Saturday, November 30, 2013

Players Who Struggled With Mental Illness (Part VII-- Jim Eisenreich)

Named after the man who discovered it, Tourette's Syndrome is a neurological disorder characterized by two types of tics: motor and vocal. Most sufferers develop an eye tic first. Other tics come afterward with the intensity typically increasing during adolescence. Tics can be embarrassing since they are involuntary and take on a variety of forms from frequent throat-clearing to the utterance of profanity. Many people with Tourette's have other illnesses such as Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder or Attention Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder. Tourette's can also exacerbate symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Jim Eisenreich grew up in St. Cloud, Minnesota. At age 6, he began showing signs of the illness with tics, jerks and eye blinking. Little was known about the disorder at the time and even a hometown doctor didn't understand what was going on with Eisenreich. Kids at school picked on him mercilessly and he spent a lot of time alone wondering about his sanity.

Despite the disorder, Eisenreich was an exceptional ballplayer. Upon graduating from high school, he played for St. Cloud University and ended up getting drafted by the Twins. After hitting over .300 in two consecutive minor league seasons, he was called to Minnesota. In 1982, he began displaying symptoms during games. Though the behaviors were dismissed as "rookie nerves," he was taken out of the lineup for his "twitches and facial grimaces." Before a May game at Fenway Park, a Boston newspaper ran a feature about his on-field troubles and fans in the bleachers heckled him relentlessly. By the third inning, Eisenreich was shaking profusely and experiencing breathing difficulty. He was eventually  removed from the game. His troubles continued shortly afterward during a series at Milwaukee, when he suddenly bolted from the outfield to the dugout, tearing off his uniform and complaining that he couldn't breathe. He ended up on the disabled list.

Eisenreich saw numerous doctors and received multiple diagnoses. He tried medications and self-hypnosis, but nothing seemed to work. He retired more than once, but the Twins talked him into continuing, convinced that he was a "natural ballplayer." In June of '84, he refused a minor league assignment and was released. Interestingly, his replacement was Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett.

Out of the majors for the next three years, Eisenreich worked as a part-time painter and played semi-pro ball for the St. Cloud Saints. He was "rediscovered" by a former college teammate who had become an administrative assistant for the Kansas City Royals. Invited to spring training in '87 as a non-roster player, Eisenreich began to publicly talk about Tourette Syndrome, which he believed was causing his problems (despite a contrary opinion from his personal physician). He began the '87 campaign in the Southern League and was quickly promoted to KC after he hit .382 in 70 games. He would bounce up and down from the majors to the minors before finally attaining full-time status with the Royals in 1989. He was named team MVP that year despite the presence of George Brett and Bo Jackson.

 Eisenreich enjoyed his most productive years from '89-'97, exceeding the .300 mark at the plate five times in that span. With the Phillies in '96, he fashioned a .361 average in 113 games. He would play in two Fall Classics during his career--one with Philly and another with Florida (which earned him a ring). He posted a .294 average with 2 homers and 10 RBI's in World Series play.

Upon retiring, Eisenreich established a foundation for children with Tourette Sydrome. He still tours the country speaking to families and children about his experiences. The mission statement of the foundation is "to build avenues of success for every child with Tourette Syndrome through programs and services which address the needs of families, educators, peers and medical professionals."    

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