People with ALS have their 'Fields of Dreams'

Minor League Baseball has helped increase public awareness

Bill Blake and his wife, Cindy, kick off the Peoria, Ill., Walk to Defeat ALS at O'Brien Field, home to the Peoria Chiefs baseball team.

By Gary Wosk / Minor League Baseball | May 1, 2008 9:44 AM ET

For the more than 30,000 people living in this country with ALS, Minor League Baseball is an organization that does much more than field teams that try to win games and develop players who advance to the "Show."

The ALS Association has been a member of Minor League Baseball's Charity Partners program (CPP) since 2003. Since then, the partnership has given people with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a progressive, neurodegenerative muscular disease, something there can never be enough of: hope.

Minor League Baseball has rallied behind this cause, increased the public's awareness of ALS, and has been the source of additional funding for services and programs and research into possible therapies and a cure. On average, a person with ALS survives from two to five years from the time of diagnosis.

Gary A. Leo, the president and CEO of The Association, and an ardent baseball fan, said that the importance of the relationship with Minor League Baseball cannot be underscored enough.

"Our relationship with Minor League Baseball has given a big boost to hopes and inspirations of The ALS Association and to those we help everyday throughout the country," Leo said.

The mere sight of O'Brien Field, the stadium of the Minor League Baseball Peoria Cubs, is uplifting to Bill Blake, a former electrician. When he sets up an ALS Awareness information table inside the stadium and inquisitive passers-by stop by to talk -- including those who know someone who has or had what is commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig's Disease -- his adrenalin begins to flow.

"I am very grateful that Minor League Baseball chose us," said Blake, who lives just outside of Peoria, Ill. "People with ALS, including myself, are overwhelmed and gratified by the fact the league and the fans really care. It is different for us when the spotlight is on us at the game compared to a movie theater or going to a grocery store where the public looks at us and has no idea what is going on."

Blake, 54, does not want his grandchildren and children to ever know there was such a disease as ALS. "I hope that the efforts of everyone will pay off and that in the future ALS will be an afterthought like polio. The increased awareness at the ballparks, and not necessarily the money, will contribute to bringing us closer to conquering ALS."

The opportunity to participate in an ALS awareness event on Frontier Field, home of the Rochester Red Wings, gave Jeff Dunlap, who lives in Rochester, N.Y., quite a nice feeling. A lifelong fan of the New York Yankees, Dunlap, 54, likes what he sees on the part of CPP.

"It seems to me that Minor League and even Major League Baseball are true supporters in the fight against ALS," said Dunlap, a manager in the maintenance department of the New York State Department of Transportation. "I believe it goes back to New York Yankee legend Lou Gehrig, and the leagues continue the tradition of doing everything that can be done to making the lives of people with ALS a lot easier."

Each time Dunlap attends a game at Frontier Stadium he becomes nostalgic. "You cannot help but think about what Lou went through. It strikes your heart a little bit. There is a moving moment, but when the game starts you forget about that and enjoy the game."

The president of Minor League Baseball, Pat O'Conner, believes most people in the ALS community feel the same way as Blake and Dunlap about CPP.

"I would hope people with ALS feel good knowing that there are people in a position such as ours that have chosen to participate in the effort to find a cure for ALS and help them in their daily lives," said O'Conner, who oversees 160 teams and 15 leagues in the United States. "In a much more microscopic sense I also would hope that the four hours that they are at the ballpark or as a participant in something that we are doing, that this brings them a little joy on that given day."

When ballplayers interact with people with ALS, it builds their character.

"From the standpoint of feeling good about yourself and having more confidence, there is no question this helps you as a player because you see what is going on," O'Conner said. "To me what is so impressive is the courage and strength and conviction that people with ALS have to keep going and fighting. Anyone who talks with them and is not touched by that and made a better human being has no soul."

Coaches and staff, not only ballplayers, at all levels of Minor League Baseball benefit from the partnership with The ALS Association.

"So many of our people are interested in helping," O'Conner said. "They realize that they have been blessed. They realize that they have been very fortunate and realize that there are people who have been dealt a different hand. To be able to interact with people with ALS, whether it is signing an autograph or spending five minutes with them, it is a feel-good opportunity."

The strong bond that exists between The Association and the League began more than two decades ago. O'Conner describes The Association as a model, a poster charity for the Charity Partners Program because it demonstrates "how you can most effectively benefit from the reach, increase the reach and expand the universe of people who are participating."

"There are many charities that we could have chosen," he said. "This speaks very highly of The ALS Association. "People with ALS should feel good that our league recognizes the charity they seek help from one of the top charities in the country for Minor League Baseball."

In 2007, Minor League Baseball teams raised more than $500,000 for The Association's national network of chapters and donated more than $98,000 through gift-in-kind opportunities ranging from silent auctions and tickets to the pre-game first pitch and the use of stadiums for events.

The Association and Minor League Baseball were busy during the off-season developing special events. A main focus again this year will be Lou Gehrig Day and Nights at ballparks. Over the years, The Association and Minor League Baseball have sponsored such programs as "K's for a Cure" and "Fun to be a Fan" bracelets. In addition, there were full-page advertisements commemorating the 100th birthday of Lou Gehrig and a specially prepared public service announcement narrated by Bob Costas.

Last year, nearly one-half of Minor League Baseball teams participated with The Association in the CPP program and even more are expected to sign on this year. The goal is to have all 160 teams participate.

"Each year we try to establish an increase in the amount of teams that participate," said Jill Rusinko, manager, Durham operations. "Our goal for this year is to double the amount of teams involved on every level. The more teams we have in the program the better for both groups."

Winning a game is always sweet; however, even when the home team does not come out ahead, the goodwill that has been generated by a CPP special event will have a longer lasting effect.

"The partnership is a win-win for both groups," Rusinko said. "Minor League Baseball has stronger relationships in the community because of the partnership with The ALS Association. This gives our teams a chance to give back to their community along with raising awareness and funds for a cause that is close to many hearts. It is also a way for communities to come together at ballparks around the country for a great cause."

The partnership between The Association and Minor League Baseball, though successful, has barely tapped its potential. "This is something we are really interested in, expanding the touch and connection," O'Conner said. "For me, what is key is that not only is there a level of acceptance but that there is a growing level of acceptance, and that is the sign that we are on the right track."

The ALS Association is the pre-eminent leader in the fight against Lou Gehrig's Disease. The mission of the organization is to lead the fight to cure and treat ALS through global, cutting-edge research, and to empower people with Lou Gehrig's Disease and their families to live fuller lives by providing them with compassionate care and support.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

View More