ST. CLOUD, Minn. — They treated him like a freak, and he never deserved that. “The things I do, I’ve done all my life,” says Jim Eisenreich. But people just saw what they saw, a center fielder suddenly twitching and gasping for breath, bending at the waist, not sure he would ever find air again. Just like that it could happen. In the middle of the game. And he would call time out and run off the field, scared and embarrassed. He was suffering from a disease, he says, Tourette’s Syndrome, but he didn’t know it then, and his club, the Minnesota Twins, didn’t believe it. And what did fans do? They laughed. They taunted. They greeted him with cries of “Shake for us, Eisenreich! Dance for us, Eisenreich! . . . “
Until finally, he quit.
He hasn’t played in nearly three years.
Now he is coming back.
“What time is it?” he asks, sitting on a living room couch. His face is unshaven, his eyes sleepy-looking, his mouth a crooked line.
“Three twenty,” comes the answer.
“At four o’clock, I gotta work out.” He sniffs. His foot is tapping. “As long as we’re done by four, because I gotta work out.”
This is a story about trying again, and again and again, because when you dream of playing baseball, you don’t just stop. You don’t just live at home and sleep late and play on an amateur team where you stand out so much it’s a joke — then go to a bar and watch your old club on TV. You don’t do that. Not when you’re still good enough to play. And Jim Eisenreich was always good enough, damn good, maybe great. “A future All-Star,” one baseball owner called him. But when the problems started they put him in the hospital and they sent him to shrinks and then came the medication and the hypnotists and the faith healers and the headlines and enough — the spirit and the flesh can only take so much. “I felt,” he now admits, “like an idiot.”
So he quit, and the game forgot him, but he never forgot the game. Three seasons passed. Then last fall, the Kansas City Royals picked him up for the waiver price of a dollar. One hundred pennies. And because of that, and because he cannot sit anymore while the dream rots away, Eisenreich, 27, will get on a plane for Florida next week, and that alone will take more courage than most of us can imagine.
Spring training is about to start. He is walking back to the door.
Hello, nightmare. It’s Jim again.
They would sit in back of the classroom, they had their little stopwatches, that’s what really used to get me, the stopwatches, and they’d be timing me, seeing how long I’d be doing every little movement. I used to get so mad at them when they watched me at school like that. I’d ask the teacher to go to the bathroom and leave for a while.”
“You’d just leave? Walk out?”
“Yeah. I didn’t like those little stopwatches.”
Jimmy Eisenreich began showing symptoms of his problem around five or six.
“Hyperactive,” they called him. He was nervous, agitated, he would twitch, hum, sniff — all symptoms associated with Tourette’s Syndrome, a neurological disorder that affects more than 100,000 Americans, although no one in St. Cloud diagnosed it as such.
People there really didn’t know what he had. One day, during a Little League game, Cliff Eisenreich pulled his son aside and said, “What are you doing out there? Why are you making those faces?”
The boy started to cry.
“I didn’t know what he was talking about,” he says now. “I thought, ‘Heck, I can’t help it. I’m not trying to do it. . . . ‘ “
That began a childhood of testing, of doctors, of hospitals. What’s wrong with Jimmy? One place actually sent field people to observe him during elementary school. They sat in the back of the classroom and timed his movements with stopwatches. He knew they were there. So did the other kids. Can you imagine such a feeling? Sometimes he would whirl around and stare at them, just stare, with all the piercing anger of a child ashamed.
As he grew older, the things he did became a given — to others as well as himself. Social life was difficult. He rarely dated; he is unmarried. Ah, but sports. There was his salvation. It may seem a cruel joke that so much athletic talent lay inside such a troubled shell, but it was there, and young Eisenreich saw it as a way out. “As long as I was better at sports, I didn’t care what all the people said.”
He was better. Occasionally his symptoms would act up during games, but never would they affect his play. Baseball. Hockey. Soccer. “He was the greatest athlete I have ever seen,” marvels his brother, Charlie, a major league prospect himself. “He could pick up a tennis racket and beat you at tennis, and it might be the first time he played.”
