“Fearless” in her fight for a career in baseball—and against ALS

Sarah Langs, AB’15, hopes to bring awareness to disease, inspire other women to work in baseball

Editor’s note: This story is part of Meet a UChicagoan, a regular series focusing on the people who make UChicago a distinct intellectual community. Read about the others here.

Sarah Langs has learned much about herself in the last three years—likely the three most difficult of her life. But it’s reinforced one fact: She does not love the spotlight.

The trouble is, when you shine as bright as the University of Chicago alum has, despite impossible odds, the attention is hard to avoid. With her rapid ascent in sports media—in which she rose from a Chicago Maroon sports editor to a research gig at ESPN, to joining MLB.com as a reporter and researcher, to MLB Network as a baseball analyst, to being a part of the first all-woman broadcast of a Major League Baseball game—Langs, AB’15, was already rocketing into national media stardom.

But in a cruel twist, it’s been her fight against and work to bring public awareness to a terminal disease that has forced her into the public eye.

Langs has ALS: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It is 100% fatal, and the average life expectancy after diagnosis is just three to five years. The 30-year-old Langs knows her odds, but she also knows she still has work to do.

“I’m not a fan of all of this, but I’m a fan of what it’s doing for the world, hopefully,” she said of the attention, which has included stories in The New York Post and The Athletic, a TV spotlight in ESPN’s Outside the Lines, social media campaigns, and shoutouts from MLB stars and media stalwarts.

“I don’t enjoy talking about myself, and I don’t enjoy this attention, but I’m glad to do it for the opportunity to bring this issue to forefront—to bring the awareness and to show people what ALS looks like,” said Langs. “I think ALS really needs some more PR; you know?”

A talent shaped at UChicago

Langs, who grew up in New York City’s Upper East Side, has loved baseball since childhood. She recalls there always being a game on growing up, as her father, Charles Langs, an avid New York Mets fan, and her mother, Liise-anne Pirofski, a San Francisco Giants devotee, instilled that love into their only child. By the time she was choosing a college, Langs already knew she wanted a career in baseball. 

One of the dealbreakers for selecting a university town? “If there wasn’t a ballpark there, then why would we even visit?” Langs recalled with a laugh. “That wasn’t directly said, but that was kind of the undertone.”

With not one, but two baseball stadiums, Chicago fit the bill. Langs fell in love during her visit to the Hyde Park campus, and started to carve her own path to baseball.

After settling on a major in comparative human development, she began an atypical career path at UChicago. One of her first victories was her refusal to take ‘no’ for an answer until being accepted into a senior-level class, titled Baseball in American History, 1840s to Present.

Assoc. Prof. Matthew Briones, who taught the course, witnessed how the former first-year student—always wearing a Mets hat—held her own in a course meant for history majors, and filled predominately with men.

“She’s just fearless, you know?” Briones said. “She stuck her oar in and was not ashamed or worried of whatever opinion she had, because she always had the evidence to back it up.”

For Langs, the course was a dream.

“It was a history class, not a baseball class—it was about the cultural history in the United States and how it translated with baseball, and it was amazing,” Langs recalled. “There I was, having just turned 19. I never imagined I could do something like that in college, and it was really cool to sit there and be like: ‘Yeah, I want to be a baseball reporter; this is why I’m here (at UChicago).’”  

At UChicago, she quickly took on sports editing duties at The Maroon student newspaper and made it her mission to the cover its NCAA Division III school as if it were a Big Ten powerhouse, even if that meant “bothering”  full-time UChicago students at the library for interviews.

Later in her college career, she held internships at The New York Daily News, SportsNet New York (SNY) and CSN Chicago (now NBC Sports Chicago).

It was then that Langs found her niche: a knack for research. She landed her first full-time job as a researcher for ESPN’s Stats and Info division, before moving on to Major League Baseball’s media arm, where she’s worked as a reporter and researcher since 2019. While her role started behind the scenes—passing along interesting information to on-air talent—it didn’t take her long to be noticed by prominent figures at ESPN, including reporters Buster Olney and Karl Ravech. 

“Since the day we met on ‘Baseball Tonight,’ Sarah’s ‘will do, yes can, no problem’ attitude endeared her to everyone,” Ravech told the The New York Post. Once she was hired by MLB Advanced media, the rest was history. “I knew this was the beginning of the world being exposed to the brilliance of Sarah,” he added.

Briones has followed the meteoric rise of Langs, who often corresponds with her former UChicago professor about his beloved Boston Red Sox or another interesting tidbit that Langs might find, reminding her of former coursework.

