Former Pirates coach Rich Donnelly shares story of heartbreak, hope and a chicken

November 26, 2018

The words inscribed on her tombstone remain embedded in Rich Donnelly’s mind ... “The Chicken Runs at Midnight.”

That saying was coined by his late daughter, Amy, who died of a brain tumor at the age of 18 in January 1993.

It became the title of a book telling a story of love, hope, laughter and a connection that lives on long after death.

In February of 1992, Amy Donnelly called her father, a Pittsburgh Pirates third base coach, who was at spring training in Florida. She called to tell him she had a brain tumor.

Amy was given nine months to live.

“When I got that call from my daughter, she said ‘Dad, I have a brain tumor, and I am sorry.’ I was stunned. I was her hero, but at the time I didn’t really know it.”

Her final days

Donnelly came home to be by her side, but Amy sent him back to the Pirates while she underwent treatment, knowing his dream was to win a title.

In the playoffs that season after Game 5 of the National League Championship Series between the Pirates and the Braves, his daughter noticed him cupping his hands together and shouting to the runners on base.

“In the car on the ride home she asked me, ‘Were you telling the runners that ‘The Chicken Runs at Midnight?’ I laughed at this nonsensical phrase she has just randomly blurted out.”

But those words would come back to have a meaning that Rich Donnelly will never forget.

Before the next playoff game, Amy couldn’t reach him on the phone to wish him good luck, so she asked the team receptionist to deliver a hand-written message, “The Chicken Runs at Midnight.”

The Pirates lost that game and were out of the postseason, but the saying became a mantra for the family. It stood for never giving in, for keeping your dignity and sense of humor through tough times. When Amy died, the saying was written on her tombstone.

About the book

Written by Emmy- nominated sports journalist Tom Friend, “The Chicken Runs at Midnight,” (Zondervan, $24.99) . The tale is woven around how God worked a miracle through Donnelly’s dying daughter in the 1997 World Series, and how her energy and bravery changed his heart and life and touched a community.

Friend approached Donnelly about a book after doing a piece on the story for ESPN. Friend visited Donnelly in Steubenville, Ohio, and then spent a year calling him about three times a week talking about his late daughter.

The book is divided into first base, second base, third base and home. It shares the literal and figurative story that one can’t make it home safely, without first touching third base. When you reach third base you feel like “something grand is near.” So that’s why it’s important to have a quality third base coach - that person was Donnelly, who will be there to guide you home, to deliver you to your safe, tranquil place, it says in the book’s introduction. There is one entire chapter entitled “Dad, I’m Sorry.”

Another excruciating loss

Donnelly lost another child when his son Michael, 38, was killed when he was hit by a car as he stopped to help someone on the side of the road in January.

“A lot of people have things happen to them in their life,” says Donnelly, who played and coached baseball for 48 years, including his time as a catcher in minor league baseball. “It might not be an untimely death, but it might be an illness or another hardship. With my book I try to make people laugh and cry. I try to inspire them to be better human beings. And I talk to them about the mistakes I made in my life. I spent so many months away from my family, my house, my children. You pay a price for that.”

He remembers the time his wife asked him to go out to dinner because she wanted to talk to an adult for a few hours.

“I was busy with my career and I had blinders on,” he says. “I would do anything to be a big league coach. You get caught in this web and you can’t get out.”

His story is a moving one, touching people he’s met along the way, he says. Donnelly travels, giving talks about his life and shares everything from loss to heartache to some regret, but says his faith has been strengthened through this journey.

“I have been selling books wherever I go,” says Donnelly, who at a book signing in his hometown of Steubenville, sold out the inventory in 13 minutes. He’s had 32 interviews about the book.

“My faith has made me stronger, and my wife keeps me grounded, reminding me to remember who I am, and where I came from,” he says. “Faith is the answer to a lot of problems in our life.”

Amy’s saying lives on

Four years after his daughter’s death, Donnelly was then the third base coach for the Florida Marlins. It was 1997 and second baseman Craig Counsell was nicknamed “the chicken man,” by Donnelly’s sons who were bat boys. Counsell earned the nickname for the way he flapped his arms like a bird and stood with a bizarre stance when he was batting.

The Marlins reached the World Series and in the 11th inning of the decisive Game 7, Counsell, who currently coaches the Milwaukee Brewers, scored the winning run from third base.

While Donnelly was celebrating the championship, his son Tim screamed for him to look at the clock. It was midnight and Counsell, aka ... the chicken man, had just scored the winning run at midnight.

The chicken really HAD run at midnight.

When I hear that phrase it still makes me laugh all these years later, says Donnelly, whose story is being discussed for a movie adaptation.

There was a photo he hadn’t seen until the book was published. It shows him and Tim Donnelly hugging between first and second base of that 1997 World Series and the clock showing a few minutes past midnight.

“I remember that moment when my son told me to look at the clock and I dropped to my knees,” Donnelly says. “It was a miracle. It was an out-of-body experience. Everything I dreamed about as a kid came true, and I couldn’t catch my breath. I would have carried Craig Counsell to home plate if I had to. I remember running right behind him and leaping off the ground, my hands in the air, reaching for my daughter in heaven.”

Details: zondervan.com

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