Baseball was his dream, however, and for a while he was riding the rainbow. Promise? Did he have promise? Is that strong enough a word? Eisenreich was a college star at St. Cloud State, then joined the Twins’ organization and jumped from Class A to the majors in a single spring, 1982.
On fire. He was on fire. He finished that spring training with a .293 average. Great arm. Good speed. Could hit anything. Class A to the major leagues? And suddenly the shy kid from St. Cloud was flying north as Minnesota’s starting center fielder. No athlete from his hometown had ever done anything so famous.
“A star,” the Twins people predicted.
He was 22.
Maybe I figured something bad had to happen to me, because all this good stuff had happened.”
“Is that the way things have always happened in your life? Something bad counters something good?”
“In a way. Sort of. . . . ”
The first incident people remember came against the Red Sox in Boston in May 1982. Eisenreich was clearly having problems in center field — twitching, labored breathing — and the Fenway bleacher crowd, showing typical
kindness, jumped all over him. “What’s the dance, Eisenreich?” someone screamed. “Shake, Eisenreich! Shake!” It was cruel and unforgivable — “They chopped him to little pieces,” says Twins physician Dr. Leonard Michienzi — but of more concern to Eisenreich was air, which he suddenly could not bring down his throat. He bent over. His face was contorted. The game disappeared, the crowd disappeared. “I was hyperventilating, I couldn’t stop,” he says. When he reached that point where survival surpasses emotion, he did what made sense — called time and ran off the field.
The incident made headlines. Then it happened again, and again. Four straight games. Finally, in Milwaukee, Eisenreich went from the outfield to the hospital. He was treated there with Inderal, a drug prescribed by Michienzi. “He called it a ‘guaranteed miracle cure,’ ” Eisenreich says, clearly angry. “It made me so jumpy, they had to give me two shots to try and put me out, and they still couldn’t.”
The whispers started. What’s wrong with Jimmy? No one said Tourette’s. In fact, Michienzi, the Twins’ team doctor of 20 years, ruled out Tourette’s early, largely because Eisenreich did not exhibit the sudden barking sounds or hallucinations often seen with the illness. “He says he has Tourette’s,” Michienzi maintains, even today. “Not anybody else. We had four doctors look at him. We all agreed.” Their diagnosis? Agoraphobia. Fear of open places.
Stage fright syndrome.
“That’s just wrong,” Eisenreich says, shaking his head. “That stage fright stuff, everybody jumped on that, and they don’t even know me. The things I do can happen to me anywhere, in church, or in my room. The crowds don’t bother me. Anyhow, if it was stage fright, how come the biggest crowds in 1982 were the first few weeks, and I didn’t have any problems then?”
No one knew. What’s wrong with Jimmy? All they knew was this was not normal. Eisenreich was put on the disabled list, and at the Twins’ suggestion, was admitted to St. Mary’s hospital in the Twin Cities.
They kept him there three weeks.
Were you ever afraid for your safety during a game?”
“I used to be. . . . I used to think one of these times I’m just gonna pass out and be gone.”
“Did that ever happen, you passing out?”
“No, never. I never passed out.”
“It scares you though, when it happens.”
“It used to. I was out of control. . . . I mean, it used to. But that stuff’s behind me now.”
In the hospital, Eisenreich lay in a bed, giving blood, undergoing tests. It was late spring, the beautiful season. He was in a climate-controlled psychiatric wing, with no idea of what was wrong.
“I’d get up every morning, they’d take my blood pressure, and I’d eat breakfast with people who didn’t know what was going on, really sick people.
“It was all psychiatric stuff. I said, ‘Jeez, I’m not nuts. There’s something wrong with me. Why don’t you fix it?’ “
The psychiatrists pummeled him with questions. He felt like the Jack Nicholson character in “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.” But the Twins maintained the problem was in Eisenreich’s mind.
“Have you ever considered committing suicide?” a nurse asked him once.
