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Former college player fights ALS with courage, dignity

Peter Frates using baseball to raise awareness for Lou Gehrig's Disease

Viewed through the prism of perspective gained when life delivers a blazing fastball high and tight, Peter Frates can say now that he never appreciated being hit by a pitch more.

It was August 2011, and the former Boston College baseball captain was playing for the Lexington Blue Sox in the final series of the season in the Intercity Baseball League, an amateur circuit that has been a tradition in the Boston area for more than 60 years. A veteran of three seasons in the league, along with some time playing in Germany following his college career, Frates was struck in the left wrist with a pitch -- happened before, not that big a deal, played the rest of the game and the season finale the next day.

But months later, the wrist still just wasn't feeling right, and it was among concerns Frates brought to his physician. The news delivered in March of this year both changed his life and struck a chord for someone who'd always played, adored and appreciated baseball.

At age 27, Frates was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, a devastating neurological condition forever associated with the Hall of Famer for having halted his career so abruptly and ended his life so quickly, and early.

A little more than a year since that plunking in the wrist, Frates can't help but put the two events together -- getting hit by a pitch and then being hit with such life-altering news.

"I tell people this all the time now: Baseball is going to save my life -- straight out," Frates said by telephone recently. "I think that for multiple reasons, one being that I was diagnosed and was able to get on experimental medicine much more quickly because a baseball hit me in my wrist and caused some nerve damage."

It's with that perspective, and by viewing the future through a prism of hope and determination, that Frates is taking on ALS, and he wants the world to know about it. He's made it his mission to raise awareness about the disease and drive fund-raising in hopes that better treatments will emerge from ongoing research.

When he first received the diagnosis, Frates found out ALS is a degenerative disease for which there currently is no cure and a life expectancy of just two to five years after it begins damaging the pathways between the brain and a person's muscles. It's a disease that, according to the ALS Association, afflicts 30,000 Americans and strikes all age and ethnic groups.

"I was the worst offender of them all a year ago, in terms of being conscious of what ALS is and what it can do and who it affects," Frates said.

Now, he knows. Now, he wants the world to know.

Gehrig told the world about his condition in his famous July 4, 1939, speech at Yankee Stadium, calling himself the "luckiest man on the face of the earth." Frates, too, feels fortunate, for while there is no cure for ALS and it already is taking a toll on his body, he's a lot better off now than he would have been in the 1930s, or even 10 years ago.

It didn't take any time at all for Frates to shift his energies from shock toward raising awareness.

"It really was instantaneous," said Frates (pronounced FRA-tees). "I just figured, 'What am I going to do?' This disease is going to slow me down and it can wither me away to nothing, so why would I help it? Why not just put on my boots and get to work to make things better not only myself but others in the ALS community?"

In his first summer in memory without playing baseball, Frates stayed close to the game he loves while embarking on that mission. He donned a Red Sox jersey and threw out the ceremonial first pitch at Fenway Park in honor of ALS Awareness Day there, and spent much of the collegiate season with the Boston College team as its director of baseball operations. He also played at first base for one pitch in the annual Oldtime Baseball Game, for which Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington delivered a vintage Red Sox jersey with Frates' No. 3 on it.

Along the way, Frates has built a network of friends and well-wishers who have organized events ranging from a three-on-three basketball tournament to a fishing tournament or just a night out at a pub, all of which raised funds for ALS research.

Through it all, the one aspect of the diagnosis that still haunts Frates is how ALS touches families' lives.

"One of the saddest things for me to see was not the diagnosis for myself but for my parents to be in the room with me when the doctor said for the first time the words Lou Gehrig's Disease and ALS, that was gut-wrenching for me, just to see their reaction," Frates said. "I'd never say I've made my peace with it, but I've accepted it and moved on in terms of, 'How do we get better?' But to see them at a baseline like that and have no time ... they thought I had a banged-up wrist from getting hit by a baseball."

'Peter has been preparing his whole life for this'

Nancy Frates remembers just how hard it was when she and her husband, John, heard the news that their son -- an active, athletic young adult -- was stricken with ALS.

"We became those people, that's how we term it," she said. "We became those people that you hear about that your life changes in a second. It took me awhile, but Pete said right from the beginning, 'There will be no wallowing, there will be no crying. We are going forward with this, and we're going to battle it and we're going to help as many people as we can, and selfishly I can help myself.'"

Six months later, the longtime baseball mom is now turning her energies toward her son's mission. And while she and John always were there, watching with pride and supporting Pete as a baseball player, there's nothing that can top the sense of pride she feels as her son takes on the fight of his life.

"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 said. "It's a note from somebody. It's a smile from somebody. It's just watching Pete. It's a blessing just watching him handle himself. We've been on this journey for six months, and he has just touched and inspired so many people."

Not that it comes to a surprise to his mother. She remembers how he was the 10-year-old on the Majors team in Little League who became captain, somebody who's been a leader his whole life.

"I guess I can say it because I'm his mother: Somehow I feel that Peter has been preparing his whole life for this," she said.

For most of that life, sports have been at the center -- but baseball has always been at the core. Frates played a lot of baseball, but he played football, hockey and lacrosse, too, eventually drawing a comment from his mother that at some point he'd have to choose a sport and go with it.

"He looked at me like I was absolutely crazy. 'Mom, there's no choice -- I'm playing baseball. I'm just having fun playing lacrosse,'" she recalls. "A baseball kid is a baseball kid, a baseball head is a baseball head. They don't just love playing the game. They live the game. They know the history of the game, they have a respect for the game, they have a respect for the talent it takes.

"That has been Pete, all his life. Baseball has been a story for him, it has been a history lesson for him, it has been a joy for him."

'The ultimate team guy'

Mike Gambino has known the depth of Pete Frates' baseball soul for years, having been an assistant coach at Boston College when Frates played there from 2004-07 and remaining friends. He knows him as "the ultimate team guy," the one who'd do anything for the club.

"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