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Sports Saturday

In his third act, former White Sox infielder Eric Soderholm finds peace

What can a popular member of the rough-and-tumble 1977 Sox team called the South Side Hit Men offer people as a life coach and a meditation teacher? What are they seeking in his holistic center, tucked away off of Route 83? “Healing,’’ his daughter, Misty, says.

Eric Soderholm and daughter Misty relax at SoderWorld
Eric Soderholm and daughter Misty relax at SoderWorld, the holistic center they built in southwest-suburban ­Willowbrook. Soderholm played for the White Sox from 1977 to ’79.
Annie Costabile/Sun-Times

Eric Soderholm sits in a chair and beholds his paradise.

In front of him is a pond, upon which two swans, Adam and Eve, are getting along swimmingly. A tree-covered path forms the perimeter of the pond, and if Soderholm wishes to, he can walk on it, listen to the ambient music being piped in and ponder the statues, photos and words of Gandhi, Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Mother Teresa, Confucius and the Virgin Mary that line the route. He wishes to often.

In this peaceful place, Soderholm is approximately a million miles from a couple of past lives — the first as a big-league baseball player, including a 2½-year stint with the White Sox, and the second as a big-time ticket broker. But those other lives helped him and his daughter build SoderWorld, the holistic healing center in Willowbrook where he now sits. Without the intensity of baseball and without the money-centeredness of brokering, there is no beautiful A-frame log building, no Himalayan Salt Cave, no massage therapy, no shamanic sound healing, no gong washes, no energy healing and no yoga classes. Without those other lives, which were an antithesis of who he is now, there is no new him.

Everything, in the end, fits together.

“It’s kind of an interesting story: major-league baseball player all of a sudden does the flip and now he’s into healing and helping people find their true selves,’’ he says. “It’s so rewarding. I’m actually more proud of building this place than I am of playing nine years in the big leagues.’’

The Soderholms, including wife Ginny and son Chad, rarely have advertised for SoderWorld since the business opened in 1997. Yet devotees flock to it. Why is that? What can a popular member of the rough-and-tumble 1977 Sox team called the “South Side Hit Men” offer them as a life coach and a meditation teacher? What are people seeking in this place, tucked away off of Route 83?

“Healing,’’ his daughter, Misty, says.

“Their life is in shambles usually, or they’re just not happy with their life,’’ her dad says. “We have no religious affiliation. We honor all world religions, but at the core of all of them is love. So our religion here is L-O-V-E. No dogma, no nothing. Come with whatever belief you have, but you will eventually know that you, too, are a spark of God. You’re not this poor, miserable sinner that you’ve been conditioned to believe. You are this beautiful spark of God. God is being reflected through you.

“We teach people through meditation, through yoga, through all kinds of different modalities, that you’re creating your own reality. There’s not a god up there that’s going, ‘Man, I really like that Misty Soderholm and that Eric Soderholm, so I’m going to make their life fabulous. But I don’t like this other guy, and I’m going to make his life suck.’ You just know that that’s not the case. You just know that in your heart.

“Once you learn that you’re the one that’s responsible for creating your own reality, now you begin to see things from a different perception. You see things from a perception that you’re actually an electromagnetic field of energy, a spiritual being, having a physical experience in this brief moment of eternity.’’

Before he could try to help others heal themselves, he had some major-league self-healing to do. It only took a couple of lifetimes.

***

Soderholm, 70, played five years for the Twins, who had drafted him in 1968, then signed with the Sox after missing the 1976 season because of a knee injury. He enjoyed some of his best years as a big-leaguer in Chicago. A third baseman, he hit .280 with 25 home runs for a 1977 team that thrilled the South Side most of the summer. That was when 25 home runs actually meant something, and they earned him the American League Comeback Player of the Year award. He hit 20 homers the next season.

He grew up in a strict Lutheran home and wasn’t a spiritual seeker. He was, however, willing to try new things that most ballplayers wouldn’t. In 1976, he read an article about former Twins teammate Rod Carew’s use of hypnosis to help him deal with the effects of a hamstring injury, which included problems with confidence.

