FORT MYERS, Fla. — While playing in the Intercity League for the Lexington Blue Sox on an August night in 2011, Beverly’s Peter Frates was hit with a pitch on the left wrist.
Frates, a Boston College captain out of St. John’s Prep in Danvers, didn’t think much of it at the time. Baseball players are used to being hit. But the pain persisted. And when he went to a doctor, concerns were raised and tests were conducted.
He received a devastating diagnosis: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Frates, 28, was on the field at JetBlue Park with his beloved BC Eagles Thursday, serving in his voluntary role as “director of baseball operations” for coach Mike Gambino’s team in its game against the Red Sox in the annual college doubleheader.
“It’s a sham title,” he said, “but I love every minute of it. I do whatever I can to help the kids out. Sometimes they’re comfortable coming to me and talking about things, and I help Coach out as much as I can.
“I used to love this game. It’s the highlight. You never forget playing against Red Sox players. It’s a big deal for all of us then and now.”
Frates, who threw out the first pitch from his wheelchair, played in this game for four years as an outfielder. The closest he came to getting a hit was reaching on an error against Curt Schilling, who coincidentally is a major spokesman for ALS.
“Curt called me about a week after I was diagnosed,” said Frates. “My family said, ‘We have to get in touch with Schilling; he’s a face for this.’ I said, ‘No, we’re not. We’ll do our thing and see if it can happen organically.’
“Sure enough, Curt leaves me a great voice mail. Very Curt. Something to the effect, ‘Hey Pete, I can’t tell you how many people have called, e-mailed, and texted about you. I have to call you, so here I am.’
“He left a great message. He goes, ‘Oh yeah, and by the way, I still remember you’re 0 for 1 lifetime against me.’ And he hung up the phone. Very funny. Very genuine. He’s been great.”
It was déjà vu for Frates, who was teammates for three years at BC with righthander Terry Doyle, who is in Red Sox camp on a minor league contract. Doyle pitched a 1-2-3 sixth inning against BC with his friend watching proudly.
“He’s just one of the best people you’ll ever know,” said Frates, standing against the dugout railing as he held himself up. “He’d do anything for you. He’s so smart. He doesn’t throw 98, but he’s a part-time math teacher, so he’ll find a way to get you off-balance and get you out.”
“[Frates has] turned this into a positive and he’s run with it,” said Doyle, who recalls pitching a scoreless inning for the Eagles vs. the Red Sox as a freshman, allowing only a Hanley Ramirez infield single.
“It’s funny, but on my official visit to BC, I played with him in a summer game before I went to BC and he was the loud energy guy out in center field screaming the whole game. It was pretty funny.”
Asked if Frates was chirping from the bench while he was pitching Thursday, Doyle said, “Knowing him, he probably was. I was so locked in I couldn’t hear anything.”
Frates is still “screaming” for a cure as an ALS spokesman and trying to get insurance companies to pay for expensive drugs and surgeries that in many cases aren’t covered. He will speak before the FDA in Washington Monday.
Anyone who has known a person afflicted with the disease understands the incredible emotional ordeal patients and their families go through.
“The main thing is to wake up every day and try to do something positive,” Frates said. “This illness is negative by nature, so if I can counteract it by being a positive figure, it will help me in the long run.”
He recently learned that an experimental drug he was on was deemed “ineffective” and its use stopped.
“That was kind of a bummer,” said Frates. “But that’s like our BC program — if there wasn’t a bump in the road, then we’d be status quo, so we’re not going to worry about it.”
He is on a new drug that he says has helped with his speaking, breathing, and swallowing.
When he’s not around BC baseball, he is spreading the word about ALS.
“I get seen by the doctor every three months,” said Frates. “I go in and he says, ‘You still have ALS.’ I take my vitamin supplements, stay as active as I can, and try to keep my weight up.
“We’re always looking for new treatments, and there’s a lot of momentum out there. They hope to see this thing totally fixed in the next five to seven years. When someone really smart figures it out, I’ll be very happy on that day.”
His attitude is amazing. He never seems to get down, even as his body begins to show the ravages of the disease.
“I equate it to being at the airport and people are complaining the plane is being delayed because of weather,” he said. “I say, ‘What are you going to do — fly the plane?’ I control things I can control. It’s happened to me. I accept it. I move forward, trying to spread the word, making this thing part of the past.”
He calls that movement “the Freight Train,” and he has his own foundation, the Pete Frates #3 Fund. He doesn’t think enough people know about ALS.
“I was the worst offender,” he said. “I had no idea. I knew it was named after Lou, it was no good, and it affected old men. Clearly I was wrong on all those.”
His attention quickly turns back to the BC baseball team.
“We’re young,” Frates said. “But it starts from the top down. Mike is such a tremendous influence on these kids. You’re around him five minutes, you know he’s a quality individual.”
Right back at you, Pete.