MLB celebrates 2nd annual Lou Gehrig Day
When the Ice Bucket Challenge was all the rage in 2014, Sam Hilliard followed the lead of millions of people around the world, posting a video of himself dumping a bucket of ice water over his head in an effort to raise awareness for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.
ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, seemed like a good cause, but Hilliard didn’t really know much about the disease that had sparked this viral sensation.
Last September, the Rockies pitcher lost his father, Jim, to ALS, a disease with which he is now intimately familiar.
“It still feels like there's a lot of people that really aren't truly aware of the impact that this disease has,” Hilliard said. “I didn't really know what I was doing. But after being impacted firsthand with my family … you want everyone else to kind of get a better understanding of what it's like.”
Hilliard will join the rest of Major League Baseball on Thursday to celebrate the second annual Lou Gehrig Day, remembering the man whose impact went far beyond the world of baseball.
Stephen Piscotty also knows the pain of losing a loved one to ALS, having lost his mother, Gretchen, in May 2018 -- just one year after she had been diagnosed. He launched the ALS CURE Project in 2019, raising more than $1 million for ALS research since its inception.
“It's a huge deal,” Piscotty said of Lou Gehrig Day. “I think a lot of people in the community look forward to it every year. It’s an incredible thing. It was awesome last year, and we're looking forward to it again this year. It's given our charity some steam, some power to get out there and raise [money]. We're looking to continue that until we don't have to raise. That is the goal.”
MLB held a virtual press conference Wednesday in advance of Thursday’s activities surrounding Lou Gehrig Day, bringing together a number of individuals connected to baseball who have been directly impacted by ALS.
Tim Kurkjian, a Hall of Fame baseball writer and broadcaster for ESPN, was touched by ALS last fall when his brother, Matt, was diagnosed with the disease. Matt was a standout at Division III Catholic University in the 1970s, so weeks after he was diagnosed, the school’s head baseball coach invited him to throw out the first pitch -- prior to a road game at Mount St. Mary’s.
“Here's a guy from the visiting team and they allowed him to throw out the first ball,” Kurkjian said, demonstrating the heart and power of the baseball community. Despite a lack of strength in multiple fingers, Matt was up to the task. “My brother was so honored. He walked to the mound, and on the dirt in front of the rubber, he threw an athletic strike to the plate. It was one of the greatest things I've ever seen.”
After the pitch, Matt turned to see his family wearing the same jersey he had on, with “M. Kurkjian” and No. 2 on the back. As he turned around, he then saw all 47 Catholic players and coaches sporting the same jersey.
“That's the first time I'd ever seen my brother cry since this ordeal began four months earlier,” Kurkjian said. “He was so touched by what Coach Ross Natoli did for him. It wasn't just a personal moment; it was a baseball moment. I will never forget that.”
Thursday, Matt Kurkjian will take the lineup card out to home plate at Camden Yards, just one of a number of pregame ceremonies that will take place around the league involving the participation by the ALS community.
Jon “Boog” Sciambi was the moderator for Wednesday’s press conference, a fitting role given his own intimate involvement with ALS. Sciambi lost a lifelong friend, Tim Sheehy, to the disease in 2007, prompting him to launch Project Main Street, which helps aid ALS patients and their families with their financial burden.
Sciambi, a broadcaster for both ESPN and the Marquee Sports Network, pointed out that one of sports’ greatest honors came as a direct result of Gehrig’s diagnosis.
“It's Lou Gehrig Day; he’s one of the greatest players in the history of our sport,” Sciambi said. “He's the first number retired in professional sports, so effectively you can make the case that the reason we have retired numbers in all of pro sports is because Lou Gehrig got ALS.”
Each home club will display “4-ALS” logos in its ballpark on Thursday, while all players, managers and coaches will wear a special “Lou Gehrig Day” patch on their uniforms. Red “4-ALS” wristbands will also be available to be worn in-game. Clubs that are off or on the road Thursday will have the opportunity to observe Lou Gehrig Day at their own ballparks on a separate date.
MLB and the Lou Gehrig Day Committee have selected the Sean M. Healey and AMG Center for ALS at Massachusetts General Hospital as the beneficiary for all charitable fundraising efforts centralized out of the Commissioner’s Office. Clubs will continue to work directly with, and fundraise for, national or local organizations that they have historically supported. Fans can also donate directly to the Healey Center for ALS at MLB.com/4ALS.
Beginning Thursday, MLB will run a special charitable auction at https://auctions.mlb.com to benefit the Healey Center for ALS. The auction will feature 30 autographed and authenticated Lou Gehrig Day Commemorative Baseballs (one for each club) as well as a “Priceless" New York Yankees experience sponsored by Mastercard and sALSa (Spreading ALS Awareness) for a Cure. The experience includes an opportunity for 10 people to attend a private meal with a former Yankees player on Aug. 19 before attending that night’s game at Yankee Stadium.
Phil Green, a former University of Washington football player, was part of the committee that helped make Lou Gehrig Day a reality.
“Lou died 81 years ago on June 2. Had Lou been alive today and received a diagnosis of ALS, his prognosis would be almost identical to what it was over 80 years ago,” said Green, who was diagnosed with ALS in August 2018. “In a world where we're putting men on the moon and civilians in space, it's really sad that we haven't had much progress in this disease since Lou Gehrig was diagnosed.”
On the flip side, Green said that last year’s inaugural Lou Gehrig Day resulted in something more than raising awareness and funds for ALS research: it gave those dealing with the disease a chance to celebrate each other.
“It became an amazing day for the ALS community to come together and celebrate people living with ALS, and honor the people that had passed from ALS, the caregivers, the clinicians, the researchers that spend their days trying to serve people with ALS,” Green said. “It almost has become the day of the year that ALS people get to come together and as a community celebrate one another as well as Lou Gehrig.”
Chris Snow was a Red Sox beat writer for the Boston Globe before taking a sharp left turn in his career, joining the NHL’s Minnesota Wild as director of hockey operations. He went on to become an assistant general manager for the Calgary Flames, but in June 2019, he was diagnosed with ALS -- the same disease that had taken two uncles, a cousin and his own father.
Three years later, Snow -- whose wife, Kelsie, was a Twins beat writer for the St. Paul Pioneer Press -- is still working for the Flames thanks to a clinical drug trial that has helped him beat his initial prognosis of 6-to-12 months.
“This is progress,” Snow said. “Sadly, this progress is not enough because the drug I’m on only applies to two percent of cases and essentially represents the only significant progress in this disease. … I want to thank Major League Baseball for this day. It is truly one of the great days on the calendar, June 2.”
“Days like this really help the broader community outside of ALS, and the sports community, which wants to pull together,” Kelsie said. “Sports people want to help sports people, whether it's hockey or baseball, and this is our chance to bring them in. It's a big chance, and we don't take it lightly.”