Bases Loaded, Becton at Bat
Written by Rebecca Budde • Photography by Jason Johnson
To St. Louis Cardinals Baseball fans, the 2011 season was a nail-biter. Prospects for the Cardinals making it to the playoffs were bleak. Among other incidents, third baseman David Freese took a hit to the head in a game against the Florida Marlins and sustained a concussion. As a sports medicine physician and the Cardinals’ concussion consultant, Wendell Becton, M.D., and the Cardinals’ athletic training staff, affiliated with Mercy Health in St. Louis, worked behind the scenes with Freese and the players to make sure they were fit to play. It was his fifth season as a Cardinals’ team physician, and Dr. Becton was anxious for a winning season.
"The single most important factor that determines whether a good outcome happens or not is how much the person cares who is responsible for that outcome," Dr. Becton says. He knew the Cardinals cared. Less than a month after taking the hit and receiving a clean bill of health, Freese became the League Championship Series and World Series MVP as the Cardinals won the World Series in seven games over the Rangers, a comeback that still excites fans. Dr. Becton, assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery at SIU, specializing in sports medicine and rehabilitation, played a role in helping the players remain healthy during their championship season.
Physician of Champions
In 2002 when Dr. Becton was invited to help perform physicals for the Cardinals’ minor league players, he didn’t think twice about accepting. "I was given an opportunity to do a service that was needed," Dr. Becton says. "Every sports doctor wants to be a part of the big leagues. But the way I looked at it, the place to make the best impact is wherever the Cardinals organization needed help."
Dr. Becton continues to provide physicals each year for the minor league players and the incoming drafted players. He got his chance to join the major leagues as medical staff for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2007 along with Dr. George Paletta, his long-term mentor. In that first year, he covered 40 of the Cardinals’ 80 home games.
"I came in 2007 when they were passing out the 2006 Championship rings, and I was excited to be with champions," Dr. Becton says. But avid Cards fans know that 2007 met with disappointing, career-ending injuries and even the accidental death of a relief pitcher. "2007 was a challenge for the Cardinals’ sports medicine staff," Dr. Becton says. Dr. Becton’s role would make a difference. Dr. Becton, along with Cardinals athletic trainers Barry Weinberg and Greg Hauck produced and implemented a return to play concussion protocol for the St. Louis Cardinals organization in 2009. All St. Louis Cardinals and their minor league affiliate players who sustained a concussion from the 2009 season to the present, which total 31 players to date, have been treated with this concussion protocol.
Though Dr. Becton didn’t receive individual national recognition for the Cardinals’ win, he’s more than pleased with his prize – his 2011 World Championship ring: a splendid piece made of 14 karat white gold, 103 round diamonds and custom cut rubies arranged in the shape of a cardinal surrounded by yellow gold atop a yellow gold baseball bat. Even the Rally Squirrel made it into the ring’s design. "This is it!" Dr. Becton says, with a look of pride pointing to the ring with his name embossed on the side. "To be on the medical staff of a major professional sports team at the time when they go on to win a World Championship and to get the ring is the ultimate prize in my career field."
Off the Field
Along with serving the St. Louis Cardinals, Dr. Becton serves the people of the United States as a flight surgeon in the Air Force Reserves. He is part of the 126th Air Refueling Wing unit of the Illinois Air National Guard stationed at Scott Air force Base. As a flight surgeon, he helps maintain the health of the country’s military pilots, making sure that they are medically fit to fly, fight and win.
He’s achieved all his other military goals, including serving in a war zone. In 2010, he voluntarily deployed to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan as the Command Flight Surgeon. Dr. Becton’s full, 23-year military career means that he could retire if he wanted, but Lieutenant Colonel Wendell Becton’s goal is to retire as a full Colonel. "If I say I’m going to do something, I always follow through."
In fact, he just recently achieved a personal and professional goal that he’s been working on for a few years: to cover every major world professional combat sporting event. As a ringside physician for more than 19 years, he’s covered combat sporting events including the World Boxing Council, International Boxing Federation, World Boxing Association and World Boxing Organization. "I’ve been lucky to have worked and be acquainted with folks like Don King, Floyd "Money" Mayweather, Jr., Adrien "The Problem" Broner, Dan "Hendo" Henderson, Devon Alexander "The Great", Golden Boy Promotions, Pay Per View, HBO, and Showtime Boxing to name a few," Dr. Becton says. He recently covered his first Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) event featuring Rampage Jackson in Chicago, allowing him to meet his goal. "I’ve done everything I set out to do in professional ring-side physician work," Dr. Becton says. "There are a lot of concussions that occur in boxing and MMA. I need to be where that’s happening; I feel the need to continue taking care of combatant athletes and help prevent long-term brain injury complications."
Home Field Advantage
While Dr. Becton cares for the Cards on a part-time basis, he has entered a new phase in his full-time career as a sports medicine physician at SIU’s Division of Orthopaedics. For more than 14 years, Dr. Becton worked in Decatur as a sports medicine physician. "I am extremely excited as a residency alum to be coming back and working full time at SIU," says Dr. Becton who was a family practice resident under the direction of Dr. Jerry Kruse in Quincy from 1994-97. Dr. Becton then completed a fellowship in sports medicine at Rush University in Chicago that allows him to specialize in treating sports-related muscle, bone joint and brain injuries. Dr. Becton also has special interest in patella-femoral syndrome, sports overuse injuries, bone fractures and joint injections.
The triple play of Khaled J. Saleh, M.D., professor and chief of the orthopaedics & rehabilitation division; Saadiq El-Amin, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery; and Jim Daniels, M.D., professor of family and community medicine, recognized the benefits of having a physician like Dr. Becton on SIU’s team and this new service line of sports medicine. "Dr. Becton is a great addition to SIU Sports Medicine," says Dr. El-Amin. "He is a true winner. He has won championships at the high school, collegiate and professional level. Very few sports medicine physicians can say they have treated championship level team athletes at all levels of competition."
While the 2013 baseball season is under way for the Cardinals, new ventures also await Dr. Becton at SIU. Though he admits that the unknowns can be challenging, he knows that the end results are usually favorable when the bases are loaded. "Success is what I’m striving for – with SIU, with the Cardinals and with everything else I’m doing. I was fortunate to have had the highest quality teachers like Dr. Jerry Kruse, Dr. Bernard Bach and Dr. Charles Bush-Joseph. They are great examples for me to try to live up to."