By Sean Jensen
The perks are hard to ignore: Minnesota Twins’ clubhouse access to all training sessions and games, as well as a World Series ring from the famed 1991 season.
This year, John Steubs, MD, orthopedic and sports medicine surgeon at TRIA Orthopedic Center, enters his 31st season as a team physician for the Twins, including the past 15 as the medical director overseeing the health of 200 players throughout the organization.
Not too shabby for a lifelong Twins fan.
“I feel blessed to have been in this position, and I’m proud of the longevity. There’s a lot of turnover that goes with this job,” Dr. Steubs says. “But I put in the hard work because I get a lot of joy out of helping these baseball players with their career.”
But the perks come at a price.
Game days are long, sometimes starting at 7 a.m. in clinic or surgery at TRIA in Bloomington, and ending around 10:30 p.m. at Target Field in Minneapolis. And, unlike most counterparts with other Major League Baseball clubs, Dr. Steubs attends most of the Twins’ Spring Training in Ft. Myers, Florida.
“On one hand, you might roll your eyes and go, ‘That’s a tough life, coming down to Spring Training,’ but it is. It’s a big deal for a doctor to take time out of his practice to be down here for a few weeks,” says Bill Smith, a former Twins general manager. “The job is critical because you have to have good care for your players, and the players have to have confidence in the doctor. Dr. Steubs and I developed a tremendous professional relationship but also a great friendship over 30 years.”
Adds former Twins All-Star catcher Tim Laudner, “Every time I saw him, I knew I was in good hands.”
Dr. Steubs doesn’t take such comments lightly.
Dr. Steubs wishes he could tell you all of this — his job at TRIA, his work with the Twins, his family and his interests — was a part of his grand, childhood plan.
Born in South Dakota, he moved with his family to Rochester when he was in fourth grade. He participated in lots of sports growing up, lettering at John Marshall High School twice in football and twice in track, and playing basketball until his junior year.
Though he didn’t play baseball, he loved the Twins, particularly stars such as Tony Oliva, Rod Carew and Harmon Killebrew. He fondly remembered watching the 1965 World Series on a black-and-white television during school. Another treasured memory was taking a few trips each season with his father to watch the Twins at Met Stadium.
Despite his eventual professional path, he initially pursued another influential career to those living in and around Rochester.
“Rochester was a really unique town,” Dr. Steubs says. “It was 50,000 people and there were two industries: Mayo and IBM.”
Lots of doctors at Mayo Clinic, and lots of engineers at IBM. The latter appealed to him, and he headed to the prestigious California Institute of Technology, where he planned to study engineering or physics. While a student, though, he was concerned about potential jobs after graduation and decided to switch to pre-med, largely driven by his desire to work with people.
He completed his studies at the University of Minnesota of Medical School and was accepted into the orthopedic residency program.
The timing couldn’t have been better.
At the University of Minnesota, he learned under Dr. Robert Hunter, one of the leaders in the emerging area of sports medicine. Specifically, Dr. Steubs was developing skills in minimally invasive orthopedics.
“It was a skill that a lot of people in the community did not have,” Dr. Steubs says.
Hunter, the team physician for the U.S. Men’s Alpine Ski Team in 1992 and a team physician for the University of Minnesota athletic program, served as a role model and mentor. After finishing his residency, Dr. Steubs joined Orthopedic Consultants, which included Dr. Harvey O’Phelan.
The longtime Twins doctor, Dr. O’Phelan regularly asked partners to fill in for him with the baseball club. Though he was the newbie, Dr. Steubs always accepted whenever Dr. O’Phelan asked him.
Dr. O’Phelan started as the Twins orthopedist in 1968, and he started to contemplate retirement in the late 1980s. Given his youth, Dr. Steubs was quickly eliminated from consideration as a successor.
But while on vacation with his family at Disney World in Orlando, Dr. Steubs was asked to cover a few Twins games at the end of Spring Training at Tinker Field, just a few miles from where he and his family were staying.
“I had been eliminated but was back in the mix,” Dr. Steubs recalls. “But the players made a joke that there was a ‘physician’ tryout.”
