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Former MLB first baseman Mark Hamilton turns to medicine, neuroscience

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Recently, I was blessed to have a conversation with a very fascinating former MLB first baseman named Mark Hamilton.

Hamilton was a second-round pick in 2006 MLB Draft for the St Louis Cardinals after a successful college career at Tulane University. Hamilton was a First-Team All-American for the Green Wave, then continued to hit for power throughout 950 minor-league games over nine years in the Cardinals, Red Sox and Braves organizations.

He made his ML debut on September 20th, 2010, in an away game at Miami, then picked up his first two ML hits on the 29th at home against the Pirates. Hamilton went 2-4 against RHP James McDonald in a 4-1 Cardinals win. After six seasons in the Cards' organization, he was granted free agency and signed with the Red Sox on January 4th, 2013 (which would play a role in one of his more memorable moments in pro baseball.) From there, it was on to the Braves on December 8th until his release on July 26th, 2014.

Still, after nearly 1000 games in the minors, Hamilton felt a greater calling: the medical field. He spoke with me at length on his interests in medicine, and how he sees his future shaping up as he pursues his MD at Hofstra-Northwell School of Medicine.

This turned out to be one of the most interesting and informative interview I've ever done, and I appreciate his taking time out of a mind-numbing class load in order to give us some insight on what looks to be a very bright future, indeed.

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CR: What were your expectations after being drafted out of Tulane? You were a second-round pick, had a great college career as well...did you have an idea in mind as to how quickly you would progress in the pro ranks?

MH: I knew that my draft position would afford me the opportunity for advancement. That said, you have to perform to advance to the higher levels. I ascended to AA rapidly, but when I encountered some resistance there, the organization made me "beat the level" if you will. Some of my teammates and I would joke that the minor leagues are similar to a video game in this respect, and when it was clear a player had "beaten the level", we would start to wonder why that player hadn’t been promoted already.

CR: What would you say was the most important experience you took from your time at Tulane that didn't come from the ball field?

MH: Hurricane Katrina may have been my first taste of legitimate uncertainty. I think it is normal to feel invincible at 21, and multiple prior school closings and evacuations that yielded no damage made us feel very safe. When Katrina had its sights on New Orleans, I just packed up a weekend’s worth of clothes, raised all my furniture and electronics onto cinder blocks and headed to my future wife’s apartment.

To be honest, we got incredibly close to riding it out, but when the storm refused to turn, and the mandatory evacuation orders came, we were fortunate enough to be able to head out of town. What resulted was one of the largest natural disasters in our nation’s history. Everything I owned was lost, my apartment was demolished into an empty lot, and my university closed until further notice. Not to mention this all happened the same school year I would enter the MLB draft.

While I do not pretend to understand what it meant for those who stayed, Hurricane Katrina changed my life forever. I learned how to handle an overwhelming emotional challenge, and how to maintain focus and ambition in unforeseen circumstances. I think everyone from New Orleans will remember their own "Katrina Story", and it will forever link the community of that wonderful city.

CR: How would you describe the feeling you had when you got the call to join the big club? Can you tell us about that moment?

MH: I was first called to the big leagues in September of 2010 following our Triple-A Memphis club being defeated in the Pacific Coast League Finals. Our club had won the PCL championship the year before, and 2010 was another emotionally charged season for our club. We had a bitter rivalry with Tacoma all year, one that included exchanges of "bean-balls" on several occasions, and the PCL final was no different: we had walk-offs, dugout chatter, and some warning shots being fired from both sides.

It was a series we wanted to win; not just to capture back-to-back titles, but to defeat our bitter rivals. We ultimately fell to Tacoma, and as we reflected on our season and hard-fought defeat, I was called to the office and told I was going to become a Major League Baseball player. It was bitter-sweet, as I finally achieved my childhood dream, but it came on the heels of an emotionally challenging loss.

CR: You played in all or parts of 9 MiLB seasons for 14 different clubs. Are there particular teammates that made an impression on you? Any teammates that you thought stood out either as players or as unique individuals?

MH: Professional baseball has no shortage of characters. I had the incredible opportunity to work and live with individuals from all walks of life and all over the world. My experiences and relationships with those amazing people have changed me for the better. There are so many stories to share, but if I had to pick a player that stood out it was David Ortiz.

