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July 5, 2012

Inside The Park

Jim Eisenreich: No Place to Hide

by Bradford Doolittle

In my story about Anthony Rizzo last week, I alluded to a personal rough patch that I've been going through. I got a lot of nice messages from readers, colleagues, and friends. Believe me, it was much appreciated.

The downturn largely kept me from the ballpark during June. Part of the reason for that was an incident just as I was falling into my funk, after a White Sox game in which Phil Humber was hammered and appeared to be in danger of losing his rotation spot. (He subsequently ended up on the disabled list.) After the game, the media hovered around Humber's locker waiting to grill him about his struggles.

I wasn't in the best frame of mind that day and really just wanted to get a couple quotes and clear out of there. I always feel like the devil himself in those situations, when I'm part of a mob forcing someone to talk about painful subjects when there hasn't even been time to reflect. As happens often, the circle of media around his locker was so dense that when he stepped out of the shower room in a towel, there wasn't even a path for him to get to his chair. I remember actually pulling people out of the way so that the guy we were waiting on could get to his locker and put on some clothes, which of course he would have to do with all of us standing there watching. It's the reality of covering a locker room, but it's damned uncomfortable.

Anyway, there was a White Sox player sitting nearby watching all this, and he started making sarcastic comments and cat-calling the throng of reporters. He was quiet about it, but I could hear, and given my already heightened state of agitation, it was making me really tense. I just stuck my recorder in the middle of the fray, unable to hear Humber, but I could hear this smart-assed player just fine. One reporter asked Humber how it "felt to struggle so much after having thrown a perfect game a few weeks ago." Reporters are always asking how something feels. It's not a productive line of questioning.

The smart-ass nearby heard this and said, "How does it feel to be a douchebag?"

I glanced over at the player, and he gave me this condescending look and shook his head. Dangerous impulses entered my head, the kind which if acted upon would have effectively ended my professional career. (But it would have gotten me on SportsCenter for sure.) Wisely, I simply pulled my recorder back and vacated the clubhouse to write up my postgame stuff. I had all I needed and wanted.

This player I'm referring to as a smart-ass isn't a bad guy. He is most definitely a smart-ass, though. It may be his defining characteristic. Given the real-world problems I was dealing with, the incident helped to seed some bad ideas in my head, namely: "Why the hell am I putting with crap from overpaid and overprivileged baseball players as if they performed any kind of vital function in the world? Who the hell are they?"

I don't really feel that way about baseball or the players or sports in general. It's just how I was feeling at the time. I found the next few days didn't ease this feeling, and I dropped most of my stringing assignments in June and stayed away from the ballpark pretty much altogether. I filled my time by working on a non-sports-related novel, some dry NBA analysis, traveling to see friends and family, self-medicating, and staring into space in dark rooms.

Things eventually got better, and I started to think about writing a piece about the White Sox incident and making it about how players and managers view the media and the functions it performs. Actually, I still think that's a pretty good idea, so keep an eye out for that later in the summer. However, I also reflected a lot about my dealings with athletes over the years, some bad but most of them good—surprisingly so. One of the athletes I remember meeting at a non-ballpark baseball event who was surprisingly friendly and soft-spoken was Milton Bradley. You just never know.

However, the best impression left by any athlete I've ever dealt with had to be Jim Eisenreich. A few years ago, I was asked to write a profile on him for a now-defunct magazine. Sadly, the magazine went belly-up at the time my article was supposed to run. I know they printed at least a few copies, because I have one. But no one I know saw the magazine on any newsstand. I think the publication went under before it could be distributed. In fact, I think it was problems with the distributor that dealt them their death blow.

I, of course, was never paid for my work. The bastards still owe $750. For awhile, I swore that if I ever ran into one of the guys that stiffed me, it would be all I could do to avoid going all Tony Soprano on him. I wouldn't, though. I talk tough and can look tough if I try, but I am a pacifist at heart. When I was a kid, I once punched another kid in the head, and one of us started crying, and it wasn't the kid that got hit. Anyway, since they didn't pay me and the story was never distributed, the rights to the piece reverted to me. Well, and now to Baseball Prospectus.

