My Journey from Baseball Star to ALS Patient, 75 Years After Lou Gehrig

Peter FratesGuest ColumnistJuly 2, 2014

The Peter Frates #3 Fund

Many of you have watched, participated in and donated to the suddenly viral "Ice Bucket Challenge" to strike out ALS. If you haven't, you should probably crawl out from under the rock in which you've been hiding for the past month—or just read this or watch one of the many videos out there right now.

What most people did not know until recently, however, is where the challenge's success originated. The man widely credited with popularizing the challenge is former Boston College baseball star and ALS sufferer Peter Frates, who has devoted his life to raising awareness and research funds for the disease since being diagnosed.

Peter took Bleacher Report inside his journey from sports star to battling for his life, and we were honored to be able to help tell his story.

I once prided myself on my strong hands. They helped me become a baseball star and eventually captain the Boston College Eagles in 2007. They helped me grip the bat, fire the barrel through the zone and squeeze a fly ball safely into my outfield mitt.

Today, they are unable to type this very story, as I depend on eye-tracking technology to deliver the message that my sturdy voice and fingers once did.

What if you woke up today and someone told you that you have two to five years to live? How would you handle the news? What if they also told you that during those two to five years you would lose control of all your extremities and your ability to speak, eat and breathe? How would that resonate with you and those you love? But don't worry, your mind will be totally intact to enjoy the entire progression—or regression.

That day came and went for me on March 13, 2012.

My name is Peter Frates, and I was diagnosed on that date with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)—otherwise known as Lou Gehrig's disease. As we mourn the 75-year anniversary of Gehrig's famous Fourth of July "Luckiest Man" speech, I am here to tell my own story and raise awareness of the effects of this terrible disease.

The Peter Frates #3 Fund

Growing up in Beverly, Massachusetts, sports were at the forefront of everything I did and strived toward. While football and hockey were likewise things that came easily to me, baseball was my one true love.

When I first knew that playing Division I college baseball would become a reality, it was nothing short of a dream come true. Not only would I get to play at the highest level, but I'd do so in front of so many of the friends and family members that helped me get to where I was.

To take a second to brag a bit, there were some special moments during my time on the diamond at BC.

On April 14, 2007, I set the modern team record with eight RBI in a game, thanks to a grand slam and three-run homer. I would ultimately lead the team in stolen bases and home runs that senior season, while being privileged and honored to hold the position as captain.

But perhaps the biggest moment of my baseball career actually occurred during my junior year. In the Beanpot Championship against Harvard, I hit a home run over the right-field wall in historic Fenway Park—a place any Boston-area kid grew up dreaming of playing in.

After playing professionally overseas in Germany and returning to play in competitive summer leagues back in the U.S., however, I started to notice something changing.

It all started with some twitching in my upper body and arms. Drinking some Gatorade or throwing a few more bananas into my diet would surely fix that.

Then came the first big hint that something was not right: I started to struggle on the baseball field. The place where things were supposed to be so easy was suddenly a breeding ground for frustration.

You see, I was used to showing up to the ballpark after battling Cambridge traffic, tossing on a uniform and running right into the batter's box to lead off the game. A helmet, bat and a few practice swings were all I needed to hit .400 in these area leagues.

Except now, that .400 average had sunk into the .270s. Wood bats that would normally last weeks or months would now last only days, or even innings.

It all came to a head in a game against a pitcher from UMass who was throwing in the 90s at the time. I loved the fastball, and since he threw so many of them, this seemed like it would be no big deal for me to have success.

Then I stepped into the box, and the pitch I once feasted on was now being blown right by me. My bat speed was slowing, and I just could not catch up to the heat anymore.

The Peter Frates #3 Fund

Though incredibly discouraged, I had one more chance to redeem myself in the later innings. Ready to jump on the first fastball he threw, I started my swing—then immediately tried to hold up on a pitch riding in on my hands.

But it was too late, and it struck my wrist as squarely as it could. I didn't know it then, but this was the moment in time when my life would change forever.

The wrist wasn't broken, but it just was not getting better. It was painful and weak, and it was starting to prevent me from doing things as simple as buttoning my shirt.

On top of this, my day-to-day work schedule was being thrown into flux. Normally on the road by 6 a.m., I was now lucky to leave my apartment by 10 a.m.—often stopping for naps in the rest areas of the highway.

