By Matt Williams
BEVERLY — Pete Frates wants people to know that, all things considered, he feels pretty good.
Eight weeks removed from being formally diagnosed with ALS, he's attacking the disease with the same contagious, positive energy that made him a leader on the baseball field at St. John's Prep and Boston College.
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis — more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease — is a condition that causes nerve damage and eventually prevents the brain from communicating with the body's muscles. The Centers for Disease Control says there is no known cause, or cure.
Increasing awareness and research funding is the chief goal for Frates, who with the help of his family has launched The Pete Frates #3 Fund to help educate the world about ALS.
"This is a tough way to find out your lot in life, but I know this is what I was put here to do," said Frates, a 27-year-old from Beverly. "Lou Gehrig's farewell speech was in 1939. That's a long time ago."
ALS typically afflicts people between the ages of 55 and 75, according to the CDC. Between 20,000 and 30,000 people in the United States suffer from ALS, and the young Frates hopes stories like his will fuel the quest for a cure.
"I know there's a lack of research, funding and awareness. How do I alleviate that using the advantages I've had in life?" Frates asked. "Eight weeks ago if you asked any of friends about ALS, they'd say it's a disease and not much else. Now, they can tell you some pretty deep details."
Boston College, where Frates works as director of baseball operations, hosted an ALS Awareness Day on April 28. The response brought out a Shea Field record crowd of 2,286 fans to support Frates and the cause.
"It's the worst way to find out how much he's loved. That day, it was palatable," said John Frates, Pete's father. "He's had some great, magic moments."
The Boston College Eagles are wearing "PF 3" wristbands for Pete Frates this season and are running a memorabilia auction to benefit the fund. BC presented Frates and his family with his framed jersey before the game.
"I was overwhelmed. I've had so many cards, texts and calls, but that was tangible," Frates said. "It really took me back and made me think about how special those people are."
The Massachusetts chapter of the ALS Association had an information booth at the game and sold bracelets and took donations.
"That was the best part, because it wasn't all about me," Frates said. "This is about the disease and everybody's struggle."
Diagnosis and treatment
Last summer, Frates took a pitch to the wrist playing in an Intercity League game for the Lexington Blue Sox. Months later, he still had numbness in his hand and trouble with his grip; the former BC center fielder knew something was wrong.
"I've been hurt a million times and always bounced back. I knew my wrist wasn't broken and I'm thinking, 'What's going on here?'" recalled Frates, who helped BC win baseball Beanpots at Fenway Park in 2004 and 2006 and was team captain as a senior in 2007.
Frates had other symptoms, such as dropping things, and had some trouble in his gait that made full-stride running difficult.
In March, the diagnosis came in officially. It was ALS.
Immediately, he started taking medication designed to slow and prevent nerve damage. There are a number of vitamin supplements that do the same thing and some light physical therapy exercises, too.
With the help of Frates' uncles, Arthur Cronin and David Cloyd, and his family, The Pete Frates #3 Fund was launched along with a website, PeteFrates.com. Donations help pay for medication that insurance doesn't cover and will hopefully help fund research to find a cure.
"When I was a young kid, we were worried about polio. When Magic Johnson got AIDS, it was a death sentence. If we get money flowing into ALS, things will get better," John Frates said. "Hopefully, Pete can be that spokesman that sparks that."
Pete Frates was a three-sport star at St. John's Prep, playing on championship football, hockey and baseball teams. He spent a year after college playing baseball in Germany, so he's always been an active, physically strong person.
"Sometimes at the gym, I feel like I can still lift like I used to," Frates said. "Generally, I feel good. There's really no pain associated with it; it's more a malaise and sluggishness."
Between medication and the effects of ALS, Frates doesn't have as much energy as he once did. He can't keep up with selling employee benefits, his field after college. The job at BC is a great fit because he can do a lot of it from his laptop at home, though he's truly enjoyed traveling with the team when possible and is thankful to BC head baseball coach Mike Gambino.
"He's put me to work, and I love that," said Frates, whose duties range from scouting to checking on meals and travel accommodations for the players. "I always wanted to be back in athletics, and it feels great to be back with the fellas."
'The man upstairs has a plan'
Red Sox pitching legend Curt Schilling, a champion of ALS awareness that used to write "K-ALS" on his cleats, called Frates recently to check on his spirits. Frates will throw out the first pitch at Fenway Park on May 30 for Boston's ALS Awareness Day, as well.
It's not unusual for young men in their 20s to wonder what their purpose is. It is extremely unusual for them to contract ALS, but the eternally positive Frates has taken it as a sign that he was meant to help beat this disease.
"The man upstairs has a plan for me," he said. "I'm not having too many issues with this, mentally. This is the hand I've been dealt and I've made my peace with it. There are people out there that don't have my support system or my advantages, and I want to help them."
Frates has had tremendous support from his parents, John and Nancy, and siblings Jenn and Andrew. He's heard words of support from close friends and people he hasn't spoken to in years. The family is planning a fundraiser at Danversport Yacht Club on June 27 and other events. There was a team for him in the Tough Mudder race in Vermont, and a "Team Frate Train" in his honor at an ALS walk in New York.
People hear Frates' story and, immediately, they want to know how they can help.
"That's Pete. Everywhere he goes, people love him," said longtime St. John's Prep baseball coach Pat Yanchus. "He's a wonderful person with a great attitude."
The Frates family sent out nearly 300 thank-you cards recently. The website has a video blog so he can check in with his thoughts and feelings. Pete says his goals are to do a few positive things every day.
"It's great to have so many people in my life that care. The support is overwhelming. It's wild."
On the rare day he's feeling down, Frates looks to game he loves. Sometimes, he'll take in a baseball game at nearby Endicott or Gordon College. Once, driving home from his girlfriend's in Marblehead, he stopped at Seaside Park to watch a game.
"There's something about baseball. It can be very therapeutic and spiritual for him," John Frates said.
Looking at his fight with ALS as an at-bat, Pete Frates knows it's early in the count. This disease barely has a strike on him.
"Let's take it one day at a time, see how we feel and see what's on the agenda. Who are we meeting with? Let's be as productive as possible," Frates said. "I'm feeling good. I'm not scared."
When you boil it down, life is an at-bat. Pete Frates is taking the same patient, positive approach he did when he raked at the Prep and at BC. He's going to do what he can to stay ahead in the count, foul off a few pitches and hope that science wears down ALS until it serves up a middle-of-the-plate fastball.
Then, he'll knock it out of the park.
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To learn more about Pete Frates and the fight against ALS, visit www.PeteFrates.com.