Former Boston College baseball captain and ALS awareness advocate Pete Frates will be honored at the 21st Oldtime Baseball Game on Monday night. (Conor Ryan/WEEI.com)
Pete Frates is no stranger to the Oldtime Baseball Game.
Just a few months after the initial news that the former Boston College baseball captain was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – also known as Lou Gehrig‘s disease — Frates took part in the baseball charity event, taking the field at first base before exiting after one pitch.
What happened next was a moment that still is ingrained in the minds of many who attended, including Boston Herald columnist and Oldtime Baseball Game co-founder Steve Buckley.
“Something really cool happened when Pete came out of the game,” Buckley said. “Every single player, and you can’t plan this, every single player on both teams came out of the dugout and embraced Pete at first base. Every single player shook hands with him or patted him on the back or gave him one of the fist-bumps. Every single player.”
It was the type of reception expected for someone like Frates, who — despite battling a horrific ailment that has sapped him of his voice and mobility — has remained vigilant in his goal of raising awareness of ALS.
Now, two years later, Frates is expected back at St. Peter’s Field in North Cambridge, as the 29-year-old will be honored during the 21st annual Oldtime Baseball Game on Monday night.
“It’s just funny how things happen. … This game holds a very special part of our whole family’s lives. … It’s such a wonderful event in and of itself,” said Pete’s mother, Nancy Frates. “It celebrates baseball, and if there’s anything that my son loves — other than his family, his wife, and his friends — it’s baseball. It’s the subtleties of the game, it’s the history and the strategy of the game that all comes into play here, and that’s all that Pete always loved about the game.”
Sports always seemed to come natural for Frates, as the Beverly native made plays on the baseball diamond, football field and hockey rink at St. John’s Prep in Danvers before beginning his collegiate career at BC in 2004.
Frates forged an impressive career for himself at The Heights, leading the Eagles in home runs during both his junior and senior seasons. The center fielder set a BC record for most RBIs in a single game during his senior campaign, driving in eight runs against Maryland on April 14, 2007.
While Frates’ skills on the field were evident from looking at the box score, it was his drive and positive personality that stuck out to most of his teammates and coaches at BC.
“I think there’s a lot of good memories, but I think the overall arching thing that you remember about Pete as a player was his character, his toughness, his work ethic, his integrity,” said Boston College baseball coach Mike Gambino, who served as BC’s assistant coach for Frates’ first two seasons with the team. “All those things, combined, is what made him so universally respected by all his teammates and it made him such a great leader on the baseball field and the diamond when he was in college.”
After college, Frates remained active in baseball, playing for the HSV Stealers in the German Baseball League and locally for the Lexington Blue Sox of the Intercity Baseball League.
The first signs of trouble began to surface during his final stretch of games with Lexington. After being hit in the wrist with a pitch, Frates grew concerned when the injury seemed to linger for months, eventually leading him to reach out to a doctor for testing. It was then, in March 2012, that the then-27-year-old received the crushing news that he was stricken with the deadly neurodegenerative disease.
The prognosis was grim. Most people only live 2-5 years after being diagnosed with ALS. The only drug available for ALS treatment has shown to generate positive results, but it only extends the patient’s survival by another 2-3 months.
Despite receiving the shocking news, Frates immediately began to shift gears. His baseball career may have reached its end, but a new mission began.
Frates immediately began looking for ways to spread the word about the dangers of the disease. Two years after his diagnosis, Frates found the effective (and chilly) avenue that he needed to get his message out on a global scale.
Frates was one of the driving forces behind the ice bucket challenge, which has been shared, retweeted and forwarded to almost every crevice of social media over the last month. He got the idea — which involves having someone pour a bucket of ice water on their head and challenging others to perform the same act within 24 hours or make a donation to an ALS organization or charity — from New Yorker Patrick Quinn, who also suffers from ALS and meets with Frates whenever he’s in Boston for medical treatment.
The challenge’s simple message and grassroots campaign quickly helped spur its growth over the last few weeks. What originally began with just a few videos of Frates’ friends and family taking part in the event has evolved into a worldwide phenomenon that has seen people such as George W. Bush, LeBron James, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey and countless others post videos of themselves participating in the icy task.
While the ice bucket challenge has been an undisputed success, Gambino made a point to say that the real purpose of the challenge is not to laugh at celebrities pouring freezing water over their heads — it’s about spreading the word regarding a horrible disease that affects up to 30,000 people in the United States.
“Pete’s dad, John, probably summed it up better than I could,” Gambino said. “We were having dinner last week and he said, ‘For two years, we’ve been doing everything we can to try to raise awareness. Who knew that all we needed was a bucket of ice.’ The ice bucket challenge is awesome, and the money that it’s raising for ALS research, all over the country, is amazing. The thing that we all have to remember is that the Ice Bucket Challenge wasn’t the point. The point is finding a cure for ALS, getting more funding and more research going to this disease.”
Even though ALS has rendered him unable to talk, Frates has ensured that millions of others have been speaking and acting on his behalf through the ice bucket challenge, and the impact of the event has completely shattered expectations.
Tufts pitcher Tim Superko takes part in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge during the Oldtime Baseball Game’s media day last Monday at St. Peter’s Field. (Conor Ryan/WEEI.com)
As of Friday, the ALS Association received $53.3 million in donations from July 29-Aug. 21. Over that same stretch last year, the group received $2.2 million.
