June 2013




Ophthalmologist's love of baseball morphs into book on beloved player

by Ellen Stodola EyeWorld Staff Writer

Doug Wilson, MD, is in private practice in Indiana and finds time to travel and do research for his books.

Source (all): Doug Wilson, MD

Cover of Dr. Wilson's new book, The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych, which tells the story of Mark Fidrych of the Detroit Tigers and his immense popularity despite the fact that he had such a short career.

Picture of an autographed Mark Fidrych baseball card. His appearance and floppy hair helped earn him the nickname "the Bird."

Mark Fidrych leans down to pat the ground. His peculiar habits during games were part of what made him so memorable.

Douglas R. Wilson, MD, Columbus, Ind., didn't let go of his passion for baseball, even though he did not become a professional player. Between his work as an ophthalmologist in private practice, Dr. Wilson is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and writes books about the sport known as "America's pastime." Dr. Wilson's second book, The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych, was released in March, chronicling the life and career of a player popular a number of years ago. Dr. Wilson has plans for his third book to be published next year.

"I always loved baseball when I was little," Dr. Wilson said. "I was the kid who was memorizing the back of baseball cards and checking the box scores first thing every morning." He said he frequently played baseball with other kids in his neighborhood or practiced by himself. "It's just something I've always enjoyed."

Dr. Wilson played baseball in high school and college. "I joke that my grade point average was higher than my batting average in college, so I had to go to medical school to make a living," he said. "There's a certain point when you realize you need to do something else to make a living." Dr. Wilson said he went to college with the idea of being pre-med and becoming an ophthalmologist. He had job shadowed a ophthalmologist in his town and found it an interesting profession.

Though he ultimately pursued ophthalmology, he never abandoned baseball. In addition to a lifelong interest in baseball, Dr. Wilson has enjoyed writing as well. "I liked writing, too, and until recently I never had the guts to write something down and show it to somebody else." He started writing as a hobby and picked a topic he enjoyedbaseball. "Mainly, I wanted to write about the game when I was little, the heroes, the guys who were popular when I was growing up in the '60s and '70s," Dr. Wilson said.

Dr. Wilson said one of the most enjoyable parts of his work as a writer is doing the research. He finds it fun to look through old magazines and newspapers, as well as to be able to find the players and interview them. Many of the players he is interested in speaking to are now in their 60s, 70s and 80s, and they enjoy reminiscing about the game and their time playing. "One of the main things that interests me is the personalities of the guys, going beyond the box score, beyond the numbers," Dr. Wilson said.

Dr. Wilson's first book was published several years ago by a small academic company. For his newest book, The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych, he got an agent to help attract a major publisher. As a result, St. Martin's Press, a division of Macmillan, published the book.

It focuses on Mark Fidrych, who was popular in the 1970s. "Mark Fidrych was probably one of the most unique and beloved players in baseball history," Dr. Wilson said. "He burst on the scene as an unknown rookie in 1976, and he took the country by storm." Dr. Wilson said Mr. Fidrych's appeal came both from his appearance and demeanor. He was nicknamed "the Bird" because some people said he looked like Big Bird with his floppy, curly hair and tall, skinny build.

"He had this incredible amount of energy," Dr. Wilson said. "He was constantly moving." A lot of Mr. Fidrych's movements were thought to be nervous energy to keep him focused, Dr. Wilson said. He would drop to his knees and groom the sand on the mound or run all over the field and shake hands with his teammates after plays. "He held the ball out in front of him and moved his lips, and everybody said he talked to the ball," Dr. Wilson said.

Dr. Wilson said that Mr. Fidrych had a contagious enthusiasm. "After a while, he started selling out every game he pitched." Mr. Fidrych played for the Detroit Tigers, and he became so popular that there were requests for the Tigers to rearrange their schedule so that other teams could have the benefit of him pitching at their home parks as well. "He drew almost a million fans by himself," Dr. Wilson said. In the 29 games he pitched, almost every one was a sellout. Dr. Wilson said that Mr. Fidrych gained a huge "pop culture icon status." He was the first athlete on the cover of Rolling Stone. Children and adults alike loved him. "There's never been a player like that since, who was just so popular that everybody loved him," Dr. Wilson said.

Despite Mr. Fidrych's popularity, his career did not last long. "The tragedy of it is the next year he got injured," Dr. Wilson said. After trying to make a comeback for four or five years, he ended up retiring young. But Dr. Wilson said Mr. Fidrych's retirement embodies part of his appeal as well. He was from a small town and would always tell reporters that he planned to go back to this town when he retired and drive a truck and get a farm. Everyone thought he was crazy. However, when Mr. Fidrych retired, that's exactly what he did. "He had come from a small town and all of a sudden he was the most popular guy in the whole country," Dr. Wilson said. "Then he lost it all and just went back to being the way he was. He wasn't bitter. He didn't complain. He told people he was happy for the time he had."

Sadly, Mr. Fidrych died in an accident in 2009. Dr. Wilson said he did not get to speak with him before he died, but that his death was what sparked Dr. Wilson to choose Mr. Fidrych as the topic for his second book after reading all the comments about him.

"The main reason I wrote the book was to bring back the good memories, all the fun he brought to the game, and to let the present generation know about someone who was a good guy and didn't let it go to his head, didn't get in trouble," Dr. Wilson said. In today's society, there are so many stories of scandals and steroid use that Dr. Wilson said it's good to have a reminder of someone who played baseball for the love of it without any of those negatives.

Dr. Wilson said while researching his book, he visited Mr. Fidrych's small town in Massachusetts, about 50 miles from Boston, to speak with his sisters and others who had known him.

More than a hobby

Over time, Dr. Wilson said his writing has morphed into more than a hobby. Being in private practice helps him to balance writing with his ophthalmology work. "As a private practitioner, I have more freedom to arrange my schedule if I need to," he said. It helps to be able to block off time for interviews and to travel, whereas he may not have that flexibility in a larger practice. Dr. Wilson said he mainly likes to write about the "good guys of the game," who are often the antagonists of the modern stories of steroid use. "Unfortunately, the bad things seem to drive book sales." He said it is sometimes hard to find a good subject.

Dr. Wilson's next book will be released next year and will focus on Brooks Robinson, the "first big player for the Orioles."

Contact information

Wilson: bmswilson@comcast.net

Ophthalmologist's love of baseball morphs into book on beloved player Ophthalmologist's love of baseball morphs into book on beloved player
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