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Miami's Rafe Schlesinger (Photo by Eric Espada/Miami Hurricanes Athletics)


Miami’s Schlesinger proves doubters wrong, pitches despite tic disorder


CORAL GABLES, Fla. — An e-mail nearly made Rafe Schlesinger cry.

Schlesinger, a 6-3, 200-pound junior lefthander who is the Saturday starter for the Miami Hurricanes, deals with a tic disorder that manifests itself as twitches and other such mannerisms.

But because he has successfully navigated his situation as a big-time student-athlete, nearly two dozen kids with similar disorders have contacted him over the past few years.

They write to him looking for hope or inspiration … or both.

“The first time it happened, no joke, I wanted to cry almost,” Schlesinger said of the email. “That a kid felt comfortable enough to reach out to me and to say that I inspired him and he looked up to me …”

Schlesinger is an inspiration – for a variety of reasons.

Rafe Schlesinger (Miami Hurricanes Athletics)

Majoring in Sociology, Schlesinger already has a clothing line called “Nah Neva”, and he also hopes to coach baseball after he is done playing.

As a pitcher, Schlesinger has a chance to be special due to a fastball that is released from a low-three-quarter slot, sits at 92-94 and has reached 97.

And, as a person, Schlesinger is already special.

“He’s such a beautiful kid,” Hurricanes pitching coach Laz Gutierrez said. “He has a huge personality, cares about his teammates. He’s well-spoken.

“When the tics are going, you know he’s getting ready for the game, and his nervous system is pumped up. The adrenaline is running through his body, and that’s when the tics seem to kick in.”

Schlesinger, who is from Long Island in New York, was in the second grade when he was diagnosed with the tic disorder.

Prior to that, his parents — Brian and Natalie — thought it was an allergy.

“The way it was discovered was baseball-related,” Schlesinger said. “I’d be on mound and, in between pitches – you can still see it today – you will see my eyes, my head, almost like a quick shake. My eyes are looking around somewhere.”

The tics were even worse when he was at the plate or playing his secondary position, first base.

“I was very uncomfortable,” he said. “I was not good at those positions (hitter/first base). It almost got to the point where (the tics were) too much. I would be in the batter’s box, almost shaking.

“My parents were really worried. It looked like I was going to pass out.”

Schlesinger explained to his parents that his tics were like an itch.

“The only way to get rid of it is to blink my eyes or twitch my wrist or something,” Schlesinger said. “The only way is if I give in to it, so I do.”

Schlesinger said his disorder is a form of Tourette’s syndrome but “not very vocal … more like a motor tic.”

The tics are unpredictable.

“They will maneuver through my body,” Schlesinger said. “One day, it’s my face. The next day, it’s my arm. And then there will be weeks or even a month straight where you can’t even tell I have them.

“The next day, it can be over the top – so much stuff going on, twitching with my eyes and my arm. I can’t even tell you what starts it. Something sets a switch in me, and it will be there for a day, a week or even a month.”

Medication could help, but Schlesinger and his family decided not to go that route due to potential side effects.

Schlesinger said he has learned to “suppress” his tics to some extent while he is in class.

While he’s on the mound, however, Schlesinger is so locked in that it has never affected his pitches.

Rafe Schlesinger (Photo by Eric Espada/Miami Hurricanes Athletics)

“I get asked that every day,” Schlesinger said with a laugh. “When I get the sign from the catcher, I’m completely normal for those four or five seconds.

“When I’m really concentrated on something, (the tics) are minor or not even there.”

When Schlesinger was in middle school, a kid tried to mock him by calling him “Twitch.”

But Schlesinger is such a positive person that he turned that taunt around.

“I said, ‘Dude, that is sick’,” said Schlesinger, using the word sick in a positive way.

“The way I viewed it … it’s not like I’m ‘Twitch,’ the little geek they were going to bully. It was, ‘I’m Twitch, the guy who goes out there every week to win us a game for our high school.’

“I turned that nickname from what could’ve been seen as a loser to the coolest nickname in high school.”

These days, Schlesinger does all he can to help kids, even when they are a bit shy approaching him.

“I always make it a point to kids that if they ever need help or advice, please reach out to me,” Schlesinger said. “I always try to keep an open conversation with them.”

Schlesinger said he’s already had an open conversation with scouts, explaining his tics to representatives from major league organizations.

After being used as a situational reliever in his first two years at Miami, this is the first year since high school where Schlesinger has been back in the rotation.

So far, he’s been solid – 2-1 with a 4.19 ERA over six starts. He has struck out 36 batters in 34 1/3 innings, walking just 10.

“I’m incredibly proud to see the strides Rafe has made,” said Gage Ziehl, Miami’s Friday night starter. “He didn’t pitch much his first two years, but he has worked his ass off.”

Schlesinger has allowed just seven extra-base hits this year – four doubles and three homers. But he has allowed 35 singles, which is baseball’s version of death by a thousand paper cuts.

“Rafe relentlessly attacks the strike zone,” said Gutierrez, who is in his first year as Miami’s pitching coach. “When you throw that many strikes, opponents will run into some hits.”

Besides his dynamic four-seam fastball, Schlesinger also throws a changeup and two types of sliders – a sweeper and a cutter. His mid-80s sweeper can be wicked with a horizontal break between 10 to 14 inches.

“He’s a ground-ball pitcher, and hitters have a hard time elevating the ball on him because of his arm slot,” Gutierrez said. “He’s also a power pitcher who gets swings and misses.

“That’s a great combination.”

Ironically, Schlesinger — as a middle-school kid — was better at football than baseball. He was a tight end and a defensive end in football, and, in baseball, he was … well, let him tell you.

“I was awful,” Schlesinger said. “I couldn’t hit. I could throw hard, but I couldn’t find the strike zone even if it were the entire field.

“My batting average was under .100, and I’d walk 11 guys a game. But everyone would always talk about my potential.”

On his strike-throwing days, he’d look so good that a top-tier travel team eventually stole him away. But that team later cut him due to all the walks.

“I had to go crawling back to my old team,” Schlesinger said.

To this day, Schlesinger draws the initials “PD” in the dirt behind the mound to remind him of the coach who cut him.

“He loves the doubters,” said his mother, Natalie. “He loves proving people wrong.”

In fact, the only thing Schlesinger loves even more is helping children.

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and Rafe is one of the best all-around kids I’ve ever coached,” said Kevin Schnupp, who coached Schlesinger at Sachem East High School in Holbrook, New York.

“He pitches with raw emotion. After a big strikeout, he will go off to the side and yell into his glove. Off the field, he volunteers to work with special-education kids.

“Rafe is just wise beyond his years.”