When Red Sox third baseman John Valentin collapsed with a season-ending knee injury a few days ago, he was taken by ambulance not to any of the many very good Boston hospitals just minutes away from Fenway Park but to the UMass Medical Center in Worcester, nearly an hour away. The reason for this is that the Red Sox’ longtime head doctor, Arthur Pappas, is also the longtime head of that hospital’s orthopedic department. You can bet the rent that Valentin, who’s been on the team longer than any other current Red Sox, wasn’t happy about the trip, and not just because of its duration.
The relationship between team doctors and players can often be problematic because there’s a built-in conflict of interest: Since the doctors are paid by the teams, the players are left to sometimes wonder if the medical advice they are getting is for their benefit or the team’s. This conflict is most apparent in football, where playing with often-crippling pain is part of the deal, and the doctor can often find himself under pressure to find ways to prop up obviously injured players for game day. (It doesn’t help matters that it’s often the players themselves—rather than the teams—who want doctors to do this, but that’s a story for another day.) But really, the potential conflict is there in every sport, baseball very much included.
With Pappas and the Red Sox, though, the conflict is far more glaring than with just about any other team doctor in professional sports. The reason is that he is also a part owner of the Red Sox, with a stake of around 5 percent. Perhaps if Pappas were a surgeon of Godlike abilities—and a paragon of virtue and integrity to boot—Red Sox players would be willing to overlook his obvious conflict and happily entrust themselves to his care. Alas, the evidence suggests that he has a few failings in both departments, something just about everyone who has been around the Red Sox for awhile is well aware of.
Roger Clemens is among the many Red Sox players who opted for another surgeon rather than go under Pappas’ scalpel. And a number of players who followed Pappas’ advice wound up feeling they had been led astray. Carlton Fisk, for instance, played the last six weeks of the 1978 season, with the Sox in the midst of a fierce pennant race, with broken ribs. He claims that Pappas told him, “Well, you can’t hurt yourself any more than what’s already been done.” At the beginning of the next season, he had to go on the disabled list because of an elbow problem that resulted from the broken ribs. “The reason I hurt my elbow is, I was favoring my ribs when I threw,” said Fisk. “I think [Pappas] should have indicated problems that could arise.”
But the worst example of Pappas’ appearing to put the interest of the Sox ahead of the interests of a player came a decade later, when second baseman Marty Barrett ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament. According to a lawsuit the player filed in 1995, Pappas never told him how severe his injury was, and as a result he tried to come back far too early (again, to help the Sox in a tight pennant race), re-injured the knee, and ended his career. Barrett, by the way, won his lawsuit against Pappas and was awarded $1.7 million by a Worcester jury.
Yesterday, John Valentin had his knee operated on by a well-known surgeon with no ties to the Red Sox. No surprise there. What was surprising is that Sox management issued a statement criticizing Valentin for “using a physician who was not authorized by the club.” What did they expect him to do? So long as the Red Sox insist on using Arthur Pappas as its official doctor, the team has no medical authority over any of its players. It’s lost the right.