Commentary

Peter Frates shows fighting spirit

Ex-Boston College baseball player sees ALS diagnosis as challenge, opportunity

Updated: June 22, 2012, 10:42 AM ET
By Brion O'Connor | Special to ESPNBoston.com

One of the endearing, and enduring, traits of baseball is that there's no clock. Games aren't measured in 48 minutes like basketball, or 60 minutes like football and hockey, or 90 minutes like soccer. To win, you need to get 27 outs, more if the game goes into extra innings.

That's why baseball is a game in which hope springs eternal. That's one of the reasons former Boston College captain Peter Frates loves the game, and one of the key reasons the 27-year-old from Beverly, Mass., believes he has a fighting chance against a disease considered by many to be a death sentence, ALS.

I still feel good about getting up in the morning and attacking the day.

-- Peter Frates, ALS patient and former Boston College baseball player

"That's who he was as a player, and that's who he is as a person, and that's how he is going into the biggest competition of his life versus ALS," said Peter Hughes, the former BC baseball coach who recruited Frates. "He's got the foundation and the skill set to do it. I would never count that kid out."

More commonly known as Lou Gehrig disease (after the New York Yankees slugger who first gave ALS a public face), amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is a disease that attacks motor neurons of the brain and nervous system. There is no known cause or cure for ALS. Although some people have survived for 20 years after diagnosis, most succumb within five years. But there is hope.

"We are very close to figuring out ALS, and I wouldn't say that if I didn't fully believe it," said Dr. Merit Cudkowicz, chief of neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital and Frates' physician. "Compared to 10 years ago, when there were 100 or 200 people going to meetings, now there are thousands of scientists and people studying this illness. It's like a big puzzle, and the pieces are being put together in an accelerated way. This is the time when we need people like Peter and other patients going out and raising awareness."

The irony that he's been stricken with a disease best known for stealing one of the game's greatest players is not lost on Frates, a baseball lifer. But what gets the former BC center fielder fired up is that three-quarters of a century has passed since Gehrig succumbed to the disease at age 37.

"He was a guy who faced it head on. Even back 75 years ago, he was a very positive guy and bowed out graciously, as we all know from his famous speech in 1939," Frates said. "And his legacy has lived on with everybody who's been diagnosed. For us, 75 years later after that speech, to still be without a cure and still be without effective treatment, that's just unacceptable."

Though Frates' words are measured, there's no doubting his commitment. Those who know him best are quick to mention his indomitable spirit and competitive nature, characteristics that made him a natural leader in the BC dugout.

"Nothing ever got that kid down," said Hughes, now the head coach at Virginia Tech. "It was always a positive spin. He's never going to change, and that's how he is with this disease. Pete never thinks that he doesn't have a chance to win or that something positive isn't going to come out of this. That's who he is."

A natural leader

Sports lore, sadly, is filled with tales of tragedy, of careers that ended too soon, of young athletes lost too early.

Perhaps the most fitting corollary to Frates' story, as sacrilegious as it might sound to BC supporters, is Aristotle George "Harry" Agganis. Agganis, "The Golden Greek," also was a product of Boston's North Shore, born and raised in Lynn before becoming a two-sport star -- football and baseball -- at Boston University.

The Red Sox trumped the Cleveland Browns in a bidding war for Agganis after his graduation in 1953. But in June 1955, during his second year with the Sox, Agganis fell victim to a pulmonary embolism, just two months past his 26th birthday.

[+] EnlargePete Frates
Courtesy of Boston College Media Relations Peter Frates played four seasons at Boston College and was the captain his senior year.

Like Agganis, Frates was a multisport star while growing up in Beverly, and he continued to make his mark at the playing fields of St. John's Prep in neighboring Danvers.

"People don't know what a great football player Pete was," said Jim O'Leary, St. John's athletic director and Frates' football coach. "People think of him as a baseball player, but he was playing at the highest levels of hockey and football."

Frates was a two-year starter for the Prep's football squad, considered by O'Leary to be "one of the most outstanding teams we've ever had here."

Hockey, however, was his true love. "I was first and foremost a hockey guy," said Frates, the Prep's captain his senior season. "I played 10 times more hockey than baseball. It just kind of shook out that I was better at baseball."

His hard-charging, hell-bent-for-leather style caught the eye of Hughes, and Frates was soon swapping out the blue-and-white St. John's Eagles uniform for the maroon-and-gold of the BC Eagles.

"[Hockey coach] Jerry York didn't call. Pete Hughes called," Frates said, laughing. "I knew I wanted to go to BC, and when Pete called and asked if I wanted to play baseball, it was a no-brainer."

Both of Frates' parents -- Nancy and John -- went to Boston College, as did an aunt and uncle. It was, he said, his "dream school." For Hughes and the BC baseball team, Frates was a rough-cut gem. He was fast and an excellent defensive outfielder who could occasionally hit for power (his senior year, he set a BC record with eight RBIs against Maryland, including a grand slam). But above all else, he was a leader.

"He played the game hard, he played with unbelievable energy. He absolutely loved to compete," Hughes said. "Those are all character traits we needed to turn our program around at Boston College. I needed positive people who were tough and who played like crazy. And that's what Pete was."

Man with a mission

The first indication that something was amiss with Frates' health came after he was hit in the left wrist by a pitch while playing Intercity League ball with the Lexington Blue Sox last summer. When the injury didn't heal, he went to see Dr. Seward Rutkove at Boston's Beth Israel Hospital. Rutkove picked up on other warning signs, including twitching, difficulty running and a general decline in Frates' energy level.

"The day of the formal [diagnosis], I was already accepting it because I had these symptoms for a while," Frates said. "I stumbled upon an ALS website a couple of months before, and there was a list of about a dozen symptoms on the front page. I went through those and had 10 of them."

