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.