ALS charity founder seeks to inspire minor-leaguers at Pirate City
From left, Suzanne and Neil Alexander enjoy a Pirates spring training game with their daughter Abby, 11, and son Patrick, 9, at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla.
Neil Alexander, center, joins minor league baseball players Aaron Pribanic, left, and Clayton Holmes in prayer.
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The Luckiest Man:Living with Lou Gehrig's Disease
One in an occasional series by The Pittsburgh Press
BRADENTON, Fla. -- As long as he has a voice, Neil Alexander plans to talk about Lou Gehrig's disease.
Mr. Alexander, 47, of O'Hara, has the degenerative motor neuron disease, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, and someday, it will leave him unable to speak.
But Tuesday night, his voice was still strong enough to carry across a cafeteria to the minor league players gathered at Pirate City, the team's spring training facility.
The players -- about 150 of them from teams including the Altoona Curve and the West Virginia Power -- are approaching the conclusion of spring training's minor league camp. Their meeting was about the Pirates Community Commitment Program, an initiative started in 2008 that requires each Pirates minor league player to complete 10 hours of community service per season.
According to the Pirates, more than 10,000 community service hours have been logged since the start of the program.
Mr. Alexander, along with his wife Suzanne and their 11-year-old daughter Abby and 9-year-old son Patrick, had already planned to be in Florida this week, fulfilling Mr. Alexander's lifelong goal of attending spring training.
During their stay, the Pirates invited Mr. Alexander, who founded the organization LiveLikeLou.org after his ALS diagnosis in the summer of 2011, to offer perspective and inspiration to their players.
Frank Coonelly, president of the Pirates, introduced Mr. Alexander, saying that he and his wife "are making a difference in the lives of others."
In a way, it was a moment come full circle for Mr. Alexander, an executive at Pittsburgh's Hefren-Tillotson financial firm.
A lifelong Pirates fan, Mr. Alexander found inspiration in the example of a New York Yankee, Lou Gehrig, the Hall of Famer who was struck down by the disease that now bears his name. But not at first.
Mr. Alexander recounted to the Pirates players the daze he and his wife found themselves in after his diagnosis.
"We were just kind of sleepwalking through our lives," he said. An email from his mother-in-law, saying she was going to move to Pittsburgh to help, snapped them back into focus, he joked. They decided to change the way they were reacting.
They launched LiveLikeLou.org to raise awareness of ALS and raise money for patient care and for research into the disease, which has no cure and no effective treatment.
The fund is named after Gehrig, but on Tuesday, Mr. Alexander connected it to another baseball great: Roberto Clemente, a Pirate who died in a plane crash in 1972 attempting to deliver supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
Although Clemente had great accomplishments in baseball, his more defining legacy is the way he lived and eventually died, helping others, Mr. Alexander said.
He called on the Pirates players to live like Lou and Clemente.
"All of you have an opportunity now, through this program, to find out what's going to be your legacy," he said.
First Published March 20, 2013 4:27 pm