“Suicide?” He shakes his head at the memory. “I almost committed murder with that one.”
The tests continued. No results. He went home until September. When he rejoined the team, he started a game at the Metrodome and his family and friends came to see him. Everything was fine for the first inning. Then it began again. The agitation. The movements. By the third inning it was very bad, and Eisenreich was bending over at the waist, looking for breath. They stopped the game. He came out.
A few days later, his season was over. Ironically, his talent had refused to be affected — he finished with a .303 average. That got him another trip to the hospital. Three more weeks.
He kept his anger inside. He wanted to listen, wanted to be a good soldier, because baseball is a sport that emphasizes good soldiers. “But I hadn’t even played since the last time,” he says. “I read the papers. I knew what was being said about me. I knew it was stupid. I felt like an idiot.”
Who first diagnosed you as having Tourette’s Syndrome?”
“You mean the doctor?”
“His last name was Abouzah, or something. I can’t spell it.”
“He was the only one?”
” . . . Uh-huh.”
“When was that?”
“Have you seen him since?”
“Did the Twins know about the diagnosis?”
“Yeah, but they didn’t believe him or something.”
“You do, though.”
“Yeah. He wrote a book on Tourette’s.”
“This Abouzah guy? He wrote a book?”
“That’s what he said.”
Spring training the following year was the start of the freak show. Eisenreich was now off-limits to the media. In the clubhouse, reporters would glance over and, upon seeing him, their eyes would drop. Some of his teammates reacted the same way. Baseball, after all, celebrates the practical joker, or the strong silent type, but a guy whose problem is being scared of crowds? Doesn’t fit. The sight of Eisenreich sitting alone in the dugout that spring was common.
What could he do? He couldn’t tell the people who called him “the stage fright guy” that the nightmare struck just as often when he was alone, that when he drove to the ballpark he always took the back roads, that he “never wanted to be on the highway driving, because it could just start up, like at 2 in the morning, and I’d have to pull off the road.”
What could he do? He endured that spring of solitude. And yet, like flowers growing on a mine field, his baseball skill was undaunted. He hit
.400, and headed north again as the starting center fielder.
“He’s got it licked now,” the Twins people said.
He lasted two games.
This one guy they sent me to, he said the cause of my problem, he was sure, had something to do with my birth. Like when I’m born I’m sure I’m gonna remember coming out of my mom.”
“That’s what he expected you to remember?”
“Yep. . . . Whoo. . . . I wanted to get away from him as fast as I could.”
“Was he a doctor?”
“I don’t know what he was.”
When Eisenreich came home that spring — he had quit, after two games, saying he “didn’t want to go through it again” — even his family didn’t know how to react. “It was pretty quiet the first day,” says Charlie Eisenreich.
“Finally Jim said, ‘Well, aren’t you even going to talk to me?’ “
Eisenreich had given up on pro baseball, at least for the moment. But the Twins had not given up on him. Not with his potential. Remember, this was a guy then-manager Billy Gardner once said “could be the difference of 20 ball games for us.” He’s so good, he’s so talented. What’s wrong with Jimmy? Michienzi, the Twins’ doctor, still maintained the problem was agoraphobia. He recommended specialists who recommended specialists. It became a circus. Therapists, psychologists, hypnotists, biofeedback people. What’s wrong with Jimmy? The answer was a chance for fame, and the “faith healers” — as Eisenreich calls them — contacted the Twins every day claiming to have the solution. Some wound up treating him.
“They all had their little gadgets,” he recalls, with an annoyed chuckle.
“They’d all dim the lights, all had recliners so you could sit back. They’d either talk or put on a tape. All they’d say was, ‘Relax . . . relax. . . .’ That was fine. I was sitting in a chair. Anyone can relax sitting in a chair.”
Not surprisingly, none really helped. Eisenreich was embarrassed. He became cynical. People would call up his house, claiming to want to cure him, claiming they had the answer. “Oh yeah?” he would sneer, his voice coming between sporadic breaths. “How come I never heard of you before?”
