be selected to provide services for the new Diamondbacks franchise when it launched in 1997.

Since that time, it has been an incredible ride for McCoy, highlighted by a world championship, champagne-soaked locker room celebrations, and relationships with some of the game’s great players, including Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling.

McCoy still works at Arizona State University as a physician lead while being a team doctor for the Diamondbacks. He teaches sports medicine residents who rotate with the team. He has also taken advantage of incredible research opportunities in concussion science through the Translational Genomics Research Institute and Barrow’s Neurological Institute.

McCoy has collaborated with doctors who were key in forming the concussion policies of the National Football League. He’s been involved with studies that put accelerometers into helmets or considered biomarkers that point to concussion recognition.

“My concussion work was inspired by my own experience. I’ve had about 12 over the years. I even had to quit playing hockey because my grades were dropping. Fast forward to my time at Michigan State, I started my research with my mentor who co-authored the initial Journal of the American Medical Association article with the researchers from Pittsburgh who developed the Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Test,” McCoy said.

The test is part of a player’s standard pre-participation evaluation. Everyone gets a baseline test at the beginning of the season. Then, if someone gets a concussion, doctors use the test as part of a protocol to determine when they can return safely to play.

Football and hockey have higher numbers of concussions than baseball does, especially given the recent rule change on catcher collisions. Still, much work remains to be done in making players safer. It’s all part of the job for McCoy, who likes to make players comfortable enough to call him by his first name. Some on the Diamondbacks call him “Bones,” after the doctor on Star Trek.

“I’ve never been much for titles,” McCoy said. “If they feel comfortable enough to call me by my first name, I’ve done my job.”

For young doctors wanting to break into sports medicine, McCoy recommends setting goals and then researching what it will take to reach them. Getting to where you want to go is, in many respects, working hard and sticking to it. But the relationships you have with others are also key, and McCoy is grateful for those he had supporting him along the way.

“You have to find something you’re passionate about and do your research. Then once you’re there, make an impression,” McCoy said. “A lot is working hard and getting with people who will help you develop. I was very fortunate to have many people supporting me, and that the group I was working with was picked to treat the Diamondbacks.”

— Daniel Kelly


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