My first day of MLB camp with the Red Sox, he gave me a hug and told me to let him know if I needed anything as "we are all family here, baby". He really is a larger than life personality and one of the most benevolent people I ever came across in professional baseball. Even though I was star-struck (I mean, it is Big Papi!), he was so approachable, and I tried to learn as much as I could from him during MLB camp, as well as the weeks he spent rehabbing with us in AAA Pawtucket.

CR: When you made the decision to retire, how long had you been considering it? What factors played the biggest role in that decision?

MH: For as long as I can remember I have had a passion for medical science and baseball. My father, a doctor himself, encouraged me to follow both of these passions to the fullest. I cannot even count the number of times he has said "baseball is a young man’s game, but never forget, there will always be life after baseball." He constantly reminded me that professional athletics and a career in medicine did not have to be mutually exclusive.

He spoke of Dr. Bobby Brown regularly; a player from the New York Yankees who attended medical school during the off-season. Inspired by this possibility, I had always kept a possible career in medicine in my decision making process.

When I eventually found myself nearing the age of 30 and two minor league free agent contracts removed from the big leagues, I felt I was at a crossroad in my life: I could continue to play professional baseball, or I could return to school and pursue entrance to medical school. It took a week of reflection and conversation with my wife to come to a decision, and at this point in my life there is no doubt I made the right choice.

CR: You completed a degree in neuroscience and are pursuing your MD at Hofstra-Northwell. Where did your interest in neuroscience originate? When did you know that medicine was your passion?

MH: I have always been passionate about science in medicine. Even during my baseball career my analytical side has dominated: I constantly analyzed the baseball swing from a biomechanical perspective and I made exercise and dietary choices based on research into physiology and biochemistry. During the Biogenesis incident, I spent hours researching the endocrine pathways affected by the various banned substances players were accused of using. The reality is I have always been a scientist who was good at baseball, not the other way around.

My interest in neuroscience began in 2009, when I had the opportunity to work with renowned mental coach Dr. Jason Selk. The author of mental preparation guides such as "Ten Minute Toughness", Dr. Selk taught me the power of visualization and mental preparation, and my on-field performance immediately improved when armed with his "mental workout". When I saw the science behind his method, I was awestruck.

Consciousness is so obscure and elusive, yet it is something every person experiences every waking second. When I returned to Tulane in the fall of 2014, I enrolled in the neuroscience elective of "Biopsychology". So much of my high school and undergraduate biology felt very memorization based, but neuroscience felt inherently different.

In this course I was challenged to predict behavior and understand the influence of pharmaceutical agents on mental space and decision making. I learned so much about the human condition, as well as the biochemical interactions that make it possible. My background in neuroscience changed the way I view the world around me, and I feel it empowered me with the skills I need to be successful in my future career in medicine.

The nature of neuroscience being what it is, there are a number of different practical applications and/or specialties on which you could concentrate. Do you have a particular specialty or subgroup on which you want to focus, or have you decided on that? Does your interest lie more with brain function or peripheral/spinal nerve disorders?

At this point I am keeping my options open. While my passion for neuroscience has not waned, my recent studies in oncology and cancer genomics are equally intriguing. I had the pleasure of shadowing a fantastic head/neck surgical oncologist last winter and fell in love with surgical medicine. The team approach and ritualistic preparation involved in surgical medicine remind me of many of the things I loved about my baseball career.

At the same time, I have genuinely enjoyed the entire spectrum of medicine I have studied thus far. I have asked many physicians their opinions on specialties, and one consistent answer has stuck in my mind: the best kind of medicine is the one that gets you out of bed in the morning with an eagerness to attack the day ahead. I am not sure what kind of medicine that will be for me, but considering how much I enjoy the material, I am confident I will find it.

CR: If you could change one thing about your pro baseball career, what would it be?

MH: I wish I could go back and enjoy it more and stress about it less. I spent so much time and energy concerning myself with things that were entirely out of my control. At the same time, my challenges and failures taught me how to focus on the things in my control, such as focus and preparation.

Baseball made me a man, and as I transition into medicine I find myself enjoying every moment and approaching the challenges of becoming a physician with optimism and maturity.