End of conversation.
He kept going, kept visiting these useless people, because of the good soldier part, because he wanted to play, because he needed the job.
For a while it seemed like a moot point. He was scared and weary and at odds with the Twins’ doctors. Think of what he had already gone through! He really didn’t know what he had, he didn’t want to believe it was a stage fright syndrome, and he had almost no one to talk to. “Sometimes,” says his brother, Charlie, “I wished the Twins would have hired me as a bench- warmer just so I could be there when Jim came into the dugout. I’ve been with him when we’re driving and he starts to get excited. I can just yell, ‘STOP! STOP IT!’ and he calms down. He just needs somebody like that.”
But there was nobody like that, and he had to make a decision. Play or stay away? What could he do? Dancers dance, painters paint, and baseball players play baseball.
Jim Eisenreich agreed to one more attempt in 1984.
“I never knew what everybody was so afraid of.. . . “
This time the Twins protected Eisenreich like a boy in a bubble. No questions from reporters. No hassles from teammates. He had another good spring. A silent spring. By this point he was taking Haldol — a drug used to combat Tourette’s — without the Twins’ knowledge. With his good numbers, it seemed the problem had abated. Twins owner Calvin Griffith predicted Eisenreich “will be an All-Star one day.”
Not that day. Not that year. He was Twins’ first batter of 1984, the leadoff hitter, playing in center field, but they took him out of the lineup after the second game — “We were going on the road and I think they didn’t want the crowds to ridicule me” — and shortly thereafter, the problems began again.
He lasted until April 26. There was talk about him acting drowsy, falling asleep in the dugout. He denies it. He went on the disabled list until May 18 and realized, upon returning, that the future was not glum — the future was gone. “They had Kirby Puckett by that point in center. I knew they wouldn’t move him. I wouldn’t, either. I said to (Gardner): ‘Let me play somewhere else.’
“They used me in right field for one game. Then, a couple days later they asked me to go on the minor leagues. I said I didn’t want to because I could play up here. Then they asked me to go on the voluntary retired list. I didn’t want to do that because I needed the job. Then they said OK, we’ll pay you until the end of the year if you go on the retired list.”
That is how Eisenreich’s major league career came to its apparent end. That is his story, anyhow.
Michienzi has a different version. He claims the Twins wanted Eisenreich off the Haldol, which, at first, the player vigorously denied taking. “Billy Gardner came up to me one day,” Michienzi says, “and he said, ‘You been watching batting practice? The kid keeps falling asleep in the dugout, and every ball in batting practice he thinks he’s pulling to left field is barely getting over third base.’
“So we had a meeting with Jim, we discussed the fact that he wasn’t behaving like a man on Xanax (the drug Michienzi had actually prescribed). Jim said, ‘That’s all I’m taking.’ So we said, ‘Would you sign a paper allowing us to test for any other drugs?’ He said, ‘I can’t do that.’ We said, ‘Why not if you’re not taking Haldols?’ He said, ‘Well, I’m taking them.’
“He lied about it. If he’s taking Haldol he can’t play baseball. It’s that simple. It affects the nervous system. It dulls the reflexes. If he got hit in the head with a wild pitch while he was on Haldol, your ass is sued.”
Sympathy had turned to anger. Trust had deteriorated. Either Eisenreich felt he knew better than the doctors, or he did not want to risk the nightmare again without Haldol.
“I think just being in a major league outfield is enough to bring on his problems,” says Michienzi.
Whatever. On June 4, 1984, Jim Eisenreich voluntarily retired from the Twins. In three years he had played 48 games.
He has not played major league baseball since.
“So what would you tell people?”
“I don’t know. . . . That I did have trouble, but I could still play. I could always play. I made it once, you know. . . . “
Back in the living room of his parents’ house, Eisenreich rises, getting ready for his workout. He is not unusually big — 5-feet-11, 180 — but his muscular torso is evident even beneath his cotton jersey. He lifts his glove.
