Drayer: Mariners affected by ALS embrace MLB’s Lou Gehrig Day

Jun 2, 2021, 12:28 PM | Updated: 1:01 pm
Mariners Jacob Nottingham...
Jacob Nottingham has a tattoo in tribute to Lou Gehrig and family members. (Getty)

Today – Wednesday, June 2 – Lou Gehrig joins Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente as the only players to have a single day dedicated to them annually throughout MLB.

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June 2, 1925 was the day Gehrig took over as the starting first baseman of the New York Yankees, and 16 years later to the day he lost his battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – ALS, also commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. That date will now be Lou Gehrig Day, where baseball remembers his legacy, raises awareness and funds for ALS research, and celebrates those who pursue a cure.

The disease, which has no cure, has touched a number of Mariners. That includes pitcher Justin Dunn, who as a member of the Boston College baseball team got to know Pete Frates, former BC team captain and co-founder of the Ice Bucket Challenge, who succumbed to the disease in 2019.

“It means everything to have this day,” said Dunn, who celebrates his friend during Mariners games with the words “Team Fratetrain” and “Strikeout ALS” embroidered on his glove. “To see the effect that disease actually has on people’s lives, the families, it’s terrible. Anything I can do to help continue to find a cure is what I told Pete I was going to help him do when I met him in 2013.”

Dunn is not the only Mariners player to have been inspired by Frates. Infielder Eric Campbell, currently with the Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers, was Frates’ teammate at Boston College and was actually taken under Frates’ wing when he made a recruiting trip to the school. Campbell counts that encounter as the main reason he chose to attend BC.

“He’s the man,” Campbell said, voice cracking with emotion. “One of the best teammates I ever had. He just made me feel so welcome from the get-go. He was a guy who would just sit down, eat breakfast with you and just want to talk to you about your life, and that never changed. Team captain, one of the best people I have ever met. Would run through a brick wall for the team, would do anything for you. It’s definitely a sad story, but for what he did for ALS, with what he went through, it just shows you what kind of person he is. He was the best. Just a special human being.”

As Dunn made his way through the minors and encountered struggles, he would often receive texts of encouragement from Frates.

“He taught me to fight,” Dunn said. “I can go back and pull up DMs; he put a lot of things in perspective. I can go out and have last year not be the best year of my life, I can look at it as a negative, or I can be diagnosed with that disease and have a smile on my face every day like he did. He kind of showed me no matter what I am going through in life, it will never be as bad as that. If he can look at what was essentially a death sentence and go to his family and say that ‘my goal now is I don’t want anybody else to ever have to go through what I am going through,’ he’s a hero, he’s a legend, and he will live with me forever.”

That perspective is shared by Campbell.

“It’s just one of those reminders in life, just don’t take it for granted,” he said. “Enjoy it and realize how lucky we are. That’s what I got out of it. He was one of the best athletes I’ve seen. Could run, could hit, could play hockey, could do anything. Could talk to anybody. For something like that to happen to him, it just shows you nothing is promised.”

Catcher/first baseman Jacob Nottingham is another Mariners player who is all too familiar with the disease as it has claimed two family members, his grandmother and aunt.

“My dad was very young when he lost his mom, but I saw it first-hand with my aunt when I was a freshman in high school,” Nottingham said. “One day she is limping and then a couple weeks later she’s in a wheelchair and a couple weeks after that she’s not able to use her hands. It kind of just slowly takes away your body and your life. To see that and to see my dad go through that process, it’s not fun. That’s your dad, you look up to him all your life. It’s heartbreaking.”

Nottingham honors his family members with a massive tattoo on his left arm.

“Lou Gehrig looking down and my aunt and grandma holding hands and walking the stairway up to him,” Nottingham described. “I surprised my dad with it. It brought the biggest smile. He was speechless. I know he loved it a lot.”

To see his sport pay recognition to Gehrig, the cause and the families affected by the disease is a matter of pride for Nottingham, who made it his goal to be on a big league roster on this day after being slowed in spring training due to offseason thumb surgery.

“Being able to be in the big leagues on this day, it’s very special for my family,” said Nottingham, who joined the Mariners after being claimed on waivers May 20. “To be able to spread the awareness across the country, across the world, being able to have this day for those people, those families, because it’s a hard process to go through because there is no cure. That’s tough. You never know. To be able to recognize those families, it’s going to be very uplifting.”

The stark reality is that since the day Lou Gehrig died in 1941, not one person has survived ALS. Eighty years later the prognosis for an individual diagnosed with the disease remains the same. There are experimental treatments that have shown some promise, but there’s still great distance to a cure.

“I think what the league is doing, this is our disease,” Dunn pointed out. “Unfortunately we will always be associated with it but I think we can do some great things as a league and really bring awareness. Maybe we can be the ones that create the awareness enough to get it taken care of and find a cure.”

Major League Baseball and its players will use their platform to support those fighting the disease and those fighting for a cure. In that, Nottingham sees the potential for impact.

“It’s huge,” he said. “To be able to spread our awareness, our love and support out to families. Any day we can make anything a little better, that’s kind of the goal in life. Any time we can show and put on a smile, that’s a win.”

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Drayer: Mariners affected by ALS embrace MLB’s Lou Gehrig Day