I first met Jim Eisenreich in a Florida parking lot in 1984. Perhaps “met” is not the proper word. He was walking out of a spring training game, and I was sitting in my car waiting. I had driven 200 miles. I wanted to talk to him. But as he passed the car, I just sat there. After a minute, I watched him drive away. You’re always a little nervous when you first interview somebody. But in Eisenreich’s case, it wasn’t my nerves I was worried about. For years, he had been suffering from a disorder which made him twitch and gasp for breath uncontrollably. It happened during ballgames. Sometimes he ran off the field, scared, choking. No one was sure what it was, although certain doctors called it “stage fright syndrome.”
Whatever it was, it had clipped his baseball career each time he reached the major leagues — and Eisenreich belonged in the major leagues. He has tremendous baseball talent. Great power hitter. Good arm. But people had been cruel, fans had heckled and laughed at his twitches and tics and doctors made him feel like a freak. He was trying a “final” comeback with Minnesota that spring of ’84, and, in that frozen moment in the Florida parking lot, I suddenly felt my questions would only make things worse.
That might not stop a lot of journalists. It stopped me. Later that season, Eisenreich’s problem acted up again, and in June of 1984, he voluntarily retired from the Twins and, ostensibly, major league baseball.
This past winter I read that he was trying a comeback with the Kansas City Royals. I made a few phone calls. In January, I went to visit him at his home in St. Cloud, Minn.
We talked there for several hours. He said he had finally learned what the problem was: Tourette’s Syndrome, a neurological disorder which causes certain uncontrollable responses, such as twitching and barking sounds. He was taking medication to keep it in check. He denied ever having “stage fright syndrome” and expressed anger at the Twins doctors who diagnosed him that way.
He seemed a little uncomfortable with all the questions, but he answered them. At times he was even funny about it. By the time I left, we had a nice rapport, and I left there thinking I had met a man of remarkable courage and hoped things would work out. Looking for a happy ending
Journalists are people too. They prefer to be liked. But if they follow the rules of their job, that’s not always easy. I would have liked to have written Eisenreich’s story without calling anyone else. I would have liked to have written that in person he seemed like every other big league player I’ve ever interviewed.
Neither would be accurate.
So I called the Twins doctor, Leonard Michienzi, who maintained that Eisenreich does not suffer from Tourettes, but is just using that theory to cope with his problem. And I included his opinion in the story. I also included the incidents in which Eisenreich, as a child, was “observed” by doctors who came to his school and timed his tics with stopwatches. I included how sometimes, even his family didn’t know how to react to his difficulties. He had told me all that.
The article was very long. It concluded with the thought that he deserved a happy ending, but a happy ending was not for sure.
It came out in February, just before spring training. The reaction was considerable. Many readers praised it, they wrote asking how they could get in touch with Eisenreich, how much they hoped he made the Royals.
And since then, he has. He was called up in June and is serving as a periodic designated hitter. He does not yet play the outfield, where his problems usually occurred. But he is in the big leagues. He’s won a few games with his bat. And he’s had no troubles. That’s great news. Reporting is no PR job
So I called Eisenreich Tuesday morning at his hotel. The Royals are in town to play the Tigers, and this was the first time our paths had crossed since January. I wanted to congratulate him.
“Yeah, it’s you,” he said over the phone. He did not sound friendly.
He said he hadn’t liked the article, that it had upset his family. This was not the first time an athlete has told me that. Journalism is not public relations. But this was the last person whom I ever wanted to be unhappy.
“What about it upset you?” I asked.
He didn’t have specifics. He remembered one part, where I described him sitting in his living room. “You made me sound like a bum,” he said.
(I have checked the article. I wrote: “His face is unshaven, his eyes sleepy-looking, his mouth a crooked line.” That is precisely how he looked that afternoon. Maybe I should have called him cheerful and apple-cheeked. But that was not the way he appeared.)
“That’s really what bothered you?” I asked.
He was fuzzy, because the article was old already. I can only imagine certain parts – the claims by the Twins’ doctor, the incidents involving his family, and my impressions that he was not a sure bet, no matter how much I wanted him to be — were some of his objections. What could I say? He had told me most of it. Perhaps he thought, because we had spent so much time and had gotten along, that I would simply write things the way he saw them. But that is not my job.
“All you guys just write what you want,” he said. My initial reaction was to argue the point. Instead, I thought about all he had endured already, all those doctors, hospital stays, people making fun of him, and I felt again like I did in that car three years ago.
I apologized. Not for the words. But for the reaction they brought him.
“I really just called to say I’m glad you’re in the majors, and I hope you stay long enough to make everybody forget the other stuff.”
“I’ll never do that.” he said quietly.
We hung up. I re-read that article five times. There is nothing in it that is false. Nothing written that I did not see or hear. But they are still my words, my thoughts. About somebody else. Eisenreich is going to read them one way. You another. Me another. And I cannot describe, as I sit here and write this, how lousy I feel. A bum? My god. In many ways, he is the biggest hero I’ve ever written about.
I don’t know how to get that across to you, Jim. All I know is this: you want to tell the truth and you want to be somebody’s friend. And sometimes there’s no way you can do both.