PHILADELPHIA — They came to his school when he was a child, and they sat in the back with stopwatches. They observed him like a lab rat. They timed his facial tics and body shakes. The other kids stared, and he was so enraged that he spun and glared at these doctors, and at times, made strange motions just to throw them off.
No one understood his problem. Can you imagine the terrible confusion as a child, looking at the world and seeing it point at you and shake its head? Once, during a Little League game, even his father pulled him aside and said,
“What’s wrong with you? Why are you making those faces?” The boy burst into tears.
This is the most encouraging story in the World Series, and it has nothing to do with winning or losing; it has to do with playing the game. That is a cliche, of course, playing the game, unless, not so long ago, every time you tried to play your body began to tremble, the air left your lungs, and you felt as if you were going to die. Then it’s no cliche.
Then it’s a once-in-a-lifetime story.
Jim Eisenreich is that story.
“What’s your mail been like during the Series?” someone asked him in the Phillies’ clubhouse.
“It’s pretty heavy,” he said. “Not as many autographs requests. It’s more like everybody has a story they think is just like mine.”
He chuckled, his sharp cheekbones rising. There are no stories like his. Not long ago, Eisenreich was barely able to look reporters in the eye. Now, he was one of the guys, another player in the blessed light of World Series.
But, oh, what it took to get here.
They called it “stage fright syndrome.” They were wrong. But in 1982, the Minnesota Twins saw a young Jim Eisenreich take the outfield and suddenly, in the middle of the game, he would double over, gasping for breath, shaking, twitching, running off, and they thought he couldn’t handle the pressure. Fans mocked him. The Twins wanted him to get help.
“They thought it was psychological,” Eisenreich said. Suddenly, he had a scarlet letter across his chest. An “H” for “headcase.”
Under direction from the Twins’ doctors, Eisenreich was poked, jabbed, drugged and studied like a petri dish. He was sent to hospitals and to shrinks, one of whom asked him, “Have you ever thought of committing suicide?” He endured this cruelty because in St. Cloud, Minn., where he grew up, he was taught to listen to his coaches and bosses. And he wanted to play. Oh, God, more than the breath he sometimes couldn’t find, he wanted to play. He had been a brilliant prospect, even with the twitching. Scouts whispered about his All-Star potential.
But the seasons kept dying because of this “problem.” He tried his own medication, but he took too much and it made him drowsy during games. The Twins, typically, got angry with him. Finally, after three tortured years (he played only 48 games during that time) he quit because he just didn’t want to be somebody’s freak show anymore. He went back to St. Cloud and swung the bat in softball games, and everyone saw that he was too good for this.
Eisenreich has Tourette Syndrome, a neurological disorder. That this was somehow overlooked all those years is both incredible and horrifying. The only good part is that Eisenreich finally got the answer, and, under proper medication, tried the game again two years later. The Kansas City Royals purchased his rights for one dollar. That was how little baseball thought of him. One dollar?
He didn’t care. He played 44 games his first year there, 82 the next, 134 the next. In 1991, he hit over .300, this man who was once so misunderstood that the Twins ordered reporters to stay away from him.
He has no problems now. No “incidents.” Although he was too shunned to date in high school, he is married now to a lovely woman and has a daughter and another child coming.
When Eisenreich joined the Phillies this year, John Kruk, the wild-tempered, heavyset first baseman, approached him in spring training.
“So,” Kruk said, grinning, “you’re the one who shakes?”
Eisenreich grinned. He found a home.
He hit .318, played good defense. And finally, in Game 2 of this Series, Eisenreich swung the bat and smacked a ball into the seats, and he flew with it to the very top of the mountain. A World Series home run. From the man who cost a dollar. Let the doctors write that in their note pads.
“Sometimes, a kid just has a weak spot in his brain; that’s all Tourette is,” said Eisenreich, who is now a spokesman for the disease. “I want kids like me to have self-esteem.
“We don’t need to be locked in the basement.”
Or timed with a stopwatch. There are so many stories in this World Series, so many dreams. Jim Eisenreich has endured more than all of them. He took all that fate could throw at him, and he is standing right there, in the batter’s box. In a way, he still wears that H on his chest.
Only now, it stands for heart.