The worst part of the experience was that the story was never read by anyone. That's a nightmare for a writer. It's not that the writing itself was so all-fired brilliant. It's okay. But it's a damned shame that people didn't get to read Eisenreich's story, because it's one that can't be told often enough. So that's why I'm sharing it with you now.

It's been 14 years since Eisenreich retired, and he didn't stay in baseball after his playing days ended. So I suspect that there are a lot of young baseball fans out there that don't know his inspiring tale. It took a fair amount of digging, but I finally found the file that contained my original story. I think this might be the edited version, because some of it doesn't sound like me, but it's possible my writing has changed some over the years. That happens. It's kind of a fluff piece, but if anybody ever deserved one, it's Eisenreich.

Once I found the story and re-read it, I pledged that if I ever start to question whether or not ballplayers make fuck-all bit of difference in the grand scheme of things, I'm going to utter the words, "Jim Eisenreich." I'll also remind myself that sports are full of great people who use their wealth and fame to do a lot of good things. It's an easy thing to forget when you're bogged down in cynicism.

This is a story not just about overcoming adversity, but also about how to deal with it in the first place. It's a lesson I wish I had learned. I'm trying.

***

When Jim Eisenreich left professional baseball for good in 1999, he had enjoyed 15 seasons in the major leagues and won two pennants and one World Series. He was ready to retire on his terms and move on to face new challenges. But the first time the outfielder walked away from the game, in 1985, the challenge he was facing was anything but new.

Growing up in St. Cloud, Minnesota, Eisenreich was a normal child in most respects; a B-plus student in school, a fine youth baseball and hockey player, an avid bow hunter. But there was something different about him, something he didn’t want others to see. His formative years were like a perpetual game of hide-and-seek.

Around the age of six, he began to exhibit a series of troubling tics. He blinked his eyes uncontrollably. He incessantly coughed and cleared his throat. No one knew what was wrong. The family doctor in St. Cloud had never seen anything like it. Eisenreich’s teachers in school assumed that he was trying to attract attention.

The symptoms, however, weren’t always a problem; don’t tell Eisenreich that his childhood was anything resembling a nightmare.

“(Childhood) was not difficult,” Eisenreich says. “I had a great mom and dad and two brothers and a sister and I was just one of the siblings.”

There were hard times, to be sure, the inevitable teasing and name-calling. But, mostly, Eisenreich was hard on himself.

“I didn’t know what I had. I’d be in class and sit there, making all kinds of noises, an obvious distraction. (Other kids) were pretty good about it,” he says. “I, on the other hand, didn’t like it. I wasn’t trying to get any attention. I didn’t even want it on the baseball field.”

Eisenreich coped the only way he knew how—by hiding.

He attended early mass when there were few others present and sat in the back. When symptoms started up in school, he’d ask to go to the restroom and would hide out until he felt under control. Then he’d return to class, and it’d start again. He avoided inescapable situations—like movies.

On the baseball field, his hiding place was center field. The tics would inevitably pop up; but out there, he was alone and could skirt by without drawing too much attention. So Eisenreich survived high school and college, at St. Cloud State. And after he was drafted by the Twins, he made his way up through the minor leagues.

“Even though physically I was having a hard time, I’d just sort of wait it out and run in at the end of an inning and no one really ever knew, at least to my knowledge,” he says.

Everything changed for Eisenreich when he broke camp with the Twins in 1982 as the team’s starting center fielder and leadoff man. Major-league playing fields don’t offer the pockets of sanctuary that exist in ballparks at lower levels. The crowds are bigger and encircle the field. There is no place to hide.

A month into the 1982 season, Eisenreich was hitting over .300 and playing fine defense for the Twins. In the fishbowl of big-league venues, however, he was becoming increasingly self-conscious about his tics. The more he worried about them, the worse they got.

The situation came to a head in early May, at Fenway Park in Boston. The fans were loud and unforgiving, and though Eisenreich says he couldn’t hear the taunts among the din, his tics became so exaggerated and uncontrollable that he ran off the field in the middle of an inning.

