Eisenreich reaches beyond illness

October 18, 1993|By Bob Klapisch | Bob Klapisch,New York Daily News

TORONTO -- He's known as the guy with Tourette's syndrome, but even on Jim Eisenreich's worst days -- when the fans mimicked him and the twitching wouldn't stop -- he always could hit. That was Eisenreich's credential to the big leagues, that quick, short swing that remained beyond the clutches of his disorder. Eisenreich isn't offended by questions about his nervous system, but his universe revolves around baseball and the simple pleasure of crushing an 0-2 fastball.

There it was in the third inning last night, an inner-half, belt-level heater from Toronto starter Dave Stewart. It was a mistake the moment it left Stewart's fingertips, and it only got worse as it hissed toward Eisenreich's bat. The Phillies already had scored two runs in the inning, and now they were about to explode for three more. That's because with runners on second and third, Eisenreich enjoyed a wonderful advantage over Stewart -- the feeling that "I could see the ball really well against him," he said later.

That's a hitter's nirvana, the sensation that every pitch looks like a beach ball. It happens against certain pitchers, for no logical reason, and the best thing to do is simply enjoy the phenomenon and not ask why.

Eisenreich came to the plate with a .323 lifetime average (10-for-31) and two home runs against Stewart -- the only pitcher in the American League that Eisenreich has more than one home run against. So even though he said, "All I really wanted was a fly ball," Eisenreich had a sense something good was about to happen as his bat met Stewart's fastball.

There were more than 3 1/2 hours of baseball in Game 2, an exhausting blur of pitching changes and foul balls and pickoff attempts that smother even October's purists. But beneath the marathon's rubble is this fact: The Phillies beat the Blue Jays, 6-4, last night because Eisenreich's three-run home run gave them a 5-0 lead that not even Toronto's 21st-century offense could erase.

The Phillies high-fived Eisenreich in the dugout, mussed his hair and otherwise treated him as just another beast in the zoo. Yes, they know all about Tourette's syndrome, an affliction that causes uncontrollable ticks and twitches, but as Curt Schilling said, "We've got guys in here with bigger problems than Tourette. Besides, no one cares where we each come from. We've all got checkered pasts."

Eisenreich smiles a little at Schilling's sentiment. He says the Phillies are "the best bunch of guys I've ever played for. No one ever made me feel more at home."

He played for the Minnesota Twins and Kansas City Royals in the '80s, and Eisenreich isn't kidding when he says, "I've had some ups and downs -- a lot of downs, actually." He could swing a mean bat from the left side, but back in 1982 no one really understood why Eisenreich seemed so jittery, so twitchy. Players, even teammates, kept their distance, and only after the Twins took him to a doctor did his condition finally have a diagnosis -- Tourette's. And that's when the embarrassment started, nearly ending Eisenreich's career.

In 1982, he lasted only nine games before going on the DL. In 1983, Eisenreich's season lasted just two games. That's when he went on the voluntary retired list, unable to handle the ridicule from fans in the stands. "Mostly it was guys in their 20s who'd been drinking and didn't have anything better to do than get on me," Eisenreich said. "But what was really bad was when I heard little kids make fun of me. That hurt, because I knew they'd learned that from the adults."

Actually, Eisenreich's skills were still intact, but the stress is was what ruined him. He went home for two years, where new medication helped. That, and marriage. In 1989 Eisenreich was with the Royals, back with what he said was "a new sense of self-esteem." He still seems a little jittery around the hands, and Eisenreich's head and neck seem unstill. But otherwise, he's as just as capable of standing in front of the Blue Jays' monolith as any Phillie.

But maybe Lenny Dykstra, that scrappy Phillie, said it best: "The dude can play. That's all we care about here, baseball. Jimmy can play. That's why I respect him."

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