Minnesota pitcher Al Williams sat in the clubhouse before the Twins' home opener two weeks ago checking his TV choices with a remote control. Williams switched to a news show just as a reporter said, "... and we'll begin to find out about Jimmy Eisenreich." The clubhouse suddenly went quiet, and Williams quickly changed channels. But the unspoken thought on everyone's mind had already been voiced.
Eisenreich, who turns 25 this week, is a talented centerfielder, fast enough to run down balls hit in the alleys and to bat leadoff. He jumped from Class A to the majors in the spring of 1982, and Minnesota owner Calvin Griffith said Eisenreich was "doomed to become an All-Star centerfielder." He has so much promise that manager Billy Gardner says he'll mean 10 or 15 extra wins this year if he can play 140 games.
But for two years Eisenreich has been severely afflicted by a nervous condition akin to stage fright. At its worst, it causes him to hyperventilate and twitch violently. He lasted 34 games in 1982, batting .303. Last year he quit after two games. Eisenreich has come back once more, and although teammates say he looks 100% better, that's no guarantee his potentially brilliant career has been saved. Despite the Twins' sincere efforts to ease his second comeback—through Sunday he hadn't faced a lefthanded starter or played an inning in the field on the road—Eisenreich was struggling at the plate. He was hitting .240 in 25 at bats as a platooning centerfielder and designated hitter, but there was no way to measure his state of mind.
A person instrumental in his comeback, St. Paul hypnotist Harvey Misel, worries that the Twins may be too protective of Eisenreich. "They're really walking on eggshells around him," says Misel. "That might not be the best thing. Everybody is afraid to say something or do something wrong. No one on the team has a pipeline to him. If he just had somebody to use as a sounding board.... He must feel like an island."
Eisenreich has dreamed of playing for the Twins since he was five, growing up in St. Cloud, 60 miles northwest of Minneapolis. He's the kind of young man hometowns are proud to claim. He doesn't drink, smoke, swear or chase women. "He's wonderfully square," says Pat Dolan, his high school baseball coach. "He's the all-American boy. He deserves better than what life has dealt him. I have no doubt that if he could lick this thing he would be a Hall of Famer."
When Eisenreich was eight, life dealt him the nervous affliction that has twice threatened to end his career. But until '82 it was no big deal. "He used to hum in class, perhaps to offset or overcome it," says Dolan, who was also Eisenreich's reading teacher at St. Cloud Tech.
The condition had never affected his play until he reached the majors. The Twins drafted Eisenreich in the 16th round in 1980 following his three years at St. Cloud State. He had two successful seasons in the minors, then vaulted to the majors.
"The amounts of pressure put on someone [in the majors] can completely destroy him," says Twin third baseman Gary Gaetti. "Being on the road, away from home. The press, for sure. That's what it stands for, doesn't it—pressure?"
Eisenreich, "Eisie" to teammates, opened the '82 season as Minnesota's starting centerfielder. When the club embarked on a 10-game road trip on April 16, Eisenreich was hitting .344. But then something happened. His condition markedly worsened. Nobody knows what triggered it, but Twins' executive Tom Mee remembers one of the earliest manifestations—an episode that took place before the last game of the trip. Mee and Eisenreich were attending Mass, sitting in a back pew, as was Eisenreich's wont. "Jim put his head down on the pew in front of us," Mee says, "and started shaking."
Five days later Eisenreich came out of a game hyperventilating and twitching for the first time. After he had left four straight games, his nervous condition was reported in a newspaper in Boston, where the Twins were playing. That night Red Sox fans sitting in the center-field bleachers verbally stoned him. "What inning are you leaving tonight?" and "It's a little cold; I'm shivering, too," and "Are you an epileptic?" It was obscene, and it drove Eisenreich from the field in the third inning. Though he was hitting .310, Eisenreich was benched for the next three games. On the third night, in Milwaukee, he ran into the clubhouse tearing at his clothes and yelling, "I can't breathe!" With teammate Mickey Hatcher at his side, he spent most of the night in a hospital emergency room.