"Dance for us, Eisenreich," was just one of the catcalls showered down upon him.

The mortifying scene, captured by TV cameras and replayed on highlight shows, played itself out on three consecutive nights. No one knew what to do. His manager, Billy Gardner, unable to understand with what he was dealing, simply laughed.

“That’s the natural reaction, to laugh,” Eisenreich says. “That’s the way it is. If I were on the other side, not having a problem like this, I’d probably be like that, too.”

The Twins placed Eisenreich on the disabled list. For the next three seasons, Eisenreich barely played. Finally, he quit baseball altogether in 1985 and didn’t play organized ball for two years.

During his rookie season, after the events at Fenway Park, doctors finally diagnosed Eisenreich’s problem as Tourette’s Syndrome. He had never heard of the disease. In fact, when the doctor told him, Eisenreich thought he’d said “Tourist’s Syndrome.”

Tourette’s is a neurological disorder, an imbalance of what Kurt Vonnegut might have called “bad chemicals” in the brain. The symptoms are the kind of tics that plagued Eisenreich since childhood, the uncontrolled movements and sounds. In more severe (and rare) cases the patient might bark or spew obscene language. Milder and much more common symptoms include neck jerking, grunts, sniffing, and grimacing, all of them involuntary.

Jim’s teachers were wrong: his problems were not behavioral. He wasn’t bucking for attention. The elusive feeling of normalcy he sought as a kid was beyond his grasp because not only did he have these tics, but he didn’t even know what they were. That frustration eventually became central to the message he now shares with children who suffer the same problems.

“I always tell kids that my goal was not to be a big-league ballplayer but to be normal. And I still carry that goal with me,” he says. “Whatever (being normal) meant, I knew it didn’t mean having all of these things. So from that standpoint, once I understood all that, it was a big relief.”

During the time away from baseball, Eisenreich focused primarily on learning how to cope with his disease.

“I felt that was my time to get my health back. I didn’t really care about baseball—it was secondary.”

He worked a little construction, went back to school, and got a job in an archery shop. He played recreational softball and some baseball when he had the opportunity.

Gradually he learned how to live with Tourette’s by using medication and making intelligent lifestyle choices. He figured out which foods were best for him and that a good night’s rest made a big difference in his actions the next day. By 1987, Eisenreich was ready to give the big leagues another shot.

Eisenreich’s opportunity came after a conversation with a former college teammate, Bob Hegman, who worked in the front office of the Royals. Eisenreich asked the Twins for his release. The Twins granted his request, and the Royals claimed him off waivers.

After two years away from the game, Eisenreich was apprehensive, but his concern was quickly assuaged.

“I walked into the spring training clubhouse in Fort Myers and Frank White came right up and said, ‘Hey Jim, welcome to the Royals.’ I’ll never forget that.”

The Royals were a veteran team with a clubhouse of solid citizens, many of whom had played together for a long time.

“We already knew who Jim was from when he was in Minnesota,” White says. “Everybody kind of knew what he was going through. We knew he was a fine player.”

Eisenreich started the season in the minors and performed well. Most encouraging, the Tourette’s was kept largely under control. The Royals recalled him in June, and he played six seasons for them. While playing with the Royals, he met his wife, Leann, and they decided to make their home in Blue Springs, a Kansas City suburb.

Meanwhile, his story became more well-known, winning over fans and teammates alike as an example of overcoming adversity.

“Anybody who has something traumatic in their life and has to deal with it, you definitely respect them for their courage and trying to get through it,” White says. “But to get through it but also be able to perform at a high level, you feel a lot more respect for that guy.”

During that first season with the Royals, Eisenreich was introduced to the real work that would continue outside the playing field. The Royals began to hear from families who had children with Tourette’s. They came to the ballpark, and Eisenreich shared his story with them. He would tell them that they were not alone and encourage them that if he could make it, so could they.

Eventually, the meetings grew into small groups of 40 to 50 people. As Eisenreich talked more and more, he realized an important insight about himself: talking helps.