“I’m reading it, and I’m going, ‘confidence?’ The guy’s already won a bunch of batting titles. How much more confident can you get?’ ” he says, laughing. “So I thought, if it’s good enough for Rod, it’s good enough for me.’’

He went to Harvey Misel, the same St. Paul, Minnesota, hypnotist Carew had used. After the initial session, Misel asked Soderholm what he thought of it. Not much, he said, considering he had heard the telephone ring and people talking in the hallway while he was supposed to be under hypnosis. Misel told him that he had implanted “some very powerful stuff’’ and that Soderholm was going to be very aggressive and confident at the plate.

Annie Costabile/Sun-Times

He struck out three times the next day. He called the hypnotist, who said he had assumed something and now recognized his mistake.

“I go back in,’’ Soderholm recalls. “He says, ‘My assumption was that you, a major-league player, knew what the strike zone was.’ ’’

When your hypnotist thinks he’s working The Comedy Store, it’s probably not a good thing. But Soderholm laughed right along with him. In the next session, Misel had him paint a luminous box under hypnosis. The idea was that he’d carry that shiny strike zone with him to the plate and attack any ball that entered.

“My batting average went from .230 at the time to where I was among the top 20 hitters in the major leagues. I said, ‘Am I that good?’ Because I had never been there before. I started questioning myself. That night, I struck out a couple times. The average eventually went from .308 at the time to around .270 — .270 was my comfort zone.’’

The mind is a funny thing. Strong as titanium and malleable as a pipe cleaner. Easily led astray. Prone to doubts and dead-end thoughts. Where had Soderholm gotten the idea that he was a .270 hitter? There’s nothing wrong with hitting .270. It’s a fine average, one many players would gladly accept. But why wasn’t Soderholm able to find comfort in hitting .300? Why did he run away when he got there?

Later in life, he meditated on the subject. It brought him back to a moment in 1968, as a 19-year-old in his first year of pro ball. He had hit a two-run homer to help the Class A

Orlando Twins win a playoff game, and the team was celebrating. The manager, Ralph Rowe, took him aside.

“He said, ‘Kid, I watched you all year. I think you’re going to be a major-league player someday,’ ’’ Soderholm says. “The light went off in my head: Wouldn’t that be great if I could be a major-league baseball player? Then he said, ‘It wouldn’t surprise me if you end up being a .270 hitter and pop a lot of home runs.’ And again, the light went off in my head: Wow, wouldn’t that be great? I identified with that. He planted that seed in me, and I accepted that seed as the truth.’’

He hit .264 in his nine-year career.

Another defining moment for Soderholm came with the Sox in 1978. He was in a terrible slump and came to the plate at Comiskey Park with the bases loaded and two outs. He struck out without swinging his bat. By the time he got to the dugout, he was robed in boos.

“After the game, the reporters are in my face — ‘What’s the matter with you, man? You’re hitting .204 and you’ve got four homers. Last year, you hit .280 with 25 homers. What’s up?’ ’’ he says. “I just said, ‘Get away from me.’ I was so in hell, so depressed and so down. I didn’t even take a shower.’’

Soderholm throws out the first pitch before a little league all-star game in 2009.
Jon Langham/For the Sun-Times

He went home and got ready to slice some salami for a postgame meal. He looked at the eight-inch knife in his hand.

“I thought, ‘I could slice my finger here bad enough to where I’d need stitches. I wouldn’t be able to play. It’d give me a chance to reset, get out of the lineup for a while,’ ’’ he says.

“I came this close — this close — to doing that. I didn’t do it because I remembered that the next day I had an appearance at Illinois Masonic Hospital. I had promised I’d go over there and sign autographs for kids who were dying of cancer.’’

When he arrived, children with dark rings under their eyes and smiles on their faces greeted him. Here was a big-league ballplayer visiting them and signing photos. The joyful looks on their faces said, what cancer?

