Publish date:

Fighting the Enemy Within

Jim Eisenreich's promising major league career was derailed by a mysterious ailment, but now he's working his way back

Jim Eisenreich, 28, steps into the batter's box at Tim McCarver Stadium in Memphis, and every eye watches him. Most Memphis Chicks fans know something of Eisenreich's private horror, which he has been told is the result of a neurochemical disorder called Tourette syndrome. But even those unfamiliar with his past, people who understand baseball much better than neurology and psychology, can see right away that this young man is different from all the other minor leaguers around him. He looks better in his uniform, better just holding a bat. When he swings, it's perfect, and the ball is crushed. It's clear that he doesn't belong in Memphis.

His boyhood friend, Jay Johnson, says, "Ike's a major leaguer in the minor leagues. His team knows it, the other teams know it, and he knows it."

"He's the same kind of hitter as Don Mattingly," says his manager, Bob Schaefer. Batting third as the designated hitter for the Chicks, the Kansas City Royals' Class A A farm club, the 5'11", 195-pound Eisenreich had 13 home runs, 54 RBIs and 13 stolen bases, and at week's end he led the Southern League in batting with a .379 average.

But while they marvel at his talent, fans, players, reporters, doctors, team officials, family and friends wonder: Will it happen again? Will Eisenreich's body suddenly begin to twitch and shake and contort itself violently as it did five years ago, shattering his career and his life when he was a promising rookie centerfielder for the Minnesota Twins? The Royals' brass is watching carefully because, while they are expected to call Eisenreich up soon, they want to make sure that the nightmares are over.

Since 1982, Eisenreich has become much more accustomed to scrutiny. He awaits the call from the Royals but tries not to think about it too much. He drinks his can of Seven-Up after batting practice every day. He calls his parents back in St. Cloud, Minn., every Sunday. As far as he is concerned, there is nothing wrong with him anymore.

"I feel fine. My problem is under control," he says. "I survived it all so far."

What he has survived is five years of numbing medicines taken to control the involuntary tics and shakes associated with Tourette syndrome. But he has also endured sessions of psychoanalysis, hypnosis and biofeedback, which some doctors prescribed for psychological problems he has probably never had. He has been hurt by newspaper stories that got the facts all wrong, and he has withstood the stares and taunts of people who either didn't understand his illness, or didn't care, merely because he wore the uniform of a rival team. Says his friend Johnson, "He went through more hell in a couple of years than anyone should have to go through in a lifetime."

"People were writing and saying things they didn't know anything about—things that were wrong," Eisenreich says. He had experienced episodes of his arms flailing, his neck jerking and his face contorting since he was eight years old. His parents took him to a doctor, who couldn't say for sure what the problem was. "He put him on some medication," says Eisenreich's mother, Ann. "I don't remember what it was. By sixth grade Jim was playing hockey. The doctor said, 'Leave him play. That's all he needs.' " As time went on, Eisenreich's problem was simply accepted, in the family, at school and on sports teams.

Eisenreich never thought of himself as ill or handicapped, nor had he heard of Tourette syndrome before the terrible events of 1982. The real pain came when his doctors and advisers told him that Tourette would not interfere with his life in any other way, only with his baseball. Of course, to play baseball was the only thing Eisenreich ever wanted to do.

The last time Jim Eisenreich was just like any other gifted baseball player was on April 30, 1982, in his rookie year with the Minnesota Twins. He was standing in centerfield in the Metrodome in the sixth inning of a game against Milwaukee when the brain dysfunction that had not previously occurred when he was on the baseball field suddenly did so, and worse than it had ever done anywhere else. Before 23,547 onlookers he began to shake and twitch and convulse. His breathing became faster and shallower. He gasped for air and then ran off the field. The same thing happened each of the next two nights.

News of the rookie's bizarre behavior reached Boston as the Twins arrived for a three-game series. On May 4, Eisenreich took himself out of the game in the second inning after fans in the Fenway bleachers yelled at him, "Shake! Shake! Shake!" Then on May 7, before a game in Milwaukee, Eisenreich ran into the visitors' clubhouse, tearing at his clothes and screaming, "I can't breathe!"

Eisenreich thought he was dying. Or going insane. His season was over. "I still don't know what happened," he says. "It had never been that bad, where I felt that I was losing control."