While Nancy Frates acknowledged that the social media frenzy revolving around the challenge will not last forever, she said that page views or tweets were never the focus.
“Will the social media phenomenon stop? Well, probably,” she said, adding: “The most important piece is the ripple effect. … So maybe that social media, pouring ice over the head, might wane, but I do believe that the ripple effect from it is going to change the trajectory of the disease and live on.”
Despite the massive success of the ice bucket challenge, “Team FrateTrain” is not stopping anytime soon, as this year’s Oldtime Baseball Game marks just the latest event to be impacted by Frates’ mission.
This year, proceeds from the game will go to both the ALS Therapy Development Institute of Cambridge and the Pete Frates #3 Fund, which supports Frates and his family by both helping to cover his rising medical bills and allowing his friends and family to continue his goal of spreading the word about ALS.
Keeping with the “FrateTrain” theme, many of Frates’ former high school and college teammates and coaches are expected to take the field Monday as the home team for the baseball exhibition. Participants will include Gambino, Boston College senior pitcher John Gorman and former MLB player Matt Antonelli, who played alongside Frates at St. John’s Prep.
“I think he’s one of the strongest people that maybe anyone has ever seen,” Antonelli said. “The way that he’s been able to deal with this — getting a bad break. He really hasn’t stopped from the moment that he found out. … I’m not surprised at what he’s been able to do at all, because that’s the type of person he is, but it’s been remarkable.”
In recognition of his efforts to raise awareness for ALS, Frates will become the fifth recipient of the Greg Montalbano Award during Monday’s game. Named in honor of the former Red Sox minor leaguer who passed away at 31 after battling cancer, the award is given to a former Oldtime Baseball Game player who best represents Montalbano’s drive, tenacity and sportsmanship.
Entering its 21st incarnation, the Oldtime Baseball Game was originally thought of during the 1994 MLB strike as a way to rekindle interest in the old days of America’s Pastime, when various semipro leagues would attract hundreds of fans to local ballparks for competitive matches between rival towns or neighborhoods.
As part of the “Oldtime” tradition of the game, every player dons a vintage uniform, with St. Louis Browns, Homestead Grays and Boston Braves jerseys filling the diamond at first pitch.
“It was supposed to be a one-shot deal in 1994,” Buckley said. “It kind of happened on the fly. … Then we had a second game, and with each step along the way it attracts more and more people. It’s really quite organic. Very rarely have we ever called anybody, said, ‘Can you do this for us?’ People just seem to be attracted to it, because it’s a celebration of baseball and it’s baseball front porch on a warm summer evening.
“It’s a chance to take the past and the present and morph them into one. … To try to recreate some of that old-time fervor, we got everybody showing up to see old-style uniforms. If you go to our game and you see 1,500 people crowded up and down the foul lines to watch these guys in those uniforms, it’s awesome.”
Nancy Frates, Pete’s mother, stands next to former MLB player and St. John’s graduate Matt Antonelli and Oldtime Baseball Game co-founder Steve Buckley at the event’s Media Day last Monday. (Conor Ryan/WEEI.com)
The conclusion of Monday’s game and the eventual end of the ice bucket challenge does not signify the end of Frates’ efforts, as the ALS awareness spokesman has plenty of goals for the future. One of Frates’ new objectives is speaking with MLB officials in an effort to have every July 4 game be recognized as an ALS Awareness Game in honor of Lou Gehrig‘s famous farewell speech that he delivered at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939.
While Frates may not boast the baseball resume that the Iron Horse built for himself during his 17-year career, Buckley said that it’s easy to make the connection between the two ballplayers — both of whose lives were irrevocably affected by ALS.
“To quote Lou Gehrig, ‘That I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.’ … Who better to embody the spirit of Lou Gehrig than Pete Frates, who has accepted the challenge of ALS,” Buckley said. “Every story I’ve ever heard about Pete as a team captain, both at hockey and baseball on every level in which he ever played … he was the guy that brought everyone together. It’s been an honor to see Pete in action as an ALS spokesman the last couple of years, and we will find a cure for ALS — and I can guarantee you, we will find a cure for ALS quicker than we would have otherwise because of people like Pete Frates.”
Life may have delivered Frates a curveball, but as he’s displayed throughout his life — both on and off the diamond — a new challenge has done little to stall the Frate Train.
“He said that he now knew what his mission in life was, and that was to impact the ALS community — the ALS research, the misunderstanding about ALS and the underfunding of ALS,” Nancy Frates said. “Boy, how many of us get to say that we set a goal for ourselves and then we actually almost achieve it? The treatment and cure is of course the ultimate goal. But for him to have inspired this incredible phenomenon is overwhelming to say the least, but not that surprising to those who know him.”
When he returns to St. Peter’s Field on Monday, Frates won’t be able to take the field and play with his fellow friends and teammates, but his presence will be immeasurable. Frates’ body and voice might have been weakened by ALS, but his mind — and his drive to finish this tireless mission — remain stronger than ever.
“What he would say right now?” Nancy Frates responded when asked what Pete would say if he was able to speak again. ” ‘What’s next?’ ”
For more information on the game, visit www.oldtimebaseball.com.