Then Soderholm played wheelchair basketball with kids who were paralyzed from the waist down. When the game was over, he got up out of his chair. They didn’t from theirs.

“I got God-smacked,’’ he says. “It was like, ‘Wake up. Any one of these kids would give anything to be in your shoes.’ That was the message. It was very clear. It came through the back of my head.’’

After that experience, he bounced back in a big way on the field. He hit 17 of his 20 home runs after early June and saw his average jump from .200 to .258.

“I give credit to those kids,’’ he says. “That day literally saved my season.’’

“Saved your life,’’ Misty says.

In addition to the hypnosis and biofeedback he had experimented with, Soderholm wrote poetry. Sox broadcaster Jimmy Piersall ripped him for all of it during one game, wondering very much out loud what the game was coming to.

In June 1979, the Sox traded Soderholm to Texas for Ed Farmer and Gary Holle. After the season, the Rangers sent him to the Yankees for cash and two minor-leaguers.

He had a nice season in New York, hitting .287 with 11 homers in 95 games, but a fifth knee surgery told him to think about a new line of work. At 31, his career was over.

His body might have failed him, but his sense of self was humming along.

“I had an ego as big as anything,’’ he says. “Everyone was saying [he speaks in a falsetto], ‘Oh, Eric. Oh, Eric. You’re so good. I love you so much.’ ’’

***

Soderholm did what a lot of former ballplayers do. He started running baseball camps for kids and opened a hitting school. But it wasn’t enough. It didn’t challenge him.

Looking for tickets to a 1983 Michael Jackson concert put him on another path. He went through a ticket broker, who, unlike a scalper, was legally allowed to sell tickets for a profit.

“I get down there, and the guy’s phone is lit up like a Christmas tree,’’ Soderholm says. “There are tickets everywhere, there’s money everywhere. I said, ‘Can anybody get in this business?’ The broker had recognized me and said, ‘I’ll help you. Make up a business card.’ ’’

So he did. He named his company Front Row Tickets. If you said that SoderWorld was actually built, log by log, by the 1985 Bears and Michael Jordan, you wouldn’t be wrong.

“That business was great,’’ he says. “Two years after I started, the Bears go to the Super Bowl. In the ’90s, the Bulls win six championships. I mean, come on. The timing couldn’t have been any better. Buckets of money were coming in.’’

At one point, he had 100 corporate and 15,000 individual clients. He says he was making as much money as a broker as he did as a player. In his last year in baseball, he made $200,000. All those buckets of money brought him into conflict with White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and others who didn’t like the idea of brokers selling their tickets for gain. The two men stopped talking to each other. The Illinois Senate considered legislation banning the resale of tickets for a profit, but a coalition of brokers led by Soderholm got it killed.

He was merely ahead of his time. Teams eventually started reselling their tickets on the secondary market, and StubHub became a huge player in the ticket-exchange business. With those two developments, the writing was on the wall for Soderholm’s business.

But even when he was making big money as a broker, he began to lose any feelings of fulfillment that had come with it. His daughter, meanwhile, had become immersed in massage therapy and energy healing in the mid-1990s. When she was 20, she called home to announce that she was going to work for Deepak Chopra in Carlsbad, California.

Chopra . . . Chopra . . . did he play for the Padres, Eric wanted to know.

No, he’s a spiritual guru who has written books about health, healing and discovering your true self, she said.

“The very next day, I was flipping through the channels and saw him on Channel 11 PBS,’’ Soderholm says. “He was doing his gig, talking about his work and tapes. I couldn’t really understand him because he had that heavy Indian accent. But there was something he was saying that resonated with me.

“I bought his book, and I bought his tape series called ‘The Higher Self.’ That’s what started my journey. I was 52. It became almost obsessive with me. At 3 in the morning, I would wake up. You wouldn’t have to set the alarm. Every night for three years. When I got up, I’d just flip on my light, and I’d read. I read a lot of his stuff. Then I went into Wayne Dyer’s stuff, then Caroline Myss’ stuff. Then Marianne Williamson talked about the force of miracles.

