A CAREER IN THE BALANCE

Atlanta's Nick Esasky is struggling to get back on his feet after a dizzying season
March 18, 1991

What was it Nick Esasky said a fortnight before, when he was still at home in Marietta, Ga.? He said he'd begun hitting again. Esasky, who missed virtually all of last season with vertigo, who still sees ghosts trailing after the baseball as if he were viewing it on a bad TV set, then apologized for his optimism. "I'm only hitting against a BP pitcher," he said. "I really won't know much until I see the real thing this spring."

This is it, then. Two weeks later, the man so troubled by seeing and standing has come to Florida to see where he stands.

He has taken a flight down to West Palm Beach from Atlanta. Isn't that enough in itself? Flying still makes him sick. But at least it no longer lays him up for two days afterward, as it did last summer. He could have driven his Mercedes the 600 miles down the interstate to the Atlanta Braves' camp, if he had really wanted to. Surely that would have been enough. He couldn't have imagined doing that last summer. "Especially not in high-speed traffic," he says, "where people were changing lanes, coming from the left and the right of me. I couldn't take all the information in front of me. It was hard enough to decipher how fast the other guy was coming. Is he coming all the way over? It was like a ground ball: I see it coming, but I see it coming slower than it really is."

But, hey, he's out of the house. Isn't that enough? Last July, for the entire month, he had to lie down in that house every day, for 45 minutes every 12 hours, enduring intravenous antibiotics for Lyme disease, which he didn't have. At least now he's back out in the sun with his teammates. Isn't that enough?

If you know Esasky, you see this coming: None of this is enough. Uncured, he nonetheless wants to play major league baseball again—but not as he did in the Braves' first nine games last season, when he struck out 14 times in 35 at bats and committed five errors at first base. He was, in his own words, "a little kid who didn't know how to play the game."

No, Esasky wants to play again as he did for the Boston Red Sox in 1989, when he hit .277 with 30 home runs and 108 RBIs. He wants to play the way he did during his first seven seasons in the majors, before his eyes began telling lies.

Isn't that too much?

After all, "a baseball player's whole life is visual dependency," says Jeffrey Kramer, the neurologist now treating Esasky.

"If anybody can come back from something like this," says Braves manager Bobby Cox, "I think Nick can."

So does Esasky. He still doesn't know exactly what he is coming back from, but that no longer bothers him.

To come back, he has come back to Municipal Stadium in West Palm Beach, reporting two days after his 31st birthday. Bundled letters, stacked like masonry, wait in his locker. Most of the envelopes, he knows, contain a home remedy for vertigo, which touches one in every 10 Americans at some point in their lives. For Esasky, the illness began, in the form of severe fatigue, in this very ballpark one week into his first spring training with the Braves last March.

Well-intentioned correspondents have since advised him to stand on his head until all of his blood has flowed to the brain. They have suggested kitchen elixirs to put in his ear. "Yogurt," says Esasky. He remembers a letter saying how yogurt can cure his ailment.

But the first of a hundred diagnoses and prescriptions was Esasky's own. "I thought I had the flu," he says. "And I figured once I got back home, out of the sun, I'd start feeling better." He figured he'd better get better. There were, after all, 14 season tickets set aside at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium for his and his wife Vicki's families, both of which live in the Atlanta area. As a free agent, Esasky had signed a three-year, $5.7 million contract the previous November to play in the place where he and Vicki—they now have three children—have lived in the off-season since 1979.

"But the season started and things got worse," Esasky says. "I was having problems reacting. I didn't feel coordinated. It was like I was in slow motion, and everything else was still moving very quickly around me."

