Phillies’ Aaron Nola honors ALS heroes for Lou Gehrig Day

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Nola honors ALS heroes, including a loved one recently passed originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

One day during the first week of spring training back in February, Aaron Nola excused himself from morning pitchers’ stretch and asked manager Joe Girardi for a minute of his time.

Nola was scheduled to throw a bullpen session the next day. He wanted to see if it was OK with Girardi if he moved the time up a couple of hours.

“No problem,” Girardi said. “Everything OK?”

The two men spoke for a few moments and Girardi patted Nola on the shoulder before the pitcher rejoined his teammates who were getting ready for that day’s workout.

The next morning, Nola threw an early bullpen session then grabbed his iPhone and found a quiet back room at the ballpark so he could virtually attend the funeral of a beloved uncle.

While still in his Phillies practice uniform.

“I heard my dad singing and it was pretty emotional,” Nola said one recent day. “It was difficult not being there, but with COVID, everything was limited.

“I think my uncle would have understood. He was one of the nicest guys you’d ever meet. He’d do anything for you.”

Alan Andries died on February 10 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana after a courageous six-year battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, as it is commonly known. He was 75.

Along with his mom and dad, Stacie and A.J., and his girlfriend, Hunter, Aaron had dinner with his uncle Alan and aunt Maureen shortly before heading to Florida for spring training. Maureen is one of A.J.’s six siblings.

It was a wonderful night and Alan was in a great state of mind, Aaron said, but the pace of the disease had quickened.

“I prayed it wouldn’t be the last time I saw him,” Aaron said. “But I know he was in a good place with God and his family loved him. We’re a very close family.”

Baseball is a close family, too, and for more than 80 years, ALS has been a disease associated with the game. Gehrig, nicknamed The Iron Horse for his amazing durability during his Hall of Fame career with the New York Yankees, contracted the disease when he was 36 and died 17 days before his 38th birthday in 1941.

This season, Major League Baseball is honoring Gehrig’s legacy and raising awareness of the disease with the inaugural Lou Gehrig Day. It will be held each year on June 2, which is not only the day that Gehrig died, but also the day he began his record streak of 2,130 consecutive games played in 1925. Cal Ripken broke the record in 1995.

The Phillies were rained out Wednesday in Cincinnati, so they did not play on the first official Lou Gehrig Day. The team, however, had long planned to observe the occasion with a pre-game ceremony and event on Friday night. Players will wear special Lou Gehrig Day patches on their uniforms.

“I love that MLB is doing this,” said Nola, who, coincidentally, turns 28 on Friday.

Of course, the Phillies have always done their part for ALS. The ALS Association of Greater Philadelphia has been the team’s official charity for 37 years and the club has raised almost $20 million for the cause through a series of events, including the annual Phillies Phestival.

Nola has been all-in since arriving in town.

It’s personal for him.

Aaron Nola with his aunt and uncle, Maureen and Alan Andries, during a visit to Philadelphia in 2017.

“As heartbreaking as this disease is, I’ve met so many people who’ve been affected by it the last few years and they’re always upbeat, always positive, always saying they’re going to beat it,” Nola said.

“Getting to know these families just puts baseball and life into perspective. I mean, we have bad games, bad years, bad months, and it really means nothing in the big picture. Any one of us can be diagnosed with this and our career is over. Look at my uncle Alan, it came out of nowhere.

“But the positivity these people have is amazing especially when compared to the negativity we can have in sports and baseball. It’s normal to get mad and be negative if you didn’t throw a pitch in the spot you wanted or hit the ball when you needed to, but we can go on to the next pitch and get another chance. These guys don’t have another chance, they don’t have a cure, and they’re 10 times more positive and their belief is so strong. My whole outlook on baseball and life changed when I got a chance to talk to these people.

“They’re people you want to be around. It’s refreshing.”

Back home in Baton Rouge, the Nola family, all the aunts and uncles and cousins and everyone else, is proud of Aaron and his brother Austin, who plays for the San Diego Padres. Who wouldn’t be proud to have two family members make it to the major leagues?

But the folks back home are even prouder of the people that the Nola boys are.

In January 2020, before COVID changed the world, the Nola brothers, inspired by their uncle, ran a charity bowling event with the proceeds going to local ALS charities. They plan to do it again, in their uncle’s honor, once the world gets back to normal.

The world, of course, is never quite normal again when you lose a loved one, but there are memories, and Aaron Nola has plenty of them. Christmases. Thanksgivings. Ballgames. A favorite uncle who could fix anything. Who doesn’t need one of those?

Aaron recalled the time a bunch of his family members came to Philadelphia to watch him pitch in the summer of 2017. His uncle Alan and aunt Maureen were among the group and they had a memorable postgame feast at Scannicchio’s on South Broad Street.

“They loved touring Philly,” Aaron said. “It was their kind of place.”

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