My energy had vanished, and I was scared for the first time. It was time to find out why.

After seeing a hand specialist, a neurologist and a neuromuscular specialist—feeling like a guinea pig in a bombardment of months of tests—we were no closer to finding the root of the problem.

Then, while watching October baseball one evening with my dad, I decided to Google my symptoms and do some investigating of my own. What I stumbled on next made my heart jump up into my throat.

Peter and his father, John
Peter and his father, JohnThe Peter Frates #3 Fund

I was staring in disbelief at an ALS website, with a list of symptoms as if someone had been following me around and watching my every move. The patient they were describing was me.

It took many more months of tests and uncertainty, but my worst suspicions were finally confirmed.

I was mentally prepared for the fight of my life, but the hardest part of it all was telling my now-wife, family and friends that I no longer knew what the future held for me. The truth was I was now staring a disease in the face that had no cure and no effective treatment.

Prescribed little more than various over-the-counter vitamins, I was entering a gun fight armed with the equivalent of a plastic spork.

This ironically was also an important turning point for me, as I felt as though I wasn't living up to my potential in life. I could have been the president of a company; I could have done something great. But nothing was fulfilling or felt like what I was put here on Earth to do.

Upon my diagnosis, it became abundantly clear that my calling was to raise ALS awareness and to fight for a brighter future for all those affected today and those yet to come.

One of the early duties as part of this fight for awareness was throwing out a first pitch on the Fenway Park stage. As you can see, my strong throwing arm was already not quite the same just three months post-diagnosis, as ALS had quickly taken its toll.

Shortly after, I thought back to the day I watched Lou Gehrig's speech for the first time. Back then, it was nothing more than a sad story about one of baseball's greatest stars. It suddenly hit home for me and sent a clear message.

Lou Gehrig now inspires me every day; I have a poster of his speech on the wall of my garage. It is the last thing I see when I leave the house. I use his words to help me attack the day and keep up the fight against the beast that is ALS.

Gehrig was likewise a guy who faced ALS head-on. Even as the game he loved most, and ultimately his life, were taken from him far too soon, he was a very positive guy and bowed out graciously—as we all know from those brave words in Yankee Stadium in 1939.

His legacy has lived on with everybody who has since been diagnosed. He also serves as a harsh reminder that 75 years later, we still don't have a cure or effective treatment. To put it simply, that's just unacceptable.

MLB as a whole has shouldered some of this burden, and rightfully so. The fact is, the illness bears one of its legends' names, and the league has both the audience and the power to make change.

As an example of this, an event back in November involving various prominent baseball figures raised over $1 million of crucial research funds in a single night. MLB will provide an additional $300,000 research donation as part of honoring Gehrig this summer.

It's a good start, but the fight is never over, and we can all do more.

The solutions may not arrive quickly enough to benefit me. They may not be found in time to save those soon to be diagnosed. But we need to continue to fight to make progress on ALS, whether it's donating to research or simply spreading the word. I don't want what has happened to me to happen to those we know and love.

Today, my speech is almost entirely gone. It can be extremely frustrating and stressful, but my eye-tracking device is my saving grace.

My wife and I are also expecting a baby in September. It is this excitement that keeps my engines going at full strength. The thought of seeing the face of our first child and knowing that I am a father is a moment I will cherish beyond words.

I may not be able to say "I love you" with my own voice, but the love I will feel will be every bit as strong. I may not know how many years I have left, but I will fight harder and harder each day to be there as a father and a husband.

My dream is for this article to be found by someone in a Google search one day—much like the one that linked my symptoms to ALS—and for he or she to wonder how anyone ever could have died from something treated so easily.

I want the 100th anniversary of Lou Gehrig's speech to be a celebration of a courageous man who became the poster boy for a disease with a cure, not a cruel reminder of how nothing has changed in a century.

I'd now like to leave you all with an important statistic.

Over the course of a person's life, he or she will spend a total of 1,374 days reading books, and another 1,259 days online. Yet the life expectancy of a patient diagnosed with ALS is a mere 1,000 days.

That needs to change, so let's not wait for tomorrow.

Find out more about Peter and his story at the Pete Frates #3 Fund website and the Team Frate Train page on Facebook. Learn about ALS and how to help at the ALS Association website. Also, see what MLB is doing to help cure ALS via its 4ALS Awareness campaign.


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