“Then ‘The Way of Mastery.’ It just kept feeding me, feeding me, feeding me with more stuff. Then one day, I just kind of woke up three years later and said, ‘You know what, when the seeking stops, the being can become.’ ”

What does that phrase mean? It’s deep enough to fit on one of Joe Maddon’s T-shirts.

“It was just a phrase I saw in a book,’’ Soderholm says. “That phrase hit me really hard. I said, I kind of get this intellectually, but all of a sudden, I was able to move it from here to here. I interpreted it as there always has to be a different way of looking at things.’’

Mostly, he started looking at himself. And Misty, in his words, kept watching him like a hawk.

“When she saw me kind of move away from truth, she would call my ass out,’’ he says. “For me, my issues were mostly in the second chakra. We have energy centers, and the second chakra is related to sexuality and stuff — money, survival, chasing money, chasing sex, staying in top physical shape. What I finally found when I got older is that all that stuff that was so important when I was younger, now all of a sudden it’s not so important. What’s important is your connection through the heart with your life partner. Allow them to be who they need to be. You be who you need to be, but be authentic.

“I was never authentic. I was always telling people what they needed to hear. I was just getting tired of my own lies. Somebody would call me for four Cubs tickets when I had Front Row Tickets. I’d say, ‘They’re $200 apiece.’ The guy would say, ‘$200 apiece? What?’ I’d tell them I had $175 [invested] in each of them, that I’d just be making $100 total off the four of them. I was lying through my teeth. I had $85 into each of them. I was raping somebody.

“As my daughter got me on the path and I started reading more and more, I felt more and more uncomfortable doing that. I began to shift that mentality that I had, that ego-based mentality, into an awareness that I was way more than this physical body.’’

Annie Costabile/Sun-Times

SoderWorld opened in 1997 in a 1,000-square-foot space at a strip mall in Willowbrook. Eric and Misty found the land that the business sits on now when a woman arrived late for a massage, saying that MapQuest had led her to a vacant lot off Route 83 and Nielson Lane. A realtor who heard the exchange said his company was the listing agent for the property.

“Synchronicity,’’ Soderholm says.

The A-frame main building was finished in 2004. The classes began soon after. More and more feet began walking the path around the pond.

There is one question that hangs over the garden: Would elite, ultracompetitive athletes benefit from what the Soderholms are teaching? Would they lose that which drives them?

“It’s like Michael Jordan almost, when you look at the level he played, he was in a Zen state,’’ says Misty, 44. “Phil Jackson talked about all that stuff in his books. He applied a lot of this stuff into their training and did meditation with them. I do think a player like Michael Jordan tapped into this kind of stuff in order to be at that level. So who knows where my dad could have been if he knew about all of this.’’

Recently, the Mets’ manager and one of his players had a loud, ugly incident with one of the team’s beat writers. The same day, Cubs catcher Willson Contreras got into a shouting match with Braves catcher Tyler Flowers, leading to both teams’ benches emptying onto the field.

So the same question put another way: Are Gandhi and cranial sacral therapy compatible with the macho world of baseball?

“Baseball is macho,’’ Soderholm says. “It is very highly competitive. It’s very ego-based, cutthroat — I’m going to beat you. What we teach here is that we’re really all connected, and we’re really learning from each other. I’d like to think I would be better because of all this, but to be in that world, you’ve got to have that intensity. If you don’t have that intensity, I’m not 100 percent sure that you’re going to be better. I don’t know. I just don’t know.’’

What he does know is peace. He says he lives it.

Oh, and he and Reinsdorf have made up.

“I did an appearance for him at one of the SoxFests,’’ he says. “I told him I wanted to apologize for our differences. He said, ‘Don’t even worry about, it’s in the past.’ ’’

If only the world could work in the same way, he thinks.

“We humans have been battling each other for thousands of years,’’ he says. “When are we going to learn it doesn’t work? We need more stuff like this.’’

He nods at his garden, where the swans are swimming. It’s a long, long way from the past.