“Hi, how ya’ doing?” asks a teammate as Nick Esasky enters the Atlanta Braves’ spring training clubhouse in West Palm Beach, Fla. “In what way?” snaps Esasky. “What do you mean exactly?”
Esasky, a 31-year-old power-hitting first baseman, isn’t normally given to paranoia. But after spending the last 12 months battling an illness that has undermined the most vital of his skills as a player, he sometimes finds even simple pleasantries freighted with unwonted significance.
Before the trouble started, Esasky seemed to have successfully meshed career and home life. The 1989 season had been his best ever: 30 home runs and 108 runs batted in for the Boston Red Sox. But the 6’3″ ball player wanted to play closer to home. So he signed a three-year, $5.7 million contract with the Braves, whose stadium is only a 35-minute drive from suburban Marietta, Ga., where Esasky, his wife, Vicki, 30, and their three children, Jennifer, 13, Kimberly, 7, and Nicky, 6, have lived since 1986.
Then, during spring training last year, Esasky began to suffer from dizziness and nausea. In his first nine regular-season games with the Braves, he committed five errors and struck out 14 times in 35 at bats. He has yet to play a 10th game.
Instead Esasky embarked on a tortuous medical odyssey in search of the cause of his baffling ailment. Dozens of specialists later, when it was suggested the problem was all in his head, he consulted a psychologist. Only last October was the medical mystery solved: Esasky was suffering from vertigo, a disorder that afflicts one in 10 Americans at some time in their lives. Indeed, doctors had earlier considered this diagnosis, but with his athletic abilities overcoming his deficiencies, Esasky tested normal. Vertigo results when a viral infection, head trauma or some other disorder damages the inner ear—one of three systems that regulate the human sense of balance. Esasky is now launched on an arduous program to compensate by strengthening the other two systems: vision and the sense of touch in the soles of his feet.
With opening day approaching, the boyish slugger met with correspondent Gail Cameron Wescott to talk about his dizzy—and frightening—fall from stardom.
I felt great about playing in Atlanta, and I was in the best shape of my whole career. But about a week and a half into spring training, things started falling apart. Suddenly I began feeling weak and tired all the time. At first, I thought it was the flu and that it would go away. Then I began to get headaches and nausea, and I felt light-headed and dizzy. Soon it began to affect the way I was playing. At times it was hard for me to follow the ball. It looked hazy, as if it had a glow. I’d catch some off the end of my glove and miss others completely. Other times, a ball would land in my glove and I’d have no idea how it got there.
On opening day in Atlanta I got two hits. But over the next eight games all I did was strike out. I couldn’t see the ball until it reached me, and I’d just say, “Okay, I hope it’s going to be where I think he’s throwing it, and if it’s anything else, I’m in trouble.” Usually I was in trouble. The same thing was happening at first base. Eventually I started taking throws off to the side of the base. I figured that way, if I got hit, at least it would be in the shoulder, not smack in the middle of my face.
My problems weren’t confined to the field. When I drove, I stayed away from highways at rush hour with people cutting in and slowing down in front of me. And I couldn’t play with my kids. Just lifting them made me dizzy.
We played our first few games at home, and then we went on the road, first to Houston, then to Cincinnati, where my wife joined me. That’s when I told her the whole story of what was going on and that I had to speak to Russ Nixon, the Braves’ manager at the time. Russ agreed I should be checked out, but he said that since I was there, I might as well play out the series—three more games. I said I’d do what I could, but I didn’t feel comfortable. In the first game I got lucky: It was rained out. But on the following day a ground ball was hit to me. As it went past first base, I dove with my arm extended and landed on my shoulder, bruising it badly. That was the last game I played.
Back in Atlanta, I went to see the Braves’ doctor, David Watson. He gave me the basic physical and then started ordering tests. Over the next six months I probably saw more than 30 specialists—ear, nose and throat guys, neurologists, ophthalmologists, neuro-ophthalmologists. I’d see one doctor, then I’d get a second opinion. I had CAT scans and spinal taps. They wanted to see if there were tumors or blockages or who knows what. I tried medications that exacerbated my symptoms and others that made me sleep all the time, but none of them made any difference. It was frightening and exhausting.
In July an Atlanta doctor said he was pretty sure I had Lyme disease. The treatment was two 45-minute-long rounds of intravenous antibiotics daily. It was pretty inconvenient, and the doctor told me that even if he was right, it might take two or three months to get my body back to where it should be. My family said, “This is great. This is going to work.” And deep down I thought so too. But there was hardly any improvement.
In August, Vicki and I went out to the Mayo Clinic, where they tested me all over again, head to toe. It wore me out, and in the end they couldn’t come up with anything specific. This was hard because we looked on Mayo as the ultimate. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to watch all these experts running into a blank wall. It made me depressed at times and not the easiest person to live with. I’d end up yelling at my kids when I didn’t want to.
During home games, I used to go to the park, but it was tough sitting on the bench and not being a part of it, and I was glad when the team went on the road. My teammates were supportive, but a lot of them didn’t know me very well. I didn’t look sick—I wasn’t limping or anything, and I know some of them were thinking, “If that were me, I’d go out there and play.”
Finally I realized that I might feel this way forever. My goal, of course, is to play baseball again, but I’ve also got to live. So my family, Dr. Watson, everyone agreed to forget more testing and not to worry about it. I decided I was just going to keep positive and try to live with it the best I could.
Then, in October, Stan Kasten, president of the Braves, called to tell me about Jeffrey Kramer, a neurologist and director of the Dizziness and Balance Center in Wilmette, Ill. At first I thought, “Oh, great, another doctor.” But I went up to see him. He talked to me, looked at my charts and put me through a test that produced dizziness and jerky eye movements, which are almost sure signs of inner ear disturbance and vertigo. It was a relief to have a problem that might have an answer.
Working with Alan Goldstein, director of the Georgia Sports Institute, Dr. Kramer developed a program to retrain my balance system. The idea was to make me feel sick so I could learn how to function in spite of it. At first, just standing and looking at the wall and turning my head left and right would make me nauseous. But gradually we worked it up so I could exercise six days a week for a couple of hours a day.
We do a lot of hand-eye coordination, including playing Nintendo. Because every stimulus—sound, touch, sight—affects my balance, Alan throws me balls of different sizes and colors and has me walk on balance beams and unfamiliar surfaces such as foam. My symptoms increase when I get tired, so in the beginning I couldn’t do any prolonged exercise. Now I’m up to 30 minutes on the aerobic machines and 30 minutes of weight training. It’s paying off. I went back to Wilmette in January, and the tests showed definite improvement. I feel better.
Fatigue is still a big factor. I can get through a tough workout at the institute and feel great, but then I’ll come home and begin to feel light-headed. But look, if I can do that during the season, go out and play well for a few hours, it doesn’t matter if I feel light-headed afterward. I’ve become a stronger person because of all this. I pray about it, and I have a lot of people praying for me. It’s touched me, all the people who write me, wishing me the best. But I don’t want people feeling sorry for me. I’m finding a way to live with this whether it’s for a short period or a long one. I’m still not at the point I want to be, but I’m seeing the ball a lot better, and I’m not having any problems taking grounders.
One good thing that’s come of this is getting the word out to other people with vertigo. Some of them can’t work; they have problems at home, and none of it can be explained. Well, maybe some of them will learn about me and see that it’s a real problem and that they might be able to get it fixed. Who knows? I might end up touching more people going through this than I ever would have just playing baseball.