"I just get nervous," he said at the time. "When I think about it and try to correct it, I make it worse. The more I do it, the madder I get at myself. When I forget about it and have fun, I'm O.K."
Other ballplayers, including Steve Carlton and Jesus Alou, have had tics. Other ballplayers have had fears. Jackie Jensen feared flying. Jimmy Piersall, who had a nervous breakdown, called his autobiography Fear Strikes Out. Almost to a man, ballplayers fear failure. But no one else in memory was so overcome with anxiety that he couldn't play the game.
The Twins had no precedent to guide them. Team doctors prescribed medication and behavior modification. Before the '83 season, Eisenreich told The Orlando Sentinel, "I don't know what's wrong with me. No one else does, either. If I go to four doctors, I get four opinions.
"I've had the problem since I was eight, but I controlled it until last year. Since I never acted that way before, I never realized I had such a severe problem. When I was finally placed on the disabled list and hospitalized I was relieved. I thought, 'At last, someone is going to help me.' "
He needed even more help. Last summer he began seeing Misel, who has counseled a number of big leaguers, including Rod Carew, Tom Paciorek and Bill Buckner. Misel had more than a dozen sessions with Eisenreich from July to October. Rather than try to cure Eisenreich's ailment, Misel tried to help him cope with it. "I told him not to give in to it, the same way he wouldn't give in with an 0-2 count," Misel says.
At each session, Misel repeated over and over the same posthypnotic suggestion: "Jim, you're going to play well and feel good about it. Concentrate on [the game] and be more involved with the game than you are with the crowd."
During the summer Eisenreich played an entire season of town ball for the St. Cloud Saints. He hit .632 and led the Saints to the state title. With Misel's encouragement, Eisenreich put on his old uniform last August and had a private workout in the Metrodome. Two months later Eisenreich had his final session with Misel. In January, Eisenreich told him he felt fine and didn't want to continue hypnosis.
Ultimately, it appears, Eisenreich must wage his battle alone. After his '82 ordeal in Boston, he said, "I'm just bothering myself right now. It's up to me. It's a thing I've got to do myself." Says Misel, "It's like somebody trying to fight his own shadow."
Since starting spring training with eight straight hits, Eisenreich has struggled at the plate, getting only 18 hits in his last 86 spring and regular-season appearances. The Twins claim that they aren't worried, though. "He looks about the same [as last year]," Gardner says. "His timing is a little off, but he hasn't played for a year. He has a tender [left] elbow right now and that might affect his swing."
The Twins have started using Eisenreich as a DH only to give Eisenreich's elbow a chance to mend, says Gardner. But the Twins may also have wanted to put some distance between Eisenreich and the crowds, particularly in places like New York and Boston. Although Eisenreich seems to be more relaxed before games in which he isn't slated to start, Gardner says, "He's the same all the time. He looks the best I've seen him in two years. He's enjoying himself. He's much more relaxed."
Eisenreich has taken some pressure off himself by not talking to reporters. When Hatcher recently asked him to speak to one, the mere suggestion of an interview triggered a nervous reaction.
Eisenreich shouldn't be simply written off as a loner. "When he was a high school junior," Dolan says, "the seniors constantly made him the butt of jokes, because he could handle it. They'd say he couldn't steal or he couldn't hit lefthanders or he couldn't pull the ball. Then he'd go out and do it. He enjoyed a leadership role even as a junior."
Fans across the country have sent letters to the Twins' doctors saying they have had problems similar to Eisenreich's and wishing him luck. Even opponents are rooting for him. "Everyone on this club hopes he can overcome it," Tiger catcher Lance Parrish says, "because he's a good ballplayer. I don't think it's anything to make fun of. Everyone can appreciate what he's going through. Everyone knows the pressure of being up here."