In mid-December 88, the Red Sox pulled off their first major trade of the offseason. They sent two young players- first baseman Todd Benzinger and pitcher Jeff Sellers to Cincinnati for power-hitting first-baseman Nick Esasky and reliever Rob Murphy. The trade would not really better either team in the long term. The 26-year-old Benzinger had put up average numbers in Boston, but after one season as the Reds' regular first-baseman (17 homers and a .245 average), he faded and bounced to three teams before leaving the majors in 1995. Sellers, who underachieved with the Sox, would never play another game of major league ball. After one fair to good season as a part-time closer, Murphy would slump badly in 1990, then spend several years as a journeyman. But Esasky is another story.
The 6'3" Georgian had a reputation in Cincy of never reaching his potential. A Leigh Montville piece tells the story of his decline from a blue-chip prospect billed as the next Mike Schmidt to a place in manager Pete Rose's doghouse. In 5 years with the Reds, he never played a full season and only twice reached the 20-homer mark. His lifetime average was .245 and three times he had over 100 strikeouts. Obviously he had worn out his welcome at Riverfront Stadium.
The Sox would disappoint in 1989, but for Esasky it was a breakout season. Playing regularly at first, "the Nickster" played in 154 games, slugged 30 homers and knocked 108 runs. Fenway seemed like the place for his righthanded bat. But the Sox had a problem- he would become a free agent at the end of the year. One more time, GM Lou Gorman lost a star- Esasky signed with the Atlanta Braves. An avowed family man, he told Lou he had been happy in Boston, but family pressures were too great. He signed a three-year deal worth $5.7 million.
If the story ended there, it could be chalked up to one more Boston mistake. But the Esasky tale goes on, and it is not a happy one. During spring training in Atlanta, he began to experience dizziness and nausea. In 9 regular season games,he committed 5 errors and struck out 14 times. Something was obviously very wrong. An article in People magazine describes his sad odyssey of trips to over 30 specialists. Some said the problem was in his head, another diagnosed Lyme disease. Finally in October 1990, he was found to have vertigo- a viral infection that damages the inner ear. Working with a doctor from the Georgia Sports Institute, he started a program to retrain his balance system. It improved hand-to-eye coordination and weight training. He showed improvement, but not enough. He was forced to retire in 1992. It was scant consolation, but the Braves had to pay his entire contract.
Things continued to go downhill for Esasky, though he did find a job in the investment business. A 2006 article in an Atlanta newspaper describes his teenage daughter's long battle with methamphetamine use. Eventually he filed custody for his daughter's one-year-old child and got her into rehab after many failed attempts. In the article, he stated that his main goal was to provide drug treatment for those who, unlike him, were unable to afford it. He also had plans to buitld a transitional home for single mothers and start a "Kids in Meth" foundation.
Esasky's season with the Sox stands out as one of the high points of a career marked by much sadness and disappointment. We can only hope that his later years will be more fulfilling.