by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

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?”

“In 1982.”

“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


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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