He became dizzy, which made him nauseated, but he told no one. On April 17, the Braves traveled to Houston for their third series of the regular season. "That's where I became really concerned about being able to catch the ball," Esasky says. "I had been catching balls without knowing how I caught them. I started missing balls that I should have caught. Pickoff throws. I thought they were here, but they were a fraction of an inch over there. It wasn't a major thing, but in baseball, if you miss it by a little bit, you're missing the whole thing. I got concerned that I was going to get hit in the face by a ball. So when we went to the next series, in Cincinnati, I went in and told the team that something was going on, that I didn't know what it was, but that I needed to get checked out."

The Braves made a list of ists. There were neurologists. There were ophthalmologists. There were doctors who called themselves neuro-ophthalmologists. One ist prescribed glasses that sharpened Esasky's vision from his natural 20/15 to a painful 20/10. He might have been able to inspect the contents of unopened suitcases with the glasses, but he couldn't walk while wearing them.

Esasky saw an orthodontist, who removed the braces from his teeth. He saw an allergist. He saw a psychologist on the possibility this was all in his head. He saw a hypnotist, "to sec if we could just block it out by mind power," Esasky says. "That didn't work. Hocus-pocus doesn't do it." He saw physical therapists and internists and other specialists. Nobody found anything. Everybody found nothing.

"Most people with dizziness are told they have to live with it," says Kramer, the director of the Dizziness and Balance Center in Wilmette, Ill. "That is a lot of bull, but the word is not out."

A spinal tap in June revealed nothing. Esasky spent July undergoing the Lyme disease treatments, but that healed nothing. He went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., in the first week of August. Doctors there, like the doctors at Case Western in Cleveland, found nothing extraordinary. "I came back from the Mayo Clinic and said, 'O.K., we went to the best place you can go, but we still don't know anything. Now what do we do?' " says Esasky. "We decided to do nothing for a while, to see if it would go away on its own."

He tried to take batting practice and do some fielding at the ballpark when the Braves were home in August and September. There he told SI's Tim Crothers, "The hardest part is the uncertainty. If it was a broken arm, there would be a time frame for it to heal, but you can't rehab inside your head."

In October, Braves president Stan Kasten referred Esasky to Kramer, who persuaded him otherwise. Esasky went to Wilmette and began to rehab inside his head.

"Tests showed that his inner ear was not functional on the right side," says Kramer. The damage, it is assumed, was done by a virus, but neither Esasky nor Kramer care anymore about the cause. A cure has become the only concern.

The human body has three systems to maintain equilibrium: the eyes, the inner ears (or vestibular system) and sensory fibers in the bottom of the feet. Having essentially lost one third of his ability to maintain balance, Esasky had overtaxed his eyes trying to compensate.

"We must make him less visually dependent," says Kramer. "We developed a program of physical therapy to retrain the balance system, to help the brain compensate for the inner-ear problem."

The catch? Esasky's regimen of rehab exercises is designed to build an immunity to fatigue—so the brain will remain alert—and an immunity to nausea caused by dizziness. Esasky exercises, in other words, to make himself sick and tired.

"Thanks a lot," Esasky remembers telling Kramer. "I was already sick when I walked in here. This seems kind of silly. These exercises look silly."

"He was calling me a sadist," recalls Kramer.

So Esasky now takes silly walks, on deep-pile carpet, on balance beams and on platforms of various heights. He plays Nintendo jet-fighter games for hand-eye coordination. He pantomimes leaping for high line drives, with his eyes closed, until he is too light-headed to continue. He plays catch with balls of different sizes and colors. All of this consumes about an hour a day. It is the mental equivalent of swinging a weighted bat, designed to make everything seem easier in a game.

"With a guaranteed three-year, six million-dollar contract, you'd say he's got it made," says Kramer. "Why should he do this? I've never seen a patient so determined to get back to his prior level."

"Right now, maybe I'm 50 percent better," says Esasky. "Some days I'm better than 50 percent. But there hasn't been one day when I've felt 100 percent. And I may never get to 100 percent. But if I can get to the point where I'm still able to play, whether it be at 75 or 80 percent of what I was before, then that's what I'll have to do."

