Sept. 30, 2013
By Sean Tenaglia '16
"It's just amazing what he's been able to do because at this point in time, this thing is basically a death sentence." - Notre Dame baseball head coach Mik Aoki on Pete Frates
While exhibition games do not count toward a team's official record, they do provide opportunities to gauge player potential and improvement.
However, for Irish baseball Coach Mik Aoki, this Friday's exhibition with local Bethel College is arguably more meaningful than any regular season game could ever be.
On Friday, Oct. 4, the Irish will raise funds and awareness for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and the Pete Frates #3 Fund during their 6 p.m. exhibition with Bethel.
Pete Frates played baseball from 2004 through 2007 at Boston College, where Aoki coached before coming to Notre Dame. During their time at BC, Coach Aoki and Frates developed a strong relationship.
"My first year as an assistant coach was his freshman year," Coach Aoki said. "He was my first captain at BC when I was promoted to head coach, so he and I kind of came into BC together.
"I love the kid. He's a great kid, a high-energy guy and always positive."
In March 2012, Frates' life took an unexpected and devastating turn. He was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease after the former New York Yankees superstar that died from the disease in 1941.
The disease, which causes weakness, speech problems and loss of motion among other severe symptoms, can become fatal within years of its onset. Yet despite his grim diagnosis, Pete Frates has stood resolute in his determination to fight the disease and has been a source of inspiration for all who know him, chief among them his former coach.
"It's amazing the strength he's had through this whole thing," Coach Aoki said. "It's progressed pretty rapidly, and it's really become increasingly difficult for him to walk, even just 10 or 15 feet. You can tell the difference in his speech, but he continues to go out there and make speeches and tries to raise awareness and funds.
"He's been a big rallying point for a lot of us, and from everybody he's touched in his life- from friends he grew up with to high school friends to BC friends- he's really rallied us all together. He and his wife Julie- who were married this summer- have been unbelievable. The strength that they've shown has been nothing short of inspirational."
Unfortunately, little progress has been made in the effort to combat ALS in the seventy-plus years since Lou Gehrig's diagnosis. Coach Aoki identified some of the additional issues tied to these failed research efforts.
"If you go back to it historically, this is a baseball disease in some sort of strange way because Lou Gehrig is the one who brought it to the forefront in the American consciousness," Aoki said. "Unfortunately, there just hasn't been a whole lot of progress since Gehrig was diagnosed and forced to retire from the game in 1939.
"There's no cure for it, and there has not been a ton of attention given to it because: A. the mortality rate is 100%, and B. more often than not it happens so quickly that researchers don't have an opportunity to do lengthy studies to find out more about it. Sadly, the insurance companies look at it as throwing good money after bad, so they aren't throwing a lot of research at it either."
Last April, the Irish played a special Strike Out ALS game with the Quinnipiac Bobcats. Pete's father, John Frates, was in attendance and threw out the first pitch to Irish assistant coach Jesse Woods. Coach Aoki took pride in the funds the teams were able to raise as part of their weekend series.
"We raised just a tick over $3,500, which was a modest amount, but a good start and something that we'll try to promote this spring during our series with Boston College," Aoki said.
"I hope that when BC comes we can raise much more. I'm not sure if Pete will be healthy enough to come out that weekend, but it would be awesome to have him."
For this week's exhibition with Bethel, Coach Aoki hopes to build off their previous success to continue raising awareness for Pete and ALS.
"To date, I've just been able to do a little bit," Aoki said. "We're taking the attitude that every little bit we do makes a difference and to the extent that we can do it, I hope to be able to help Pete along with what he's trying to do.
"I think this game is just as much about awareness as it is about raising money for ALS. Any money we can raise as a result would just be icing on the cake.
"I also think that playing a team from the greater Michiana area is good because I can imagine that Bethel will be able to reach out into the local community maybe even a little more than we can."
In addition to the opportunity to raise awareness and funds for ALS, the game also provides the Irish with a change of pace from their somewhat monotonous fall schedule.
"I'm certainly looking forward to playing Bethel," the Irish coach said. "I'm sure our kids are sick and tired of playing each other in these intersquad scrimmages we have be playing almost every day, so I think that will be fun."
The Irish will be collecting $2 donations at the gates of Frank Eck Stadium from fans attending the game this Friday. In addition to the donations, Coach Aoki encourages fans to educate themselves about ALS and join the fight.
"I would encourage people to go on the ALS website and Pete's website," Coach Aoki said. "I think they will see a story of a really inspirational kid that puts into perspective just how precious and how fleeting life can be, and how all of us who are able-bodied and have the good fortune to be involved in, working at, going to school at or playing baseball at a place like Notre Dame are so unbelievably fortunate.
"I think sometimes you get so mired in your own little world and your own little problems. When you look at a kid like Pete, who is so courageously battling this disease, I hope it inspires some people and gives them a little perspective. If people are moved to give something, that's great, but I think more than anything else, it would be excellent if they could just spread the word that this is a disease that seems to be increasingly touching more and more people.
"We need to raise the awareness of this. We need to put this on the radar screen of insurance companies that aren't willing to throw research money to try to find a cure for this thing, to just do something to find a way to eradicate this disease."
Pete Frates is showing us all what it means to live. Confronted with "a death sentence," Frates has not allowed any disabilities to prevent him from finding joy in life.
Please join Coach Aoki, the Fighting Irish, and the Frates family in their effort to Strike Out ALS.
Fans that are unable to attend Friday night's exhibition, can still donate to ALS by contacting baseball's operations specialist Tad Skelley at 574-631-4840 or through email Tad.R.Skelley.firstname.lastname@example.org.