When the team returned from Milwaukee, the Twins checked Eisenreich into St. Mary's Hospital in Minneapolis. Doctors were divided in their diagnoses. Three possible causes for the behavior were given. Two were psychological disorders: social phobia (stage fright) and agoraphobia (fear of open places), neither of which Eisenreich wanted to accept. He chose to believe the third—Tourette syndrome—a physiological disorder that has been treated with a prescription drug.

The syndrome is named for French physician Gilles de la Tourette, who defined it in 1885. Although the specific defect that causes it is unknown, the problem is known to be neurochemical. Somewhere in the brain a chemical is released inappropriately, or signals from one nerve to another are processed abnormally. The result is a humiliating and violent disorder. People with Tourette syndrome suffer from tics and muscle contractions they cannot predict or control. They also frequently suffer from a tendency to make involuntary sounds. Sometimes Tourette patients grunt or snort or bark. Sometimes they shout obscenities, words they wouldn't utter if they had control of themselves. And though Eisenreich sometimes made guttural sounds, he did not say obscenities.

Tourette is not a psychological disorder—it has nothing to do with the mind except, of course, for the shame it causes sufferers. Some people with Tourette have isolated themselves from human contact for up to 70 years, others have been told that they were possessed by the devil. Ancient and modern treatments have included exorcism, lobotomy and electroshock therapy. Yet, so great was Eisenreich's fear of being mad that Tourette was what he hoped he had.

Dr. Faruk Abuzzahab was the expert on Tourette syndrome who made that diagnosis at St. Mary's and who so informed Dr. Leonard Michienzi, the Twins' team physician. Michienzi disagreed. He supported the diagnosis that Eisenreich suffered from some combination of stage fright and agoraphobia, and his support of that diagnosis eventually led to the player's retirement from the Twins.

Today Michienzi continues to believe that diagnosis. "Jim likes the diagnosis of Tourette," says Michienzi. "It takes the burden off his family and keeps away from any stigma that psychological disorders have in our society. Maybe he is a Tourette, but I'm still not convinced he is." Michienzi insists that a diagnosis of Tourette syndrome does not explain why the violent shaking first came so severely those nights in April and May of 1982, and why it was only so intense when he stood in center-field. "I think large crowds bother him," says Michienzi. "He has double-deck syndrome."

"He's a small-town boy," says Abuzzahab. "The Twins' doctors thought the limelight and attention aggravated his condition." Abuzzahab's diagnosis has been supported by Dr. Arthur Shapiro, director of the Tourette and Tic Laboratory and Clinic of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. "If Abuzzahab diagnosed him as having Tourette," says Shapiro, "he probably has it."

Eisenreich refused to accept that the problem was in his mind. He wanted to believe he had a controllable illness, like diabetes. For much of the next three years he allowed himself to be strapped into biofeedback monitors and ushered onto leather couches of psychiatrists and hypnotists, mostly at the urging of the Twins. Says Michienzi, "We put him on biofeedback, and he got better. That's another reason we rejected Tourette. He responded to a number of unorthodox therapies." The doctors prescribed powerful tranquilizers, Haldol and Clonopin, which helped control the seizures but made him logy and incapable of performing at a major league level. First Eisenreich couldn't play because of his condition, then because of the treatment. The Twins' doctors ordered him to discontinue the tranquilizers. But he continued, with a prescription from his family physician.

In 1983 he went to spring training with the Twins and batted .400 in the exhibition season. But two games into the regular season, he felt the trouble coming on again and quit. He spent the rest of that spring and summer undergoing psychotherapy and hypnosis while playing centerfield for the Saints, an amateur team sponsored by a local bar in his hometown of St. Cloud.

Back home he was safe from the Twins, the fans and the big-city press. After all, folks in St. Cloud had seen their baseball hero twitch and shake since he was eight. "Growing up they used to tell me I was hyperactive," says Eisenreich. "Even though I had a lot of trouble in school, at church, driving."

He moved back in with his parents. He spent time with the same small but loyal group of friends he had had as a boy. "He's so quiet and shy that he doesn't make friends that easily," says Johnson, who has coached the Saints since 1982. "He always had the tics and the jerks, but nobody ever said anything about it. Nobody wanted to mess him up. He was doing fine." He was always the best, twitches and all. The slight spasms would come when he was in the field and on the bench, rarely when he was at the plate. Bob Hegman, now the Royals' administrative assistant of scouting and player development, had played with Eisenreich at St. Cloud State. "The symptoms were present in college—the guttural sounds and shakes. We just kind of accepted it. This was Jim Eisenreich. And it never affected his baseball. From Little League through college, Eisenreich would hum in the dugout to try to suppress the twitching. Never did he take himself out of a game, despite the taunts he heard from opposing players and fans."