He sniffs. He is still taking Haldol — but in a smaller, regulated dosage, once a night — and he says it has checked the problem. He is still clearly nervous talking with reporters, his foot tapping, his voice unsteady. But he is talking. He says he wants people to know his side of the story. Despite only one doctor’s opinion — a man whose name he cannot fully remember — Eisenreich holds firm to the fact that he has Tourette’s Syndrome, and that he has it under control.
“If I don’t make it now, it’ll be because of my baseball talent, not my other problems,” he says.
Either way, Kansas City thinks he is worth a dollar gamble — mostly because of Bob Hegman, a former college teammate of Eisenreich’s, and now the Royals’ administrative assistant for scouting and player development. Hegman never forgot how overpowering Eisenreich was in college. When he discovered Eisenreich had finally been granted his release by the Twins — late last year — Hegman went to his boss, John Schuerholz, KC’s general manager.
“Nobody else was talking about Jim,” Hegman says. “Most people had forgotten about him. But he’s got unbelievable talent, All-Star talent. He can run, throw, hit, hit for power. Everything.”
So the Royals claimed him for the waiver price of one dollar, and they have given him a one-year minor league contract. In the past three years, he has worked in an archery shop and as a part-time house painter. The only baseball he played was at the amateur level with a local St. Cloud team — where he was so superior he often hit better than .600. “Realistically I would say this is his last chance in the major leagues,” Hegman says. “If it works out, that’ll be great, that’ll be fantastic.”
“What are the odds?” he is asked.
He sighs. “At this point, to be honest, he has to play his way back to being a prospect.”
Four o’clock. The scene has changed. In the cavernous echo of the St. Cloud State athletic facility, Eisenreich throws a ball to a player across the
floor. He does the warm-up dance. Catch the ball, pose, look to the side, rock back, throw, follow through. His arm is strong, and his throws have that familiar big-league zip. Here, in the gym, the tics and the twitches and the disturbing sense that something is wrong are temporarily gone. He does not look uneasy. He looks like a baseball player.
“What if this doesn’t work out?” he is asked. “What will you do?”
“I think I’ve pretty much accepted that this is the way I am,” he says, the words coming slowly. “If I ever lose it, great. That’ll be great if it goes away. But . . . you know.. . .
And on he goes. The problem is Tourette’s, he says. No it isn’t, says Michienzi. He can still play, he says. No way, says most of baseball. He can handle the medication, he says. It could get him killed, says someone else.
He does the warm-up dance.
There should be some sort of guarantee here, some sort of payback. There should be some way that Jim Eisenreich gets out of baseball all he has had to endure from it for three years and 48 games and a lifetime’s worth of hospital stays. He goes to spring training next week, back to the nightmare, a potential All-Star trying to be a prospect, and there should be some kind of happy ending, don’t you think? Some safe bet that he will make it this time?
“How you doing, Jimmy?” asks a passing player.
“Fine,” he says, sniffing. The Jim Eisenreich file
* BACKGROUND: Born April 18, 1959 in St. Cloud, Minn. . . .5- feet-11, 180 pounds. . . throws left, bats left.
* HIGHLIGHTS: Appalachian League (Rookie) co-player of the year in 1980 . . . skipped Double-A and Triple-A ball . . . broke into majors in 1982, hitting
.303 in 34 games.
* LOWLIGHTS: On disabled list, May 6 to May 28 and June 18 to Sept. 1, 1982 .
. .on disabled list, April 7, 1983, then transferred to voluntarily retired list, May 27, 1983. . .on disabled list, April 26 to May 18, 1984. . .on voluntarily retired list, June 4, 1984.
* TRANSACTIONS: Selected by Minnesota in 16th round of free- agent draft
(June 3, 1980). CUTLINE: Jim Eisenreich: He will get another chance this spring, with the Royals. Jim Eisenreich drops a puck to start a hockey game at his alma mater, St. Cloud State University, last month. Former Twin Jim Eisenreich hit better than .600 for an amateur team, the St. Cloud Saints.