I first encountered Jim Eisenreich three years ago in a Florida parking lot. He was walking out after a spring training game, and I was sitting in my car, waiting. I had driven 200 miles. I wanted to interview him. But as he passed, 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 that made him twitch and gasp for breath uncontrollably. It happened during ball games. Sometimes he ran off the field, scared, choking. No one was sure what it was, although certain doctors called it “stage fright syndrome” because it tended to happen in the outfield and among large crowds.
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 talent. Great power hitter. Good arm. But people had been cruel, fans had heckled and laughed and doctors had made him feel like a freak. He was trying a “final” comeback with Minnesota that spring of ’84 — after failing in two previous seasons — and, in that frozen moment in the parking lot, I sensed my questions would only make things worse.
So I said nothing. Later that season, Eisenreich’s problem acted up again, and in June 1984, he voluntarily retired from the Twins and, ostensibly, major league baseball.
I had often wondered what he was doing. And this past winter I read of his planned comeback with the Kansas City Royals. I made a few phone calls. Finally, 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 Syndrome, a neurological disorder that 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 my questions, but he answered them. At times he even joked about it. By the end, we had a nice rapport, and I left there thinking I had met a man of remarkable courage. Painting the whole picture
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 Tourette, but is just using that theory to cope with his problem. And I included his opinion in the story. I also included the fact that only one doctor (whose name Eisenreich couldn’t remember) had diagnosed him as having the syndrome. I included impressions of his behavior; his foot tapping; his voice, which was, at times, unsteady. And, of course, I included a great deal of what Eisenreich himself had told me. This is part of painting the whole picture. It is what they teach you when you get into this business.
The article was very long. It concluded with the thought that Eisenreich deserved a happy ending, but a happy ending was not for sure. When it appeared, in February, the reaction was considerable. Many readers were moved; they wrote asking to get in touch with Eisenreich, and hoped he made the Royals’ roster.
And since then, he has. He was called up in June as a designated hitter. He is doing OK (.219, three HRs), and while he does not yet play the outfield, where his problems often occurred, that may come in time. He has had no troubles in two months.
Which is great. I don’t know for sure whether Jim Eisenreich has Tourette. I doubt anybody really does, including Eisenreich himself. But he is in the big leagues for now. He has won a few games with his bat. Take that for the wonderful news that it is. Not a happy reunion
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 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.
“You made me sound like a bum,” he said.
(I 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 said I wrote he appeared “nervous.” He did appear nervous. He was fuzzy on other criticisms, but I imagine some of his objections lay in the claims by the Twins’ doctor, and my impressions that he was not a sure bet, no matter how much I wanted him to be. What could I say? Perhaps he thought, because we 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. What we want? What I really wanted was for him to hit .400 and win the MVP. I have never felt more for an athlete in my life. This was a guy who from age five had been teased, hospitalized, insulted, and yet he rose to the top. Good for him.
My initial reaction was to tell him this, argue it out. I started to. Then I thought about all he had already endured, and I felt as I did in that car three years ago — as if I never should have asked anything.
I apologized. Not for the words in the article. 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 told him.
“I’ll never do that,” he said quietly.
We hung up. I have re-read that article five times. There is nothing in it that is false. Nothing 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. It is the nature of this business. 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.