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JIM EISENREICH

Retired MLB player uses platform to advocate for others with Tourette syndrome

Jim Eisenreich went decades without answers for why he felt the way he did. Why did he make noises or movements he didn’t want to make, drawing attention to himself that he didn’t want? Why did the symptoms only get worse the more he tried to control them?

Throughout his childhood and through high school, doctors kept telling Eisenreich and his parents it was a behavior problem. He had too much energy and just needed an outlet.

“I had a hard time. My parents took me to the doctor many times and the only diagnosis they would ever do was that ‘Well, Jim’s a little hyperactive. If he can do all the normal things — school and play sports … he’ll probably grow out of it,’” he said. “And that was what we got. There was no diagnosis.”

So he took to the ice rink and to the ball field, competing in both hockey and baseball until he graduated. The activity helped, in a way. Eisenreich said sports probably masked his symptoms more than anything.

When it was time to think about college, he had two offers to play collegiate hockey and one for baseball. At that time, sports were a hobby to Eisenreich and he was more focused on getting an education in order to join the workforce. Having grown up in St. Cloud and in a family of Huskies, he said the choice was easy to attend St. Cloud State University. He joined SCSU’s baseball team and fell into an easy rhythm with his school work and time on the field. The independence and freedom that came with college agreed with him. Not having an assigned seat upfront in the classroom where he felt everyone watched him as he unintentionally moved or made noise helped him relax and settle in.

Fast forward to the end of his junior year in 1980, and Eisenreich and the Huskies were playing a tournament they’d eventually win in Bemidji. Some Major League Baseball scouts were at the tournament, and following the Huskies victory, approached both Eisenreich as well as his friend and senior teammate Bob Hegman about their interest in playing professionally.

Jim Eisenreich receives jerseys from his time playing baseball at St. Cloud State University“It’s kind of an easy question to answer for a young kid,” Eisenreich said.

With no guarantees of what could happen, he and Hegman worked out for two weeks before being drafted in the 16th round of the MLB draft — Hegman to the Kansas City Royals and Eisenreich to the Minnesota Twins. Starting off with rookie baseball in Elizabethton, Tennessee, Eisenreich played two seasons before he was called up to attend spring training with the Twins in 1982. In what he considers to be a fluke due to the starting center fielder injuring himself during training, Eisenreich made the team.

“I made the team, I’m the starting center fielder, the leadoff hitter in the first games of the Metrodome, and I grew up 80 miles north of the Metrodome,” he said. “It was a dream come true.”

He played a few seasons with his homestate team, before past problems started coming back to haunt him.

“I’m playing really well, doing everything I’m supposed to do. And somewhere about into the second month of the season in May, we’re in Boston, and I don’t know what made me think of it, but for the first time I started to think ‘Are the fans watching me play, or are they watching me do all my tics?’ And I became self conscious,” Eisenreich said. “I’d never felt this afraid on a ball field or on a hockey rink or wherever I was at. But now I think I’m going to pass out and die right on the field. It scared me. So I ended up coming out of the games three nights in a row and one thing led to another.”

When he got back to Minneapolis, Eisenreich went to the hospital and underwent numerous physical and psychological tests. Doctors kept giving him diagnoses — agoraphobia, claustrophobia, “every phobia known to man.” Twins medical staff assumed it was stage fright, and Eisenreich didn’t know how to explain to anyone that it wasn’t.

“That started the process of getting help,” he said.

Eventually, Eisenreich found a doctor who finally found the answer: Tourette syndrome. While it helped to finally have an answer, Eisenreich, then 23 years old, said it probably took him two to three years to understand and then accept his diagnosis.

“I wondered what this thing was all this time. And I thought I was the only one — not just in my family or St. Cloud — in the world,” he said. “I felt I was on that island and now I knew for the first time I wasn’t. And the other part that was really uplifting was: there’s help. I had not idea what that involved, but there’s help.”

As he worked his way through his diagnosis, Eisenreich started to claim his life back. Around that time, Hegman — now a minor league assistant coordinator in the Royals’ front office — reached out to his friend and former teammate. While absent from MLB play in 1985 and 1986, Eisenreich had played in amateur leagues, and Hegman wanted to know if he still had any interest in the show. He did.

“I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew I was getting a chance. And if I got the chance and took it, and I made it, that’s fine,” Eisenreich said. “If I didn’t make it, I was okay with that, too. At least I tried.”

Jim Eisenreich sits with his fans during a baseball gameThe Twins released him — after having replaced him with Kirby Puckett, and Eisenreich joined the Royals for spring training in 1987. He would go on to play five seasons with the Royals — some of them with Bo Jackson — and loved every one of them. Eisenreich made his home in Kansas City, eventually getting married there and having four children. Once 1992 rolled around, the Royals were heading in a different direction and Eisenreich — then 34 — was too old to follow. He was offered contracts with both the Philadelphia Phillies and the Atlanta Braves. Feeling he had a better chance at seeing the field with the Phillies, he signed and headed to Pennsylvania.

His first season with the Phillies brought with it a trip to the 1993 World Series, where Eisenreich would hit a home run in Game 2. The team eventually lost the Series to the Toronto Blue Jays, and Eisenreich would spend three more years with the Phillies before joining the then-Florida Marlins. Once again he would take a trip to the World Series and hit a home run, this time in Game 3. The Marlins went on to defeat the then-Cleveland Indians to win the 1997 Series — “a dream come true” for Eisenreich.

Throughout the second chapter of his MLB career, he made a point in meeting with families before Sunday games to talk about Tourette syndrome. He’d be asked about the syndrome in postgame press conferences, and the conference following his 1997 home run was no different. As Eisenreich talked about the syndrome and how it manifested for him, the man who caught his home run ball was listening to the conference on the radio, and realizing his daughter exhibited many of the same symptoms — some of them tics — that Eisenreich described.

“It was a neat story. I think it proved why I was a ballplayer and had Tourette — there was a reason,” he said. “I wasn’t the greatest ballplayer, but I made a long career out of it and have been able to talk to a lot of kids and families. I’ve been the beneficiary of being a ballplayer, but I feel like I’ve done that to help these kids and their families get the questions answered that maybe my mom and dad were looking for when I was a kid.”

He started the Jim Eisenreich Foundation for Children with Tourette Syndrome as he wanted to continue helping families with a Tourette diagnosis following his 1998 retirement.

“It’s been unbelievably gratifying for me. Every time I talk to a family or even just the kids themselves; it may have helped them, but it was helping me, too,” he said. “I was able to use my platform of Major League Baseball to help kids and their families deal with the effects of it. I’m very lucky, blessed, the whole nine yards — it’s unbelievable.”

For Eisenreich, children being able to feel accepted among their loved ones and among their peers is the greatest deciding factor in them finding personal success. That acceptance is something he found during his time at SCSU, even before he had his answers.

“My heart is still in St. Cloud,” he said. “The people I met: unbelievable.”

“There’s another generation of families now looking for the same answers. ... I think when we can be more understanding of those differences, it helps move things along.”

 

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