That summer of 1983 he batted .563 in 47 games for the Saints. He was happy to be at home, but more than that, to be playing. "It was baseball," says Eisenreich. "That was the main thing."

The Twins brought Eisenreich to spring training again in 1984, and he was the leadoff man in the season opener against Detroit. After 12 games, he was batting .219. The Twins' doctors suspected he was still taking Haldol. They said he was falling asleep in the dugout and at team meetings. At first Eisenreich denied taking the medication, then admitted he was. "I never want to hyperventilate again," he told Michienzi.

The Twins offered Eisenreich three options. He could use only the tranquilizers (for agoraphobia) the team doctors prescribed, go to the Twins' AAA Toledo club, or retire. Eisenreich chose to retire on June 4, 1984.

After another productive season with the Saints back in St. Cloud in '85 (he batted .542), Eisenreich decided to try for the majors again. But Andy MacPhail, the Twins' G.M., told him, "The truth is, we're not going to let you play."

In October 1986, John Schuerholz, the Royals' G.M., consulted Hegman, and, convinced that Eisenreich was worth a gamble, claimed him for the waiver price of $1. Hegman called his old college teammate and told him, "I thought you were worth a dollar."

But before the Royals would let Eisenreich face a live pitch, they had to resolve the question of medication that still lingered from his years with the Twins. Says Hegman, "We were concerned about his reaction time. I had to ask him about [the Haldol]. He told me, 'I take so little of it now, Heggie, [and only] at night, it's not a problem.' I told him to strap it on and go get 'em."

Eisenreich had a fine spring with the Royals, and he realized that to succeed in major league baseball he would have to make some adjustments. "He became much more confident," says Johnson. "Before, when he was with St. Cloud, he wouldn't talk to the press. They'd wait outside our bus when we'd travel to games, and I'd ask Jim if he wanted to talk to them. He'd always say no." This season, Eisenreich has granted every interview request and twice appeared on national TV. "I just decided I had to talk to the press," he says. "Better they should hear it from me." And he has agreed to serve as a spokesman for the Tourette Syndrome Association.

He has also begun to relax with teammates, although his life continues to be spartan. He still doesn't drink alcohol, no one has ever seen him with a date, and he lives alone in a Memphis apartment, 10 minutes from the ballpark. On the road he rooms with first baseman Matt Winters, who's doing his best to get Eisenreich out of his shell. "He's starting to loosen up," says Winters. "I'm trying to get him to watch professional wrestling. I've given him some body slams and an atomic elbow drop."

Some St. Cloud friends who have visited Eisenreich in Memphis have found a changed man. "We were in a bar one night," says Dave Ditty, a former Saints teammate. "Jim Acker was pitching for the Braves on TV. Ike said, 'When I was with the Twins and he was with the Blue Jays, he walked me on four straight pitches. He wouldn't give me anything to hit.' That's cocky for Ike."

There is little doubt in the Royals organization that Eisenreich can hit big league pitching. But he has yet to play in the outfield with the Chicks. The reason given is that he strained an elbow throwing a wet ball in spring training. But some observers think the Chicks, or the Royals, are afraid to put Eisenreich in the outfield. After all, the spasms have never been a problem at the plate. Royals G.M. Schuerholz adds, "We plan to give him a chance with the Royals before the season is over. We want to be certain that it is the right time, right move, and not disruptive for anyone."

No one, not even Eisenreich, could have foreseen what would happen the last time he made it to the major leagues. No one knows what will happen the next time, either. If there is a next time. Michienzi, for one, remains skeptical. "If he can stay on light medication and handle it, fine," he says. "But the temptation may be to increase medication if the symptoms reappear. That'll be the challenge. There are nightmares waiting for him in Minnesota, and in Boston and Milwaukee."

"I think the big thing is that he knows he has Tourette syndrome," says Schaefer. "Last time he didn't know what was happening. He knows now he'll be all right."

Says Eisenreich, "I don't know what will happen. It happened once, it could happen again. All I want is another chance."



Eisenreich took refuge on the Twins' bench after suffering ominous seizures in 1982.



The malady has never hindered his hitting: Eisenreich is batting .379 for the Chicks.



Manager Schaefer (right) says his dangerous DH has a style resembling Mattingly's.



As Eisenreich readies himself for the majors, it helps that he knows what he's up against.



Schuerholz took a chance.



It remains to be seen whether Eisenreich can handle the field.