Today, less than three months since his formal diagnosis, Frates has become a one-man public relations machine combating ALS. According to Cudkowicz, there are almost 30,000 people living with the disease in this country, and roughly 5,000 new cases diagnosed annually, though only 15 percent occur in patients younger than 40. Early detection, she said, is critical.

"It can take 12 months from the first symptom and when they're told they have the illness," Cudkowicz said. "That's a challenge because we think for our treatments to work, we need to get them to people as early as possible.

"That's another thing that awareness can do, getting the word out so people will go to the doctor if they're developing these symptoms," she said. "We don't want to scare people, but we don't want people to wait."

Waiting isn't Frates' style. Once he got the diagnosis, he immediately took up the cause, telling Cudkowicz, "I'm a unique patient; pretty young, big and strong. I told her, 'I'll be your guinea pig. Do whatever you need to do.' "

Family members have set up the Peter Frates No. 3 Fund to help defray medical costs and a website (petefrates.com) that features not only a video blog but also a list of ALS organizations.

"It's everything now. It's my life's work. It's what I believe the big man upstairs has put me here to do," Frates said. "It's a typical clichéd story of a college kid who graduates. I stopped playing baseball and tried to find my lot in life and find out what my passion was. I was in my mid-20s, still trying to find my true calling. It's a tough way to figure it out, but I know what I'm here to do now. "

"That's just been my main focus since this started happening, to be a positive influence for other people who have the disease, be a positive influence for family and friends," he said. "At the end of the day, I want to be the cliché game-changer. I want to be the guy who shifts everyone's thinking and shifts where the funds are going. Selfishly, I want to give myself a chance but also give a lot of other people opportunity as well."

Back to school

Frates also keeps giving back to his school. After graduating in 2007, he continued to pitch in on a volunteer basis. But baseball head coach Mike Gambino, after hearing that Frates could no longer keep his sales job and was placed on long-term disability, approached BC athletic director Gene DeFilippo with the idea of putting Frates on his staff. DeFilippo, said Gambino, replied, "Awesome idea. Love it. Get it done."

The next day, Frates was hired. His official title is director of baseball operations. He does a little bit of everything, from coaching to making travel arrangements. He also is the driving force behind the BC baseball mentor program, which brings back former players to discuss life after college.

[+] EnlargePete Frates
Boston College Media Relations As part of the ALS Awareness Day ceremonies on April 28, Peter Frates (hand on framed jersey), the team's current director of baseball operations, was presented a framed jersey from his playing days.

"I am so lucky to have him as part of our program and to have him around every day," Gambino said. "Our boys are so lucky to have him as a resource. In a lousy situation, we are so lucky to have him around. We have a real live hero in our program, in our dugout, every day.

"People say to me all the time, 'It's really cool what you guys are doing for Pete.' My response is, 'I think it's awesome what Pete's doing for us.' "

Kyle Prohovich, a tri-captain on last year's BC squad, said Frates' greatest gift, despite having an unquestioned gift of gab, is leading by example.

"He's an inspiration," Prohovich said. "There are times when I've really been down over the course of my career, there are times when I feel sorry for myself. I look at Pete, and the stuff he's had to go through, and I know I can't feel sorry for myself. I have to keep pushing myself to get better because he's bringing so much more to the table. He makes you rise to the challenge."

In typical fashion, Frates is keeping his eye on the prize -- the College World Series. Getting the Eagles to Omaha, he said, would be a huge accomplishment for a program that finished 22-33 (10-20 in the ACC) this season and dispel a number of stereotypes that plague New England teams.

"A few years ago, we were in the regional against Texas and played them in the longest game of all time in college history," said Frates, referring to a 3-2 Texas win in 25 innings on May 30, 2009. "This year Kent State upset No. 1 Florida, and then you see Stony Brook knocking off LSU and getting all the way to Omaha.

"That's the thing about baseball; on any given day, anybody can take a game. It's a game of momentum and confidence. Kent State and Stony Brook both had over 45 wins. So they're playing with a tremendous amount of confidence. That's what I'm trying to help out with Mike, and trying to instill in our guys: 'You're all Division I players. You're all playing on the same 90-foot diamond. So why not us?' "

'A galvanizing force'

On May 30, Frates was invited to toss the ceremonial first pitch at Fenway Park as part of Major League Baseball's ALS Awareness Day. Throwing with his damaged left hand, he bounced the ball to Kevin Youkilis of the Red Sox.

It was a poignant moment because Frates didn't dwell on failing to reach home plate. Instead, he focused on the dozens of family members and friends who crowded into the stands to support him and his fight against a terrible disease.

[+] EnlargeFenway First Pitch
Courtesy of Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox Frates threw out the first pitch before the Red Sox's May 30 game, as part of Major league Baseball's ALS Awareness Day.

"He's been a galvanizing force for others," said Notre Dame baseball coach Mik Aoki, a former BC assistant and head coach. "Everyone wants to do their fair share, everyone wants to pull their weight in support of Pete. And that just speaks to the person Pete is. He's got a legion of people who love him and care for him and are willing to do anything for him."

For Frates, the gut-wrenching diagnosis has opened his eyes to a new community, one that the disease chooses.

"He's such a team guy. All he cares about is winning, and winning for the team," Gambino said. "He didn't care how it affected him statistically. He would do whatever he had to do to help the team win. Now he gets ALS, and his team is the ALS community.

"I mean, he gets Lou Gehrig disease and describes it as a 'great opportunity.' He thinks, 'I'm young, which makes my case special. I have a platform. It's a great opportunity to give some attention to this cause.'

"It's the exact same personality, the exact same way he went about everything," said the BC coach. "It's why his teammates loved him, it's why the coaches loved him, and it's why now everyone is rallying around him."

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