09/28/12 1:13 PM ET
Former college player fights ALS with courage, dignity
Peter Frates using baseball to raise awareness for Lou Gehrig's Disease
By John Schlegel / MLB.com
|"In this absolutely devastating diagnosis, there have been so many blessings my family has been recipient of, and we make sure to note them every day."|
|-- Nancy Frates|
Now the head coach at BC, Gambino stayed in touch with Frates after he'd graduated, talking about what avenues to take in and out of baseball. Then the conversation took a different turn.The Eagles were in South Carolina playing Clemson when Pete called Gambino about coming into his office the next week to chat. That was all pretty normal until Frates got to the part of letting him known he had ALS. "Like most people, I knew it wasn't good, but I didn't know exactly what it meant," Gambino said. "You know it's ALS, you know it's Lou Gehrig's disease, you know it's a bad thing. But I don't think I fully grasped it." Before they met a few days later back home, Gambino did enough research to know what his friend was facing. So he was stunned with Frates' reaction. "He goes, 'I really just think I have a great opportunity here,'" Gambino recalled. "And I'm looking at him like there's no way I heard that right. He says, 'I'm young, I'm in good shape, I'm way younger than the average person with ALS. I think I can have a platform here. I'm going to be the guy that gets people talking about this and gets us moving toward a cure.'" Inspired by his friend's courage and determination, Gambino had an idea: He decided to hire Frates as BC's director of baseball operations, a position that didn't exist but that athletic director Gene DeFilippo approved in a heartbeat. What Gambino and the rest of the BC team found as Frates worked with them in practices and games and traveled on road trips is that they were the ones receiving the benefit, not Pete. "I think it's an awesome lesson for us," Gambino said. "There's the saying that whenever you give something or do something for somebody, you get back twice in return. These lessons that our kids are able to learn and our staff is able to learn from Pete and how he's handling things, these are lessons that are going to stick with us the rest of our lives." And now Frates has the team behind him all the way, as he leads a team of people fighting to strike out ALS. The Eagles held an ALS awareness game last season and plan another one in 2013. They're also having a benefit reception at an alumni gathering Friday following an intrasquad scrimmage and again at a tailgate prior to Saturday's BC football game against Clemson. Go to the baseball section of the official BC athletics web site, and you'll see several reminders of how BC baseball is behind Frates' fight. "Pete's now leading us in this aspect, in this fight to strike out ALS," Gambino said. "His goals are to raise money and raise awareness, and we're following him toward those goals, whatever we can do. When somebody in your family needs something, you rally around that person, and that's what our program is doing around Pete." ALS has baseball written all over it Each day, Frates has his devoted girlfriend, Julie, help him get dressed. The disease certainly has taken its toll on his body already, but he maintains a busy schedule of meetings and events to continue his quest to raise awareness about the disease that is gradually damaging his neurological system. Each day, Frates brushes himself off from this knockdown pitch and marches toward first base with purpose. Not surprisingly, it was baseball itself that helped get Frates marching in the right direction. In the days and weeks after the diagnosis, he says, he couldn't get enough baseball. He was drawn to it. "Obviously, thinking about what you've just been told, it kind of sucks," Frates said. "So I found myself at any and every baseball game I could find. I was watching games and I didn't even care who was playing. The rhythm of the game, the peacefulness of the park, all of that was really helping get me through the first couple of months, for sure." Now, Frates hopes baseball can do more for him and the rest of the ALS community. He's talking to everyone he can, meeting with Red Sox and members of the Yawkey Foundations, including BC alum and former Red Sox CEO John Harrington, to see what more he can do to convince baseball to do about the disease. On July 4, 2009, Major League Baseball commemorated the 70th anniversary of Gehrig's farewell speech in all 30 ballparks, and the 4ALS Awareness campaign began, partnering with the ALS Association and other outreach groups. Since then, MLB has asked clubs to raise awareness each year by dedicating a day during the regular season to fighting ALS, and for those events, the clubs partner with a local association -- for instance, the Red Sox work with ALS Therapy Development Institute. Frates hopes that baseball can continue to enhance its efforts to raise awareness for ALS much the way the sport has shined a spotlight on breast cancer, prostate cancer and led the way in the Stand Up To Cancer movement. To Frates, ALS has baseball written all over it. The ribbon commemorating ALS awareness has Yankees pinstripes, and the disease is known for having afflicted one of the game's greats. "I'm not putting this on baseball -- Lou Gehrig's name's on it," Fratessaid. "You could put him on anybody's list and he'd be in the top five. He is the poster child for the disease, so MLB inherently has a connection and a responsibility to this disease, like it or not." As he marches on in his quest to raise awareness, Frates lives his life as best he can. Talking on a September day on his Bluetooth, he can still drive to go fishing, and as long as he's in a relatively stationary position, he feels normal. But Frates' walking has slowed, he sometimes speaks with the slurred speech known as the "ALS accent," and there are times when he could use the calorie boost of an ice-cream sandwich or the like to get moving. He's truly grateful for Julie's help on a daily basis -- without it, he'd probably need about two hours to get ready each day. Day by day, Frates is dealing with the passage of time and the progression of the disease. He figures it probably dates to May or June 2011, he was playing so poorly that season. Frates is grateful for the functions he retains, and hopeful he'll maintain them as long as possible so he can continue to fight to raise awareness. "When I think of where I'm at today vs. what they tell you, that ALS patients typically live two to five years, I'm coming up on 18 months," he said. "If I'm only supposed to live two years, or whatever, I'm feeling pretty good right now. That keeps me going every day." And it keeps his legion of followers in the fight against ALS going, too. Life has thrown him one high and tight, but Peter Frates is keeping his eye on the ball. He has a new team, and he's giving everything he's got to it, like always. "Baseball's a game of adjustments, and so is life," Frates said. "If you're not constantly trying to make yourself better and changing your approach to things, not only are you not going to be a very good baseball player, but you're not going to be successful in life, either."
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.