Head coach Mik Aoki took the plunge Saturday to help raise money and awareness in the fight against ALS.

Irish Extra: Irish Baseball Program Underscores Fight Against ALS

May 4, 2015

National Baseball Hall of Famer Craig Biggio toed the grass in the area behind the University of Notre Dame baseball clubhouse at Frank Eck Stadium and put a firm grip on a baseball.

Biggio locked in on his target, a bulls-eye on a dunk-tank lever, as his son, Irish senior outfielder Conor Biggio, sat perched above a large tub of ice water.

Rearing back to throw, Craig Biggio unleashed pure heat.




Conor Biggio climbed out of the tank, soaking after his plunge, and ran over to his father. By the time the Biggio father-son bear hug concluded, Craig Biggio was also soaked with water from the dunk tank.

“It was pure gas,” Craig Biggio laughed about the pitch that plunged his son into an ice bucket-themed dunk tank.

Laughter and fraternal love rang out at Eck Stadium on a sun-splashed Saturday, as the Fighting Irish baseball team held its annualAmyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)game. Life lessons, though, really commanded center stage.

Money raised by the Irish goes to the Pete Frates #3 Fund for the fight against ALS. Frates played at Boston College (2004-2007). When current Irish head coach Mik Aoki took over the Boston College program, Frates was his first captain.

ALS is a degenerative disease that causes victims to lose control over their muscles and to eventually lose the ability to speak, eat, move and breathe. Former New York Yankee great Lou Gehrig saw his Hall of Fame career tragically cut short in 1939 by ALS.

Frates, age 30, was the flash point for the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge that went viral last summer. He inspired efforts that had ballplayers and people across the nation dumping buckets of ice water over their heads and issuing challenges for others to take up the bucket and take up the fight.

By the end of last summer, the Ice Bucket Challenge had become an Internet sensation, and millions were raised for the fight against the disease. One New York ALS chapter reported that it raised $7.6 million last summer thanks to the Ice Bucket Challenge, compared to $32,000 during the same time period the year before.

Notre Dame players have enthusiastically taken up the fight against ALS. Last season, Frates traveled with Boston College as its director of baseball operations to Chicago State’s Cougar Stadium, where Notre Dame played host to the Eagles in an Atlantic Coast Conference series. Frates is now unable to move or speak, and he could not travel to Notre Dame for this year’s event.

“I wanted them to know who he is,” Aoki said about Frates visiting the Fighting Irish last season. “I think he’s an example of being able to keep things in perspective.

“You can go out and lose a game that maybe on paper you were supposed to win, and it helps to keep it in perspective. You’ve got a young person who is not very much older than our players now. Seven or eight years ago he was in the exact same shoes these guys are walking in, and he now is dealing with an incredibly debilitating and incredibly cruel disease. I think it helps to keep it all in perspective.”

Aoki said Frates would have been a perfect Notre Dame man.

“Pete comes from a wonderful family,” Aoki said. “He is a kid who would fit right in on this campus. He’s really, truly shown the type of person that he is in the way that he’s dealt with this disease. He’s dealt with it head on, he’s tried to make a difference–and he has. I’m not sure you can ask anything more of any person.”

Irish senior leader Forrest Johnson said Notre Dame students-athletes embrace community service, which is one of the pillars of Fighting Irish athletics established by Notre Dame vice president and director of athletics Jack Swarbrick. Johnson added that the ALS event is particularly significant for the Irish baseball team.

“There’s definitely a personal connection there,” Johnson said. “Pete Frates was just like any of us, a normal guy, a great athlete. It just shows how sometimes things don’t go your way and you have to fight through it. It’s been nice for our team, and the baseball community and all of college baseball, to rally around Pete and his family and support his fight.

“Last year was a really special moment, two historic rivals like Notre Dame and Boston College coming together and showing him our complete support. It’s a privilege to wear the Pete Frates ALS patch on our backs. He was amazing. He’s a stud. He’s been fighting like you wouldn’t believe, and his family is amazing.”

According to Johnson, the ALS event is one of many ways the Fighting Irish give back.

“Service is one of our pillars, especially at the University of Notre Dame,” Johnson said. “It’s embedded in the Catholic way. It’s really great to give back to the community that gives so much to us. It’s something that we take very seriously.

“We do tons of volunteer hours and community service activities in the fall, whether it’s Habitat for Humanity or Dream Team, where we go to local schools and help young children as mentors or help with tutoring. It’s something our team really embraces, and we enjoy the opportunity to give back.”

Irish junior infielder Lane Richards splashed into the icy water when his friend from his hometown of Pendleton, Oregon, Alex O’Rourke, ran up and hit the lever after missing with two fastballs.

After Richards toweled off, he expressed gratitude to be involved in the ALS event.

“There’s no greater feeling than giving to someone who is in need,” Richards said. “They teach us life lessons at Notre Dame that we will carry with us after we leave. This is a huge part of what we do, especially in the off-season, but even during the season we try to do as much as we can. We’re so fortunate to be at Notre Dame. It’s important to give back to those who are less fortunate than us.”

Aoki said all of the Notre Dame programs are involved in community service.

“I think our commitment to service manifests itself in a lot of ways in our athletic department, everything from the really high profile things like Muffet (McGraw) and women’s basketball with the Pink Zone events and the Habitat for Humanity house that we did as a department. There are countless other things that are unseen that get done throughout the year by our student-athletes and the general study body.”

Notre Dame’s baseball team helped clean up a baseball field in Savannah, Georgia, during a spring trip and has also adopted a youngster battling a brain tumor. The Irish also hit local elementary schools to serve as mentors and tutors.

“I think we get more out of it than the people we try to serve get out of it,” Aoki said. “It gives us a sense of perspective about how fortunate we are to be at an institution like Notre Dame and to be able to play baseball at an institution like this. I think it’s really important that one of the things we’re able to teach our young people is that whatever skills and talents you have are also able to be shared to make the world a better place. The world gets to be a better place by doing small things like this over and over and over again.

“This is something that is part of athletics at Notre Dame. We want to touch a lot of lives. We’ve got a platform to be able to help.”

Craig Biggio said that as a parent of student-athletes at Notre Dame, he appreciates the University’s call to service. He agreed with Aoki that athletes many times take the lead in service.

“I think athletes really, truly get it,” Biggio said. “To be a professional for 20 years, I’m delighted to be part of the fraternity. The fraternity I’m talking about–you’ve got baseball, hockey, football, basketball–there are so many guys who do so many wonderful things. They give back. They give back with time. They give back with money. That’s what life is about. I’m very happy to be part of it. Today is another one of these deals that is for a great cause and for a great person.

“Athletes understand it,” Biggio said. “We all count our blessings.”

— by Curt Rallo, special correspondent