NEW YORK -- Commissioner Rob Manfred was presented with the Jacob K. Javits Lifetime Achievement Award at the 23rd annual Lou Gehrig Sports Awards Benefit on Thursday night. As he spoke to an audience supporting the ALS Association Greater New York Chapter in the urgent fight against the disease that took Gehrig's life, the parents of Pete Frates watched with reassuring pride from their seats at Manfred's table.
"We're just completely overwhelmed by this whole powerful and impactful thing," John Frates said after the dinner at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. "He's always promised that Major League Baseball owns this disease, and he said it over and over again. Just to bear witness to it tonight, it just blows us away. We're just so gratified. We're all in this together."
Their son, a former Boston College baseball player and diehard Red Sox fan, continues to be a leader in the fight against ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) a few years after co-founding the Ice Bucket Challenge, which raised $225 million and led to important scientific headway in the search for treatment and a cure. This summer, the #MLBFightsALS campaign, which directly supports the ALS Association's new ALS Home Health Initiative, featured a crowdfunding drive to defray family costs and marked the latest example of baseball's sustained commitment to improving the lives of people living with the disease.
Manfred was presented with the award by Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre, MLB's chief baseball officer, who had hosted his own annual fundraising dinner a night earlier. Lou Gehrig Sports Awards also were presented to legendary UConn basketball coach Jim Calhoun, former New York Giants safety Antrel Rolle and former Tennessee Titans linebacker Tim Shaw, who has ALS but delivered a powerful and motivational speech.
"I want to thank the New York chapter of the ALS Association for this great award, but this award is really not about me, it is about the great institution that I represent, which is Major League Baseball," Manfred said in accepting the honor. "After I was elected, one of the first things we did, we talked about what our charitable priorities were going to be, and it tells you something about the institution that it was so high on our list. And one thing that popped right to the top of the list was ALS. Of course, that's because of Lou Gehrig. One of the really iconic moments in the history of our game was his speech in Yankee Stadium.
"That same summer, we did the Ice Bucket Challenge, and we got to meet John and Nancy Frates and Pete, and I'll tell you, for our institution, whatever we put into the Ice Bucket Challenge, we got way more out of it as a result of the relationship that we formed with that great family. More recently, we've joined with the Frates family again to start the Pete Frates Home Health Care Initiative. We understand that this disease is a burden not only for the victims, but also for their families, and understand how important it is to support those families financially and otherwise.
"I don't know when there is going to be a cure for ALS, but I do know one thing, that as long as there's a fight against ALS, Major League Baseball will be a partner in that fight." Torre talked about the retired numbers in Yankee Stadium's Monument Park -- of which his own No. 6 is a part -- and referred to the "quiet strength and great dignity" that was epitomized by No. 4, the Iron Horse.
Torre recalled how he and others in each of MLB's New York departments (and all the clubs) participated in the Ice Bucket Challenge, right after Manfred's election to this post.
"A few days after Rob's election, it really became our staff's collective way to congratulate him on becoming Commissioner," Torre said. "Right out there in the front of our offices on 46th and Park, Rob got the bucket challenge, he got soaked and he was a good sport about it.
"In memory of Lou Gehrig, Rob has remained a devoted member of the fight against ALS. He has worked with the ALS Association, the amazing family of Pete Frates, who was so inspirational, and in recent years there have been some exciting strides in the fight against ALS. But as everyone here knows, the key is to keep it up. It would be a tragedy to let this momentum go awry."
More than 6,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed each year with the progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. The incidence of ALS is two per 100,000 people, and it is estimated that as many as 20,000 Americans are living with ALS at any given time. Most people who develop it are between the ages of 40 and 70, with an average age of 55 at the time of diagnosis.
Torre said Manfred has been determined to keep that "ownership" of ALS that John Frates mentioned, given the connection to Gehrig and the relentless effort by so many.
"From 1939 to 2017, the fight continues. Rob knows that," Torre said. "Rob doesn't want attention, he just wants results. Trust me, I've been around him now since he's been Commissioner, and he doesn't have much patience for people who don't do their job. His commitment to supporting a cure for ALS has been one of the hallmarks of his three years as Commissioner of the national pastime."