May 12, 2015
Shortly after Pete Frates was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig's Disease), he called University of Notre Dame baseball coach Mik Aoki. When Aoki was hired as the head baseball coach at Boston College in 2007, Frates was his first captain. The two came to BC together in 2004 - Aoki as an assistant coach and Frates as a freshman from Beverly, Massachusetts.
At the end of their conversation, Aoki hung up the phone, wiped away tears and came up with a game plan to help Frates in his goal of raising awareness of ALS and raising funds to fight the degenerative disease that eventual causes victims to lose control of their muscles.
Last Thursday night at Brothers Bar and Grill in the Eddy Street Commons, the Notre Dame family rallied around the cause with a "Pints for Pete" event that raised funds for the Pete Frates #3 Fund. The previous weekend, Notre Dame played a Strikeout ALS baseball game versus Northwestern State.
Both events raised funds for the fight against ALS, and in both events Aoki was the driving force.
"Mik is loyal to his players," said Sue Aoki, Mik's wife.
Mik and Sue Aoki sold raffle tickets and Strikeout ALS t-shirts and entertained the crowd that came to support the event Thursday.
Sue said Mik's loyalty to his players is ironclad.
"Mik will do whatever he can for any of them," Sue said. "He's got to have a different side of him on the field, but that's not the guy he is 24 hours a day. That's the guy he is at the baseball field. The other guy is this one who will organize this fundraiser for a former player. We've got three kids, and so he's a dad, he's a husband and he's got a family ... all of those are pieces I don't think everybody sees."
Thursday's Strikeout ALS event organized by the Aokis was one of the moments that turn a baseball program into a baseball family. It was a moment that reached far beyond the base paths, as the event became a moment for the Notre Dame family. University of Notre Dame vice president and director of athletics Jack Swarbrick attended the event, and representatives from the Irish football, women's basketball and men's basketball programs plus others from throughout the Notre Dame athletics department turned out to offer their support.
Aoki has involved his players in numerous service opportunities this season, including Habitat for Humanity and mentoring area school children. The Strikeout ALS effort, because of Frates, is personal, and Aoki has been at the forefront of the cause.
"Sometimes, it takes dealing with great adversity to see a person's true colors," Irish baseball assistant coach Jesse Woods said. "I get to see it every day with Coach Aoki. I'm just lucky that way. His loyalty to his players, to his family, to the people that he's close to--it's a life-long bond and it's something where I'm proud to be his assistant because of who he is, more so than the coach he is, because I get to see his relationships."
Woods, a former Boston College assistant coach who is also very close with Frates, said Aoki's loyalty extends to all of his players, past and present.
"Mik's relationship with Pete Frates is no different than the relationships he has with our players now," Woods said. "Loyalty is something that is really important to our staff. Regardless of the player's role on our team, he's one of our players and that means a lot to us. We're going to love him no matter what his impact is on the field, and we're going to help him in any way we can while he plays at Notre Dame and probably more so when he moves on. We get him for four years while he's here, and hopefully we get him for another 40 or 50 after that. Once you're part of our baseball family, and that's an extensive family yet at Notre Dame, we're with you till the end, whether you like it or not."
Sue Aoki said Mik's loyalty to Frates speaks to the strong bonds within the Irish program.
"It's nice for the Notre Dame players to see that, in the case of a former player, Mik stayed close with Pete," Sue Aoki said. "Mik now is helping Pete. When you come full circle on it, here's my coach who is doing something really human for someone who used to play for him. So therefore, at some point, he would do that for me, too. I really, really hope that translates to all those players, to see him not only as a coach on the field, but also as someone they can count on whenever they need him."
Sue said there was never any doubt Mik would throw himself into the Strikeout ALS effort.
"We've always been charitable, and we haven't always had a lot to give, but we give our time, we give our effort and we give our energy because we want to show our kids and all the Notre Dame student-athletes by example," Sue said. "You don't have to do giant things. You just have to do some things."
While Mik would have been committed to the Strikeout ALS game without a personal connection, being close to Frates has made the effort more intense.
"It's more heartbreaking that it's personal," Mik said of his involvement. "It gives me more drive. It's heartbreaking to see where Pete is, how debilitating it's been to him. It's inspirational ... there's a mix of a whole lot of emotions thrown into one big cauldron. Some of those emotions are great, some of those emotions make you cry, some of those emotions make you shake your head in amazement.
"I feel like I don't do enough," Aoki continued. "I know any kid who gave to me the way Peter did for the four years I coached him, I feel I owe that to any kid who does that."
Loyalty is the cornerstone of any great program, and Aoki's loyalty to his players is embedded in the Fighting Irish program. That loyalty is exemplified in Aoki's efforts toward the Strikeout ALS effort on Frates' behalf and doesn't stop there.
"Pete is a great kid," Aoki said. "He was a phenomenal teammate. He was awesome to coach, and regardless of what he did on the field, I will, for my entire life, feel that I have to do whatever I can for kids who give me that. I just feel like that's what you do. That's part of this business. Those kids give you everything they have, and if they do then you owe it to them to give them everything that you can possibly give to them."
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent