So near, yet so far for Esasky Georgian and Brave, apart from Series

October 23, 1991|By Tom Verducci | Tom Verducci,Newsday

ATLANTA -- There are days when Nick Esasky can hit the ball 400 feet, as he did in 1989, when he hit 30 home runs and drove in 108 runs for the Boston Red Sox. The vision, the timing, the reaction and the strength are all there, woven together in the perfect pattern of hitting.

And then it is all gone again. Esasky is most often as helpless as the last boy picked in a grade-school pickup game. Hitting and catching are such difficult tasks that he fears a ball will be traveling straight toward his face and he will not be able to react to it.

"It's like you're having a dream, where things are happening and you can't react to it," he said. "Your body is not listening to your mind. It's hard to explain. It's one of those things where unless you've actually experienced it, it's so hard to explain to people. And I've tried to explain it hundreds of times."

It has been like this for almost two years now. Esasky, 31, has the symptoms of vertigo, an affliction that causes dizziness and disorientation with a person's surroundings. It is a mocking ailment that momentarily allows him the pleasure and hope of playing baseball as he used to, only to take it all away, a cruel joke played upon a desperate man.

Likewise, there is a cruel edge to the success of his team, the Atlanta Braves. Last night, they played host to the first World Series game in Atlanta, not far from Esasky's home in Marietta, Ga. And there is nothing he can do but watch. This boisterous Braves bandwagon, this worst-to-first junket, rolls on without him.

"It was a dream of mine, playing baseball [here]," Esasky said. "I wanted to uphold my part of the deal. It's very frustrating not knowing what you could have done. I'm trying to enjoy what I can about the World Series. I don't know if I'll ever get back to this situation again. It might never come again. I know that."

He has not been able to play in a game since April 21, 1990. The first baseman has played in only nine games after signing a three-year guaranteed contract with the Braves.

"I made six errors in five games," he said. "I don't know how I caught some balls. I was just stabbing at them. I couldn't react to the ball. I had to decide whether to swing or not before the ball was even pitched. Now I think back and consider myself lucky a ball wasn't thrown at my face. There would have been nothing I could have done."

Since then, he has seen "between 30 and 40" doctors, none of whom has been able to tell him precisely what is wrong. His problems may be caused by a mysterious viral infection.

For the first three months he kept asking, "Why me?" But he has since come to realize, "I can't change it. Worrying won't change it. It is difficult, but I try to build on anything positive during that one particular day, like if I'm able to play with my [three] kids."

A dentist in Buffalo, N.Y., is treating his temporomandibular joint, the hinge that connects the lower jawbone to the skull. Esasky has been fitted with an appliance behind his upper teeth to better align his lower and upper jaws. Although he said that there has been progress with the treatment, he won't know for "six months to a year" if it will help him overcome the symptoms of vertigo.

Esasky said that he often gets massive headaches that aspirin or medication can't relieve. He feels "one step behind everything," the world rotating at 45 rpm and Esasky spinning at 33 1/3 .

"I have problems when there are a lot of things going on at once," he said. "It's hard enough to just concentrate on one thing."

He has retained his sense of humor. With all of his problems, he tried shagging fly balls beneath the tricky white roof of the Metrodome. "Hey, it's not easy for guys who are 100 percent healthy to play balls off the roof," he said with a laugh.

Except for those nine games last year, he has spent two seasons on the disabled list. It is not the same as a broken arm, a pulled muscle or even fluid on the retina, which he developed apparently unrelated to the vertigo symptoms. "A double whammy," he said. "I thought, 'What else can happen?' "

No, it is nothing that is visible. Esasky, a strapping 6-foot-3 man who weighs 215 pounds, looks like a capable baseball player. And every so often, this merciless affliction allows him to remember what that was like.

"Those days," he said, "are few and far between. But when they come, I say, 'OK. I know it's still there.'"

John Schuerholz, the Braves general manager, said: "It's been status quo. It's been two years now. Sooner or later Nick is going to have to say, 'It's not going to get any better' or he'll have to see real progress. Right now we're just in a continuing saga."

Esasky already has lost two seasons, including a championship one, off the prime of his career. He knows that he may never play again, though it is a notion he is not ready to accept.

"It's not something I dwell on," he said. "But I'm human and I do think about it once in a while. I'm not ready to give up. I'll do whatever I have to do this winter to get in shape for spring training. I'm preparing myself to play again."

So for now, he can only watch his team -- his hometown team -- play in the World Series without him. It is like another one of those dreams in which he is powerless to act. There is something inside him, some mysterious flaw, that has thrown his whole world off balance.

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