“She just has this steel-trap mind—always curious and engaged at all times, this incredible intelligence but also perseverance and doggedness,” he said. “It’s clear when you listen to her on some of these podcasts, during news reports, just how really interested she is, and how she finds these numbers and these facts absolutely fascinating. It’s infectious, to be honest with you.”

Facing an impossible diagnosis

As Langs’ career continued to take off, a limp she assumed was a nagging ankle injury started to get worse. ALS can be very difficult to diagnose, and it took more than a year for doctors to determine the cause of her ailment. In 2021, at 28 years old, Langs was given the devastating news.

ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord—causing the motor neurons that govern voluntary movements and muscle control to degenerate. When these motor neurons die, the brain can no longer initiate and control muscle movement, causing ALS patients to lose their ability to speak, eat, move, and eventually, breathe. It’s estimated that there are more than 31,000 patients living with ALS in the U.S., though most of that population are men between the ages of 55 and 75.

Langs, not wanting be in the spotlight, or worse, let anything take away from her work, kept the diagnosis to herself and a few close others for more than a year before people started to notice changes in her voice, and her gait began to worsen. She announced it publicly on her Twitter account on Oct. 6, 2022.

She’s had to rely on the use of a wheelchair for more than a year, but Langs hasn’t stopped. She worked this year’s World Series, made regular appearances on podcasts like Baseball Tonight and TV shows like MLB Network’s MLB Now!, contributed to SNY’s Baseball Night in New York program, and continues to tweet historical facts related to MLB’s latest news—like the free agency of Japanese sensation Shohei Ohtani.

She credits her family, her longtime boyfriend, Matt Williams (a research specialist at ESPN), and friends to help her support her.

“One thing about ALS, it doesn’t affect your brain; it doesn’t affect your ability to think and be you in the same way you have always been. For me, one of the things I get strength from is baseball,” Langs said. “It’s always been the thing I’ve loved, loved thinking about, and talking about, and writing about. For me, this is what I love doing, so quitting wasn’t ever really a consideration.”

Finding a cure

At UChicago Medicine, researchers continue the fight to better understand and cure ALS. Prof. Raymond P. Roos, who has been studying ALS for more than 25 years, is part of a UChicago team studying the disease—more specifically, one of the 20+ genes that can cause ALS.

“We have a number of other projects we’re presently involved with that might be important for ALS in general, and I would like to think that the University of Chicago, our labs, may be very important in ALS research and ways of understanding and maybe new treatments as well,” said Roos, the Marjorie and Robert E. Strauss Professor of Neurology.

Roos and his colleague, neurobiologist Paschalis Kratsios, lead the University’s Center of Motor Neuron Disease. There, researchers are using a multidisciplinary approach to studying these gene mutations, including stem cell therapies. By activating a modified gene into the central nervous systems of mice, researchers have seen improvements in their motor defects, and have found this reproducible in human stem cell-derived motor neurons, bringing them closer to a potential therapy for not only ALS, but hopefully other neurogenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.

Langs has helped support research for ALS in a number of impactful ways. She using her online platform to raise money for Project ALS—a nonprofit based in New York with a mission to fund collaborative research. Last spring, she started the #FistBumps4ALS social media fundraising campaign with a goal to raise $30,000. So far, she’s raised nearly $85,000. Others have showed up for her cause too: Proceeds from RotoWear’s “Baseball is the Best | End ALS” shirts will go to ALS research, while good friend and MLB.com colleague, Mandy Bell, raised around $100,000 a year ago by running a half marathon in Langs’ honor. Ravech also organized the Stars for Sarah initiative, which sells handmade light-up stars, with 100% of the proceeds going to Project ALS.

In July, Langs was honored with six other women—all part of the awareness and community group Her ALS Story—at Yankee Stadium on the 84th anniversary of Gehrig’s famous “luckiest man on the face of the Earth” speech.

“I’ve just been so blown away by every person who has reached out to me, every word that I’ve heard,” Lang said of the support.

She has also encouraged others to do the same for their loved ones, too.

“One thing I’ve said a lot over the last year is you shouldn’t have to be dying to know you’re appreciated. And I’m grateful that no matter what, I will know how appreciated I am, but everyone should be aware of that.”

This past October, Langs was honored in another way. The Society for American Baseball Research announced the 2024 Sarah Langs Women in Baseball Analytics Scholarship, which will be awarded annually to two female-identifying recipients pursuing a career in baseball analytics or data science.

Langs hopes the scholarship can help students forge their own careers path—just like her.

“I’m just so grateful for the time I got at UChicago,” Langs added. “I don’t know if I end up where I am, had I gone to another school. Having to create that path, knowing that I was in the minority when I did, I think that made me even more primed to fight for what I wanted. I’m so thankful, and I think it couldn’t have worked out any better.”