It’s a very full life for John Wilckens. More than a quarter century in the U.S. Navy, a respected orthopedist at Johns Hopkins Bayview Hospital in Baltimore, and now he’s known for minding after relief pitcher’s elbows than serving his country.
The retired Navy captain graduated from the Academy in Annapolis in 1976, went to medical school at George Washington and had a residency at San Diego Naval Hospital. He began treating high school and college athletes wherever he was stationed.
“I saw a lot of sports-related injuries on bases from soldiers and sailors,” Dr. Wilckens said, and after a fellowship at the Sports Medicine Center in Indianapolis, he decided to specialize in sports medicine.
He came to Hopkins in 2002, and quickly struck out friendships with former team physicians Charles Silberstein and Michael Jacobs. Dr. Wilckens began his association with the Orioles when the Aberdeen IronBirds came along, and started assisting in spring training with team physicals.
Dr. Wilckens got to know Orioles trainers Richie Bancells and Brian Ebel and assisted another team physician, Andrew Cosagrea. Four years ago, Cosagrea stepped aside and Wilckens turned over.
A large, powerful looking man, Dr. Wilckens is a quiet presence at Orioles games. For most games, he’ll arrive after a day of seeing patients, usually around five and stay through the second inning.
One of his associates, Dr. Bashir Zakria, assists him, and one of a group of 10-12 Hopkins orthopedists is always on hand. About once every other homestand, Dr. Wilckens stays through the game.
His work doesn’t end after home games. He travels with the team on a road trip or two a season, spends a few weeks at spring training, and got to be with the team during the postseason.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he said, but recalls that when he was with the Orioles late last season, he was conducting season-ending physicals in Tampa Bay and traveled to Texas and New York for postseason games.
Out of 10 days, he was only able to see patients in the office for one. Rewarding, but “It gets pretty hectic,” he said.
His sports life isn’t just the Orioles. He’s a team physician for the Navy football team, too, and in August and September, he’s away with the Mids and at the Academy one morning and evening a week.
“That takes a toll,” he admits. How much? “Ask my wife that?”
His days are busy. He answered one e-mail from me at 4:53 a.m., and that’s during the off-season.
“It’s a fulltime job. Even now, you’re looking at medical records of free agents and 150 potential draft choices-even though it’s the off-season,” he said.
He talks with Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette roughly every other day and checks in with Bancells each day. He’ll be busy this coming week with the Orioles mini-camp, and then it will be nearly time for spring training.
Most of Dr. Wilckens’ practice is dealing with people who sustain injuries as nighttime or weekend athletes. It’s different dealing with a 30-year-old accountant who injures his shoulder playing tennis than a baseball player of the same age.
“I think that is some ways you’re a little more conservative,” with the athlete, Dr. Wilckens said.
By the time the average person sees him, things are serious in their life. “When you have a pain in your shoulder, and you’re having trouble sleeping or walking. With pro athletes-they’re having problems throwing an effective fastball 95 mph,” he said.
In keeping with his medically conservative bent, Dr. Wilckens recommends surgery only as a last resort.
“We don’t operate as much on athletes,” he said. One of the reasons is “they have dedicated athletic trainers,” and the average person doesn’t.
His mantra is the same. “You make smart decisions, The more we try and treat [athletes] different, the more trouble you get into. When you take shortcuts, you get into trouble.”
After Dr. Wilckens sees an Oriole who might need surgery, he’ll often send him to specialists, Dr. James Andrews or Dr. Frank Jobe. He encourages second opinions.
“I may do one, two or three Tommy John surgeries a year. Dr. Andrews does one, two or three a day,” Dr. Wilckens said.
If you’re a father with a teenaged son with an elbow injury and you’ve heard stories about pitchers becoming even better after Tommy John surgery, don’t take your aspiring Justin Verlander to Dr. Wilckens.
He points out that young pitchers are abused at an early age.
“Parents want their 17-year-old son to have it. Tommy John surgery doesn’t work well for young patients,” he said. “You don’t see that ones that don’t get better.”