Visiting all 30 MLB ballparks is on the wish list of a lot of baseball fans. But for Larry Falivena, a husband and father of two, accomplishing that goal is about much more than the game.
In August of 2017, Falivena was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. It is a progressive degenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Patients gradually lose control of muscle movement, affecting their ability to speak, walk, eat and ultimately breathe.
It is, in Falivena’s words, “a devastating diagnosis.” But it is one he, and so many others touched by the disease, are determined to put an end to.
“If my time is truly limited, I want to use it the best way possible,” Falivena said to CNN. “So, the two thoughts in my head were: I want to do something with my family, and I want to do something that’s going to have an impact against ALS.”
He and his family hit the road this summer, with the plan of Falivena seeing a game at every MLB ballpark over a three-month span. Falivena, his wife Shana and their two sons, Quinn, 14, and Piersen, 12, have traded the comfort of their home in Apex, North Carolina, for life in a 26-foot RV.
Falivena’s journey began May 30. It continues Tuesday to Progressive Field — his 13th stadium — for the MLB All-Star Game in Cleveland, Ohio.
“People with this disease, they’re not quitters,” Falivena said. “They get up and they fight.”
Accepting the challenge
In 2014, ALS resurfaced in the national and international consciousness via a viral sensation known as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Millions of people, including Falivena and his family, took the plunge and uploaded videos to social media, leading to a spike in awareness, research and over $115 million in donations to the ALS Association.
“To be honest, at the time I really didn’t know exactly what this was,” Falivena said. “But when you get the diagnosis, the first thing you read is there’s no cure, it’s terminal and you have two to five years.”
This year the ALS Association issued the “Challenge Me” campaign to reignite the fight against ALS. Falivena proudly accepted.
“The theme has been positivity and hope,” Falivena said. “And it started with Lou Gehrig 80 years ago.”
A nod to “Iron Horse” Lou Gehrig
In February, Larry and Shana Falivena met with the CEO of the ALS Association, Calaneet Balas. Out of those talks, Falivena’s Iron Horse Tour was born.
While this summer marks the fifth anniversary of the Ice Bucket Challenge, it also marks the 80th anniversary of Gehrig’s address at Yankee Stadium. Gehrig, dubbed the “Iron Horse” for playing 2,130 consecutive games, retired from baseball in 1939 after being diagnosed with ALS. From home plate he famously told the crowd, “For the past two weeks, you have been reading about a bad break. Yet today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
The Iron Horse Tour is a clear acknowledgment to Gehrig. But it’s also a nod to the unwavering positivity and courage that Falivena and his family have encountered when meeting people whose lives have also been touched by ALS.
“This mission is more important than being comfortable and safe and protected in our own little bubble in Apex,” Shana Falivena said to CNN. “We want to be out there in the world making a difference and making an impact on this disease.”
The 30th and final ballpark stop will be in Atlanta
The trip is a challenge in every sense. For Shana, figuring out how to navigate an RV through the remainder of several major cities is far from her norm. For Larry, the ballpark experience he fell in love with as a kid now includes a frustrating and exhausting journey to his seat. Their two boys, unlike in years past, will spend more time helping out and less time hanging out with their dad.
But the Falivenas are used to accepting — and conquering — the challenges that this cruel disease puts in front of them every day. And they will keep moving. Their trip will conclude in Atlanta on September 8, where Falivena will watch his childhood team, the Atlanta Braves, take on the Washington Nationals.
“Visiting the 30 ballparks is great and it’s amazing, but it’s really the vehicle that allowed me to raise awareness, to raise money for research, raise money for the ALS Association, and at the same time be able to tell stories of all these other people who are facing ALS,” Falivena said.