Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in the Sept. 2014 edition of New England Baseball Journal. Pete Frates, the former Boston College baseball captain who inspired people around the world to dump buckets of ice water over their heads to raise millions of dollars for Lou Gehrig’s disease research, died today, according to his family. He was 34.
Pete Frates never bothered to tip off the Boston College baseball team about his plan to raise awareness for ALS – the disease he has battled since being diagnosed in March of 2012.
Frates, the 29-year-old director of baseball operations for the BC baseball team, didn’t send out an email to players encouraging them to participate. The former BC baseball captain didn’t draw from the connections he’d made as a player by dipping into the alumni mailing list. Heck, he didn’t even complete the Ice Bucket Challenge himself until he was the subject of a SportsCenter feature after ALS donations over a two-week stretch in early August had eclipsed the total number of donations in all of 2013.
Frates came up with the idea, and let social media take its course.
Boston College senior pitcher John Gorman was one of the first to participate in the Ice Bucket Challenge. Fellow BC pitcher Nick Poore challenged Gorman in late July, so Gorman dumped a bucket of ice water on himself, and challenged BC teammates Geoff Murphy, Eric Stone as well as a friend from his hometown of Norwell, Mass., Brandon Davis.
“I wanted to open it up to another section of people, so I challenged a friend from home,” Gorman said. “I figured if it spread around Massachusetts, that was even better for raising awareness.”
About a week after Gorman completed the challenge, he sat in the dugout between innings during a game with the Bourne Braves of the Cape Cod League. He overheard a Braves teammate, Mark Laird, saying he’d been challenged to complete the Ice Bucket Challenge. Laird hails from Monroe, La., and plays at LSU.
“I couldn’t believe it made it to him,” Gorman said. “People from all over on the team were talking about it. Obviously, we’ve all seen it reach the celebrities, but that was amazing to see.”
Boston College junior pitcher Jeff Burke spent the last two seasons as somewhat of the low man on the team totem pole, sitting in the back of the team bus on road trips. He remembers getting excited when he learned the coaching staff had arranged a team bus with a lift for the 2014 season because his traveling partner – Frates – would continue to sit next to him.
“I got put in the back because I’m a low man on the team, but Pete’s always been there,” Burke said. “This past year, he wasn’t able to talk as much, but he’d come on the bus and sing with us. He’d send me messages on Facebook after bad at-bats or tough pitching outings. Who am I to sulk about one at-bat or pitching outing when Pete is going through what he’s going through?”
Like Gorman, Burke got an early jump on the Ice Bucket Challenge. He accepted the call from Frates’ former teammate and BC student coach Mike Meyer. He challenged the BC baseball team’s Jesuit ordained priest, another BC teammate and his brother-in-law.
“Six of my teammates and I did a Plunge for Pete into the Atlantic Ocean last year,” Burke said. “I saw the Ice Bucket Challenge, and said, ‘This is easy.’”
Burke, a native of Chattanooga, Tenn., remembers the moment he was blown away by the reach of the Ice Bucket Challenge.
“Justin Timberlake was definitely one,” Burke said. “I’d seen so many athletes do it, then it escaped the athlete realm and spread everywhere. The ESPN special was something else. Some of my friends from Tennessee saw it, and said, ‘Oh my god, that’s BC baseball. That’s you.’ When people in Tennessee were hearing about it, that’s when it hit me.”
BC senior infielder Blake Butera also got in on the Ice Bucket Challenge on the ground floor, accepting a challenge from BC alumnus and current Detorit Tigers pitcher Mike Belfiore in early August. He nominated two BC teammates, but back then, it wasn’t as easy as posting a video with #ALSIceBucketChallenge and tagging friends.
“Nobody had any idea what it was,” Butera said. “I had to explain it to people.”
Butera followed the movement on social media closely over the next month, riding the wave of of the highs and lows of Facebook and Twitter. He saw friends with no connection to BC baseball or even New England complete the challenge. He saw celebrity after celebrity answer the call. He heard that President Barack Obama mentioned the Challenge, and he even saw people complain that their timelines and feeds were being overrun by videos of people dumping ice on themselves.
“What’s really fun about it is it’s a way to spread awareness,” Butera said. “The goal is to tell people it’s a really terrible disease. We’ve seen it with Pete. Not everyone is able to donate, but everyone can raise awareness. I guess the people who had a problem with it were raising awareness in their own way.”
In the fall of 2011, BC baseball coach Mike Gambino called upon Frates to speak to his team about the privilege of playing college baseball. That was before Frates’ diagnosis, but many of the players remember that speech due to Frates’ enthusiasm and passion.
By the fall of 2012, Frates had received his diagnosis, but Gambino kept him around the program as the director of baseball operations. Frates immersed himself in the program, traveling to almost every game on the team bus.
By last fall, Frates wasn’t able to travel to nearly as many games, wasn’t able to speak to players as much, and the team bus required a lift for Frates’ wheelchair. Despite his deteriorating health due to a disease that does not have a cure, Frates, who is expecting his first child in September, has not let his circumstances affect his trademark passion for the game.
“Pete never said, ‘Hey, I’m doing this for ALS, please help,’” Gorman said. “It took off in his name because of the number of people he’s affected before or since his diagnosis. This is something that doesn’t surprise me. Since he’s been around us, he’s been someone a lot of guys look up to regardless of whether he has ALS. He’s a leader, and this proves it.”