WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The people in the Atlanta Braves' publicity office told me that Nick Esasky would gladly talk about it, but I knew he really didn't want to, that he had already told his story to reporters a dozen times this spring, that he would prefer to go about his sporting chores without giving the daily health update. Dizzy today, Nick? Nauseated? Tired?
His story was just too familiar, though. Too much my story, too. He knows there are others out there with similar problems; he has gotten letters from thousands in the last year. I couldn't help it, though. I still felt compelled at least to introduce myself, to lower my professional barrier for a few minutes, to tell him I understood. Oh, yes.
Esasky, 31, has spent the last year fighting dizzy spells and episodes of unsteadiness. After signing a $5.6 million contract before last season, he played in only nine games before giving in, spending the rest of the year bouncing between doctors, searching for a cause and cure. He is better now but not a lot better, back on the field, yes, but still experiencing lots of unsteadiness -- and not knowing when, or if, it all will end.
"I had the same thing," I said to Esasky yesterday morning.
We were sitting in the clubhouse. He was wearing his uniform, friendly, curious. Did the doctors come up with an explanation? He wanted to know. And how long did it last? I told him I never got an explanation, that they knew what it wasn't, but never discovered what it was. And it lasted four years, off and on. Finally went away last summer. He shook his head. "Four years, great," he said sarcastically, hoping that wouldn't be his case.
He had it worse than I did in the beginning. I was never dizzy, never sick to my stomach. He was -- he couldn't fly, sometimes saw triple, had rooms spinning round and round. Most of that ultimately went away, though, leaving him with mostly the same problem I had -- a lightheadedness that makes you feel as though the ground is moving, that the world is fuzzy, that you are about to fall.
I called them "spells." Sometimes they lasted a couple of hours and disappeared, maybe came back two or three times a day, or not at all. Sometimes they just stayed all day. There was no pattern. I might go two weeks without one, then have two a day for a month. I would go glassy-eyed, foggy, be afraid to stand.
I saw eye doctors, ear doctors, neurologists, internists, got poked, probed, pinched, scanned. I learned -- helped by some medicine -- to live with it, to work under the influence. It could have been much worse, certainly; I was tested for a brain tumor, among many other things. But it was no way to live. That is where Esasky stands in the process right now.
"It's a consolation to know what it isn't," he said yesterday, "but they don't go away. There are days when I feel great, when I can do anything like I used to. But then there are days when my coordination is just not there. It's just absolutely gone. I can't fight through it. My body is just not going to work right on those days. I have learned to accept it. I don't like it, but I accept it."
The possible roots of such ailments are many -- inner ear, virus, neurological glitch, vision problem, vertigo. But sometimes, as in my example, it all just goes unexplained.
The only explanation is that it happens to thousands of others. Esasky has been told he has vertigo. He is not so sure. "I gave up trying to figure out what it was," he said. "It's more important to me to get over it. Look ahead, not back."
This is a man who hit 30 home runs for the Red Sox in 1989, a player around whom the Braves expected to build. But they have already layered over him, signing another free-agent first baseman, Sid Bream. Esasky is essentially forgotten but not gone, spending this spring learning to walk again as a player, taking some at-bats in "B" games with moderate success, participating in fielding drills.
The Braves are supportive, hopeful, but hardly confident. Esasky probably will stay behind in Florida and continue working out when the season begins. He is just not ready for the major leagues. There are too many bad days still. "I'm trying to learn to perform with it," he said.
I have to be honest: I don't see how he is going to come all the way back. The game so depends on instant reactions. I was happy just to cross a room without falling when I was having a spell. To make a tough play in the field, or hit a Gooden fastball -- it sounds impossible. I shuddered when I read about Esasky chasing down a pop-up one day last week. Looking straight up in such a fashion would have laid me out. "It wasn't easy," he said.
He is a terrific athlete and possesses a strong will, though. He didn't need to come back -- his contract was guaranteed over three years -- but he spent the last months in a difficult, literally sickening training regimen, forcing himself to go through exercises to help him learn to play under the influence. Maybe he can do it. "If anyone can, Nick can," Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said. The question is whether anyone can.
I wished Esasky well. What you really hope for, of course, is the minor miracle, waking up one day and realizing that the problem has pretty much vanished just as mysteriously as it appeared. My doctor told me that would happen gradually, and it did. I was lucky. For thousands, it never goes away. "I can't count on that at all," Esasky said. "No one knows what is going to happen to me. All I can do is try to make things work now."
It would be quite a comeback. Believe me.