Esasky returned to Wilmette in January and was retested. "He was significantly better," says Kramer. "Symptomatically, he had improved 85 percent." That's when Kramer cleared him to take batting practice again at the stadium in Atlanta.

"He has looked good," says Cox.

But even as the ghosts surrounding the baseballs diminish, more frightening medical specters arise. "The vestibular system is so highly organized and sensitive that the slightest disturbance can upset it," says Kramer. "If Nick has a cold, it can bring him down again. Cabin-pressure changes on airplanes can do it."

Various phobias have been traced to vestibular dysfunctions. It is not uncommon, for instance, for vertigo sufferers to become agoraphobic. "When they go out, they feel a loss of control," says Kramer. "They are unable to focus on anything specifically in a crowd. Without their vision focused and without the inner-ear balance, they've got nothing left, and they begin to panic."

Crowds and airplanes and major league curveballs. Esasky is acutely aware that baseball is perhaps the worst trade for a vertigo sufferer. But he is encouraged by the fact that others in the game—Lou Piniella, Ray Knight and Dwight Evans among them—have overcome similar, if less severe, symptoms.

"I'd look up for a fly ball, and I'd see three or four balls, and I was just hoping to catch the right one," recalls Evans of the Baltimore Orioles. An eight-time Gold Glover, Evans made four errors in 10 games during his dizzy spell 13 years ago when he was with the Red Sox. "It was the worst feeling I've ever known."

And it evaporated as quickly as it appeared.

"There have been a lot of things cured by God or sheer willpower," says Esasky. "There have been miracles that no one can explain. So that can happen."

Jim Bouton was exaggerating only slightly when he wrote in a review that the somber baseball film Bang the Drum Slowly was unrealistic. "If a baseball player really had leukemia," said Bouton, "his teammates would call him Luke."

Esasky's teammates have tried to keep things upbeat in West Palm. Atlanta reliever Mark Grant happened by as Esasky fielded grounders flawlessly on the first day of full-squad workouts two weeks ago. "Have you caught some?" Grant asked.

"Gee, I wonder what this is about," another teammate said later, interrupting Esasky in an interview. "You've finally decided to come out of the closet?"

"They joke about it. They'll ask me if this bothers me," says Esasky, thrusting his hands out in front of him. "But they care. If you can't laugh about it, it will wear you out."

He had kept that in mind when his children came home from school in Marietta, where their father was supposed to be a baseball savior of sorts. "It's almost like they don't have lives of their own," says Esasky. "Instead of saying, 'Hi, Kimberly,' or 'Hi, Jennifer,' the first thing people say to them is, 'How's your dad?' or 'What's your dad doing?' "

Esasky understood when the Braves signed free-agent first baseman Sid Bream to a three-year, $5.6 million contract in December. And he has tried to keep his good humor while reading the bricks of mail that continue to wall his home and lockers. "Some people say they can't get out of bed for three days. Some are totally incapacitated. One said, 'I went to all these doctors, I went out of the country, I spent $50,000, and I'm still having this problem. If you ever find what can help you, please let me know. Here's my name and address.' Another guy wrote to say he's had this problem for many years, he has to live with it, but he has a positive outlook. So some of the letters have made me feel like I can handle this; others make me feel like, man, this thing could last all my life."

Then he says something that, in this spring of swollen egos and arbitrations and renegotiations, is almost startling. "Either way, I will be taken care of," Esasky says. "This has taught me that there are a lot of people out there with problems much worse than mine."

And for just a minute you think that maybe his perspective is the right one, and everyone else's needs readjusting.

TWO PHOTOSRONALD C. MODRAAfter months of practice, Esasky can now field without getting scared, but he still sees "ghosts" around the ball when he's batting. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAEsasky's trainers put him through a tortuous therapy to overcome the failure of his vestibular system. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAIn camp, Esasky has held his own against BP pitchers, but he longs for a chance to hit in a game again.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)