“I love the kids,” he says. “But I found out that whenever I talked to the kids, it’d help me. Which is something that was totally opposite as a kid, where I’m finding a hole and avoiding everything.

“I found out that the more I talked about it, the better it was for me. And I knew that if I could talk about it openly and freely to the families, they could too.”

Eisenreich’s talks spread to other cities—at every stop the team made and with every franchise with which he played. In 1996, Jim and Leann formed the Jim Eisenreich Foundation to assist in his endeavor to talk with children, parents, and teachers and increase awareness about Tourette’s, even when his playing career ended.

“For whatever reason, I felt obligated to (talk to the kids),” he says. “I felt that given my childhood experiences and the fact that I got to play (in the majors) and in the World Series that I owed it to the kids and the families now that are coming behind me. They need to know that they have a chance, too.”

Becky Ottinger, who runs the Joshua Child and Family Development Center in Kansas City, has seen Eisenreich speak to children many times and often uses him as an example in her own work.

“These kids need somebody. They need a role model,” Ottinger says. “When they first learn of their diagnosis, even the parents, it’s very hard for them. It’s like grieving. Knowing that somebody else, in spite of all the problems he had, he was able to make it. He believed in himself and went forward.”

Eisenreich’s battle with Tourette’s cost him prime seasons in his 20s. But when he came back, he kept improving as a ballplayer. Between 1989 and 1996, Eisenreich batted over .300 five times and averaged nearly 11 stolen bases a year. He played in two World Series, slugging a home run in both of them. In 1996, the 37-year old Eisenreich hit .361 for the Phillies.

“Because of Tourette’s, I’ve learned to eat and drink well. I’m kind of a health nut,” he says of his late-career success. “The other thing is I didn’t play a whole lot through my 20s. So I didn’t have a lot of wear and tear like other guys did.”

Eisenreich’s fondest baseball memory came with the Marlins in 1997. He was on base when Edgar Renteria's base hit gave Florida its first title.

“It’s the bottom of the 11th inning in the seventh game of the 1997 World Series and I’m on second base. Edgar Renteria gets that little base hit up the middle and I just ran to third base. Craig Counsell was on third and scored the winning run.

“It was the greatest moment of my career. We’d just won the World Series. I kind of pinch myself and kick myself, it’s just amazing. It actually happened. Right after that, if you remember those old boom boxes, where you’d slowly turn them up to max, that’s how the stadium was. And it stayed there for like an hour. That was unbelievable, the best time I ever had. And all I did was run from second to third.”

When Eisenreich retired for good from baseball in 1999, he had a short stint as a scout for the Royals, but has worked outside the game since.

These days, Eisenreich plays a little golf and helps Leann and his mother-in-law shuttle the kids around to their various activities. He also dabbles in real estate. Most importantly, he still speaks with children and families as often as possible. Eisenreich delights in the progress that has been made regarding neurological disorders.

“The biggest thing is that through the awareness, it’s not the help that’s available as far as a cure, it’s really an understanding from people who don’t have it,” he says. “If you walk down the street now and someone sees us having tics or having a problem, they’ll be okay with it. They don’t have to grab their kids and run.”

Eisenreich has been speaking to children for long enough now that some of those children have grown up.

“I get letters from young adults that say, ‘I met you in Philly back in ’93 and now I’m working for so-and-so, or I’ve written my own book.’ It’s like, yeah, that’s what it’s all about. And now they’re doing the same thing, they’re helping the kids that they come into contact with. That’s really neat.”

To see Eisenreich now, you wouldn’t think that he has any sort of disorder. Maybe he coughs a little. He seems just a little bit shy. But he’s friendly and smiles a lot and looks very much like the health nut that he proclaims to be.

Perhaps no modern athlete is so closely associated with a medical condition (with the exception of Tommy John). If that bothers Eisenreich, you’d never know it.

“I really try not to live too much in the past,” he says. “I know what’s happened in the past is good for now and good for the future, hopefully. It doesn’t bother me. It’s who I am.”

No, Jim Eisenreich doesn’t have to hide any more.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bradford's other articles. You can contact Bradford by clicking here

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