Column: There will never be another one like Pete Frates

Salem News sports editor Phil Stacey with Pete Frates and Salem News assistant sports editor Matt Williams at the Old Time Baseball Game in Cambridge in August 2014. 

I will never forget those eyes.

The dark brown eyes that belonged to Pete Frates were as distinctive as Fenway’s Green Monster. They could be jovial, fiery, intent, laser focused. They were at times steely, determined and smoldering.

To quote Bob Dylan, another great American — and oh, did Pete love his country — his eyes glowed like burning coal.

So when amyotrophic lateral sclerosis invaded Pete’s body in March of 2012, robbing him of the ability to walk, talk, or move his limbs, there were two things the disease couldn’t touch: his brain, which remained as sharp as an eagle’s claw until his very last breath, and his eyes. Those piercing orbs remained his portal to the world when everything else failed him.

So as we mourn the passing of the strongest man many of us will ever know, who after a nearly eight-year battle finally succumbed to this dreaded disease just 19 days shy of his 35th birthday, we must also remember the myriad of things that made Peter Frates of Beverly, Mass., such an incredible, impactful human being.

Where does one begin to describe the life of a man who did more good for others than most of us could hope to achieve in 10 lifetimes?

Well, it’s important to remember that Pete was a magnetic presence who drew others to him like moths to a porchlight long before ALS invaded his life. Naturally charismatic and affable, and gifted on the playing field and in the classroom, he made friends quickly and easily.

When he matriculated to St. John’s Prep, Pete was admired by peers, coaches and teachers alike, with a laid-back way that put others at ease. Yet he could flip a switch when it was time to get serious in the athletic realm, and others eagerly followed him into battle whether it was on the gridiron, the rink or the diamond. Three-sport captains who draw universal praise tend to have such an impact.

The script remained the same when he attended Boston College — the alma mater of his parents, John and Nancy — to further his studies and continue to play baseball. Named a captain once again, Pete’s star continued to shine brightly on Chestnut Hill. As a senior, he knocked in a school record eight RBI in one game; in his junior year, he jumped on a hanging curveball from a Harvard hurler and, with his sweet left-handed swing, bashed it into the bullpen at Fenway Park during the baseball Beanpot.

It all made sense, considering that Nancy Frates had always told her middle child he had a duty to be great. For Pete, it wasn’t a burden but something that seemed to come easily.

After graduating from The Heights in 2007, he continued to play ball professionally: in Connecticut, in the Hawaiian League, in Hamburg, Germany, with best buddy Dan Haugh. He returned stateside and got a “regular” job, but remained committed to his craft, playing in the Inter-City League, tearing it up both at the plate as well as from the outfield with his rocket of an arm.

Then he found himself having trouble timing the baseball as it sped toward him at home plate. What had once come so easily to him now became arduous. It got more difficult to button his shirts for work. Sometimes he’d have to pull over during his commute and take some time to compose himself.

Many of you know how the story takes a life-changing detour from here. Diagnosed with ALS in March 2012, the Frates’s lives were changed forever on that late winter day.

But looking back on it, so was the world’s. Rather than crawl into a hole or accept his fate, Pete looked into the mirror with those same eyes that had served him so well for so long and made a declaration: ALS, you picked the wrong guy to mess with.

On the day he was diagnosed, Pete made it his mission to not only educate himself but millions of others around the globe about this neurodegenerative disease, for which there is no cure. Sure, many folks had heard of “Lou Gehrig’s disease,” named after the great Yankee slugger who died from it in 1939, but they didn’t know about it.

So Pete and his family — girlfriend (and soon to be wife) Julie, parents John and Nancy, sister Jenn, brother-in-law Dan, and brother Andrew — set about informing the world about ALS. With Pete at the forefront, what “Team Frate Train” was able to accomplish under incredibly difficult circumstances was nothing short of miraculous.

Pete was uplifting, resilient, and front and center in getting the word out about ALS. Always a role model among his friends and teammates, he became an inspiration to folks across the globe, a reason to believe that great people can do extraordinary things in times of extreme difficulty.

It was a shade over a year after his diagnosis that Pete served as the guest speaker at our Salem News Student-Athlete banquet. No one in attendance that night will ever forget him ambling up to the podium and speaking in a voice that was in the throes of being taken from him by ALS.

He gave a stirring 10-minute speech and had the room in the palm of his hand, ending with “be passionate, be great, be hard working, and don’t be afraid to be great.” If Lou Gehrig had his “luckiest man on the face of the world” declaration to be always remembered by, these are the words we’ll always associate with Pete.

While Pete’s condition slowly worsened, his impact grew. He married Julie (Kowalik) on June 1, 2013. The following summer, he championed the worldwide phenomenon Ice Bucket Challenge, helping not only to get it started but getting literally everyone to dump a bucket of ice water over their heads that August, all in the name of raising funds and awareness for ALS. All told, the Ice Bucket Challenge helped raise more than $220 million to help find a cure for the disease.

That same miracle month, he and Julie’s daughter, Lucy, was born.

Pete was recognized by all four of Boston’s major pro sports teams, eventually signing an honorary contract with the Red Sox (they’d wear is No. 3 in unison during a spring training game in 2015, and present him with an authentic 2018 World Series ring). He and fellow ALS advocate/patient Pat Quinn of Yonkers, New York, were nominated as Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, and Pete was the co-recipient of Sports Illustrated’s 2014 Inspiration of the Year. A book entailing his life and how he helped spearhead the Ice Bucket Challenge was written about him, and a Netflix movie is currently being made about him.

Pete’s No. 3 uniform was retired by St. John’s Prep and Boston College; the baseball diamond at St. John’s was dedicated in his honor; he was named a Prep Distinguished Alumnus in 2018 … and on and on it went.

And while he was rendered to a motorized wheelchair, unable to speak or even move his facial muscles, his eyes spoke for him. I liked to joke with Pete when I’d see him. That often meant busting his chops, which I wholeheartedly believe he appreciated and made him feel, even for a moment, like things used to be.

“What are you doing here?” I asked him at TD Garden before a Bruins playoff game in 2018, when Pete was being recognized as the team’s honorary “Fan Banner Captain.” “You could never skate that well; are you here to get some pointers?”

Naturally, he didn’t say a word. But his eyes seemed to flicker and dance with delight, and we both reveled in that instant.

Sadly, ALS never let go of its grip. The fighter that he is, Pete cheated death — several times, in fact — bouncing back after harrowing hospital stays and time and time again basically telling the disease not today, you beast. Not today.

Now, there is no more suffering. Pete is finally at peace again. He is, as his brother told me, probably organizing a baseball game up in heaven, eager to be running free again, playing catch, swinging the lumber.

Pete Frates is now in a better place.

That’s also how he left this world.

Phil Stacey is executive sports editor of The Salem News, a sister newspaper of the Townsman. Contact him at pstacey@salemnews.com and follow him on Twitter @PhilStacey_SN.

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