FORT MYERS, Fla. — There was no “challenge’’ the first time folks dumped a bucket of ice water over Pete Frates’s head.
It was all very different then. It was nine years ago, and Frates was 21 years old and strong enough to launch a curveball into the visitors bullpen at Fenway Park. He went 4 for 4 in the Baseball Beanpot final, and his teammates doused him with the contents of the Gatorade bucket while he gave postgame interviews.
Pete gave his home run ball to his parents, who’d made the trip down from Beverly. It was the thrill of a lifetime. Or at least that what it seemed like at the time.
Fast-forward to Tuesday afternoon at JetBlue Park, a.k.a. “Fenway South,’’ where members of the Boston College and Red Sox baseball teams all wore Frates’s No. 3 on their backs for their annual preseason game.
Pete Frates is famous now. He is the face of the dreaded disease ALS. He is Lou Gehrig of the 21st century.
Unable to fly anymore, Pete was in a rehab facility in snow-covered Salem, Mass., when the Sox and Eagles played their annual exhibition Tuesday. Pete was represented at Fenway South by his parents, John and Nancy, his wife Julie and his baby daughter Lucy.
They are all faces of ALS now. Speaking from the heart, without notes, Nancy can explain the plague that came into the house of Frates when her 27-year-old ballplaying son was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 2012. Check out her Ted Talk on YouTube.
Nancy and John Frates are cocaptains of Team Frate Train, an army of supporters and volunteers and fund-raisers who’ve been battling alongside Pete for the last three years. Team MVPs would be Pete’s brother Andrew, his sister Jenn, and Jenn’s husband Dan. All of them gave up their careers to come home and take care of Pete.
Everyone involved with Frate Train is proud to know Pete and his family. And no one is neutral or objective about any of it.
The first time I saw Pete was on April 25, 2006, when I was covering the Baseball Beanpot and saw a kid from St. John’s Prep hit a homer at Fenway. It turned out that the kid’s grandfather was Gerry D’Alfonso, a longtime Globe editor who mentored a lot of young people breaking into the business in the 1970s.
In 2007, when my own son joined the BC baseball team, I got to sit with Pete’s parents and grandparents at many of the games. As mom of the team captain, Nancy Frates was one of the BC team’s den mothers. She handed out personalized hats and scarves to parents, and arranged postgame tailgates for the ballplayers and their folks. Nancy and John Frates didn’t miss many games.
On those rare occasions when a Boston TV crew would come around to do a feature on college baseball, my reporter friends would ask, “Who’s a good kid to put on camera?’’ I’d always send them to Pete.
“Go talk to No. 3. A communications major. He’s handsome, confident, articulate, clear-eyed, and local. The kid’s probably got a future in TV himself if he wants.’’
Seasons passed, and Pete graduated and got a good job, but he never abandoned baseball. He was playing outfield for the Lexington Blue Socks in the Intercity League in the summer of 2011 when he got hit by a pitch in the wrist and noticed that it wasn’t healing.
Then he had more symptoms. It was strange. What was going on?
In the spring of 2012, Pete and his parents saw a series of medical experts. One by one, they ruled out things. Until there was only one thing left: ALS.
Pete knew what this meant. So he went to work. He would fight the disease. He would advocate for more funding for the disease. He would lead the most meaningful life he could lead with the time he had left.
Seeing Pete at intervals, those of us on the outside saw the disease take its toll. I remember standing and drinking beers with him in the winter of 2012-13 at an ALS fund-raiser. He leaned against a rail while he spoke. He said he was allowed a couple of frosties, even while taking his medication.
A few months later, Pete was in a wheelchair when we met for dinner in Fort Myers. He was excited to introduce everyone to his fiancée, Julie. The wheelchair was not yet his full-time home. Pete was able to stand when he threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the BC-Red Sox game. But his speech was failing.
“People think I’m drunk all the time now, because it’s harder to talk,’’ he said. “I’m starting to slur my words.’’
He wasn’t able to say much in spring training last year. But he still made the trip for the BC-Sox game. And he was excited because he was newly married and Julie was pregnant.
The last 12 months have been nothing short of miraculous. Pete’s life would make for an Oscar-winning film.
It all started with the Ice Bucket Challenge. Inspired by the Facebook page of Pat Quinn, another ALS victim, Pete made a video and challenged the world. It went global. Before you knew it, just about everyone was dumping ice water on his or her head and making pledges to ALS research. Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, LeBron James, and Lady Gaga did the Ice Bucket Challenge.
One year after receiving $2.8 million in donations, ALS charities received more than $100 million in six weeks after the Ice Bucket Challenge exploded. Worldwide, it’s been reported that the number is now closer to $225 million.
Some of us believe that Pete Frates’s legacy may someday lead to the eradication of this terrible disease.
There’s more. Pete and Julie had a baby girl, Lucy, on Aug. 31, 2014. Pete and his family were honored by Major League Baseball at the World Series.
More than 68,000 Patriots fans sang “Happy Birthday” to Pete last Dec. 28 at Gillette Stadium. He was featured in Sports Illustrated’s annual Sportsman of the Year celebration and is at work on a book.
Pete recently endured several bouts of pneumonia, underwent two emergency tracheotomies, and spent nine days in ICU at Massachusetts General Hospital and Salem Hospital.
Nancy, John, Julie, and Lucy Frates exchanged hugs with Sox manager John Farrell in a pregame ceremony in front of the mound Tuesday. Then they lined up alongside the BC team on the first base line for the national anthem. It was quite a sight. The Eagles on the first base side. The Red Sox on the third base side. All wearing No. 3. All with the name “Frates’’ on their backs.
“If Pete was here, he would say that he’s overwhelmed with gratitude,’’ said Nancy Frates. “They’ve always been his team. He’s honored that they are joining in the fight against ALS.’’
Pete was there. He walked, ran the bases, and turned the double play with the men wearing Red Sox and BC uniforms. On Tuesday, March 3, at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Fla., Pete Frates was everyman, and every ballplayer was Pete Frates.