Written By Oliver Macklin | MLB.com
WASHINGTON — Jim Eisenreich won a World Series with the Marlins in 1997, and Curtis Pride a division title with the Braves in ’98. Both carved out successful careers in the big leagues, but their impact on the game stretches beyond their contributions on the diamond.
Eisenrich, who suffers from Tourette syndrome, and Pride, who was born deaf, helped pave the way for people with disabilities with their accomplishments in the Majors. And they have continued to build upon their efforts to help those with similar conditions since their playing days concluded.
On Wednesday, Eisenreich and Pride spoke of their remarkable journeys and received awards from the United States Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment for their “partnership and exemplary service on behalf of people with disabilities,” as part of a broader celebration of National Disability Employment Awareness Month.
The event was hosted by the U.S. Administration of Community Living (ACL) and Professional Baseball Athletic Trainers Society (PBATS), the latter of which spearheaded the Ability Transcends Challenges (ATC) program in 2012. ATC was constructed to convey the proficiencies of people with disabilities by telling the stories of baseball players like Eisenreich and Pride, who flourished as professionals despite their respective obstacles.
PBATS president and Chicago Cubs medical director Mark O’Neal, former U.S. assistant secretary of labor at the office of disability employment Neil Romano, disability employment expert and ACL partner for HeiTech Services, Inc. Mark Odum and disability employment expert and ACL partner for Virginia Commonwealth University Vicki Brooke were also honored for their achievements in helping foster the successes of people with disabilities.
“It’s important that we set a good example for people — especially those with disabilities — that if we can do this, anybody can do it if they want to,” Pride said. “It doesn’t have to just be playing baseball, but it can be anything.”
The paths of the two former big leaguers are unconventional.
A native of St. Cloud, Minn., Eisenreich grew up knowing he was different from his peers. He had a relatively normal childhood in spite of his “quirks,” and had a sturdy support system in his family and “the greatest baseball coach ever” throughout high school.
Baseball, his outlet to escape from the symptoms of Tourette’s, guided Eisenreich to St. Cloud State University, where he played college ball before being selected in the 16th round by the Twins in 1980.
“It was a big deal,” Eisenreich said.
He debuted with the big league club in 1982, batting .303 with two home runs in 34 games, but he became self-conscious the relief the game provided was “no longer there for me.” Eisenreich was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome that year, and it took him time to accept and understand the disorder.
“Most of that time I thought I wasn’t going to play, and didn’t really care. I was more focused on my health,” Eisenreich said. “I wasn’t focused on playing ball.”
Four years went by before he could answer the questions about his disorder he struggled to tackle in his youth, though it was relieving for him to finally know what was wrong and how to cope with it.
Eisenreich returned to MLB in 1987 after trying out and earning a spot on the Royals, a team he spent the next six seasons with, hitting .277 with 23 home runs in 650 games. Following four years when he hit for a cumulative .324 average with the Phillies, he signed as a free agent with Florida in 1996. In ’97, he added a World Series ring.
“I was being given a chance and I thought, ‘You know, I’m going to play because I love to play,’” Eisenreich said. “I didn’t really bargain for another 12 years, but it was certainly worth it and more than I could have dreamed of.”
Pride’s ability to succeed without being able to hear in a game that relies significantly on audible signals is nothing short of amazing.
Pride was born in Washington, D.C., and attended the College of William and Mary. Drafted by the Mets in the 10th round in 1986, Pride played in the club’s Minor League system and went to school in the offseason because “there was no guarantee of becoming a Major League player.”
But Pride reached the pros in 1993 with the Montreal Expos. Three years later, he batted .300 with 10 home runs in 95 games for the Tigers shortly before hitting .252 with three homers in 70 games in 1998 while helping the Braves to the National League East title.
Pride says his inability to listen to the sounds of the game rarely affected his ability to perform. If there was a fly ball and Pride called for it, “it was my ball all the way.”
He did recall one instance in which his deafness presented a problem. Facing Braves hard-throwing left-hander Pedro Borbon, he was struck in the helmet by an errant pitch. Naturally, Pride trotted down to first base only to find both the first-base and home-plate umpires, both unaware of his condition, signaling for him to return to the plate. They called it a foul ball.
Unable to read the umpire’s lips through his mask, Pride asked for the official to take his mask off. The umpire refused. The emotional side himself, Pride said, urged him to grab the mask off the umpire, which got him ejected from the game, though only temporarily.
“It was a misunderstanding,” Pride said. “Everyone from both teams were literally on the ground laughing.”
Eisenreich has since founded the Jim Eisenreich Foundation for children with Tourette syndrome and Pride has been named MLB Ambassador for Inclusion in addition to head baseball coach at Gallaudet University. The pair continues to spread baseball’s rich history of promoting disability inclusion and challenge suppositions about the limitations of people with disabilities.
The two have helped provide outlets to current players like the Astros’ George Springer, who was born with a stutter, and the Cubs’ Jon Lester and Anthony Rizzo, who each overcame cases of lymphoma. Major League trainers like O’Neal, who cater to the person and not just the player, have had an integral role in making this possible as well.
“Curtis and I are just two of those who had a chance. We’re very fortunate to have people allow us to have a chance and continue to support us,” Eisenreich said. “Every kid should have that opportunity. It’s really cool that groups like [ACL and PBATS] are working together toward that ultimate goal that everybody that wants to and has that ability can play no matter what their physical disability is.”