The plan was for each of the three finalists to serve as a team physician for two months of the season before the club selected one of them.
Twins manager Tom Kelly didn’t like that.
“This is a joke,” Steubs recalls Kelly saying. “I am not going to turn my clubhouse into a circus. Dick, who is the guy for the job?”
Dick Martin, then the Twins trainer, didn’t hesitate.
He picked Dr. Steubs, citing his presence around the team for five years and the trust he’d fostered with players over that time.
Kelly immediately backed Martin.
“I was 37 years old,” Dr. Steubs recalls.
Smith says Dr. Steubs was wise to continue to keep Dr. O’Phelan in the loop for several more seasons, making smooth the transition for all involved.
“Dr. O’Phelan had been with the team for a long time and was very well-respected,” says Smith, who served in multiple capacities with the Twins, including general manager, from 1986 to 2011. “They communicated well.”
Kent Hrbek played his entire 14-year Major League Baseball career with the Twins, and he says he always had full confidence in Dr. Steubs.
“Why not? Being a Major League Baseball player, you expect the club will have someone who knows what they’re doing,” Hrbek says. “I had a good relationship with him, but doc had a good relationships with most players. Besides, he was also a Twins fan.”
His Keys to Success
There are recurring strengths that come up, when people are asked about Dr. Steubs. First and foremost, he’s someone they can trust.
“It’s everything,” says former Twins trainer Dave Pruemer. “If you don’t have the (players’) trust, it’s not going to work. You got to truly show that you care about them.”
Hrbek dealt with an assortment of injuries during his career. Even in retirement, he’s called upon Dr. Steubs to help him.
“I was in his office all the time,” Hrbek says. “Maybe that’s why we got to be such good friends!”
Smith’s entire family has been treated by Dr. Steubs and TRIA: Two of his three daughters had knee surgeries with him, his wife had her knee and hip replaced through he and TRIA, and Smith himself has had two knee surgeries.
“The Smith family is forever indebted and appreciative of the work that Dr. Steubs and his staff at TRIA have done,” Smith says. “We have referred him to people, and he has always, always been responsive.”
A second key to Dr. Steubs’ sustained success is his accessibility.
Despite his busy schedule at TRIA, Dr. Steubs was very responsive to the ball club and also open to caring for Twins staffers.
“He truly cares,” Pruemer says. “His role with the team is certainly treating players and coaches. But outside of that, he’s taken wonderful care of a number of staff members and their families.”
On game days, Smith appreciated Dr. Steubs stopping by the general manager’s suite and briefing him on players throughout the organization.
A third key to Dr. Steubs popularity with the team was his personality.
Pruemer first met Dr. Steubs when the former worked with minor league players in the organization.
“It was, ‘Call me doc.’ You didn’t feel he was above you,” Pruemer says. “He explained things well but would always ask, ‘What do you think?’ Some (doctors) get that air of arrogance, but you never felt that with Dr. Steubs. It was always collaborative with him. ”
After his playing career ended, Laudner suffered a knee injury while walking between tee boxes on a golf course. Dr. Steubs performed a partial knee replacement, and Laudner’s had no problems since.
“I always like to give him the business so I say, ‘Doc, my right knee is a little squeaky, I need a little oil,’ ” Laudner recalls.
Pruemer says some may be surprised to know how competitive Dr. Steubs is, pointing to his passion for golf and any other activities that involve winners and losers.
“One night, we had a party and played some beer pong,” Pruemer says. “When there’s a competition, he gets after it.”
But Pruemer recalls many evenings ending over a glass of wine and talk of baseball.
Dr. Steubs still sports his 1991 World Series ring, but he always tries to focus on doing his part in helping the club’s pursuit of another championship.
“I am trying to work with the team to have success,” Dr. Steubs says. “But the thing about it is, I put in the hard work because I really enjoy my association with the club.”
Hrbek says his friend should be proud of his track record.
“It shows you the trust they’ve had in him, and they’ve believed in him,” Hrbek says. “That’s something that doc should push his chest out to. I mean, 30 years of keeping guys on the field is pretty awesome.”