Past Newsworthy Dads

The Coach Who
Headed Home

‘Chicken runs at midnight’ and other baseball tales

Gerald Korson

Rich Donnelly has had a baseball career that would be the envy of most men, and he’s got the World Series ring to prove it.

Yet he’s also had his share of suffering that he would wish for no man, including the loss of his teenage daughter to cancer.

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Raised in a devout Catholic home, Donnelly strayed from the faith during his early baseball days. But now he is back to Mass and even talks to men’s groups about his rugged journey, urging them not to let pursuit of success, or the lure of selfishness, keep them from their faith and family.

   

Rich Donnelly

His 40-plus years in professional baseball include four years as a minor-league catcher in the Minnesota Twins’ farm system, 10 years as a minor-league manager, and 27 years as an assistant coach for six different major league teams.

The championship ring came in 1997, when he was third-base coach during the Florida Marlins’ improbable victory in the World Series.

“I’ve had a great life and experienced things that 99 percent of men would like to experience as a baseball player and coach. I’ve been very fortunate,” said Donnelly, 62, who is in his second season as a player-development consultant for the Pittsburgh Pirates. “The glow of my job is a big deal, and I appreciate it. But my kids and grandkids are now the focus of my attention.”

It wasn’t always that way. Behind that impressive resume, Donnelly has suffered a family tragedy, a failed marriage, and a long period when he was spiritually adrift from the Catholic faith of his childhood. Yet like a true champion, he has managed to overcome these setbacks and find new meaning and happiness in his life through the rediscovery of his faith.

Steubenville Start

Donnelly’s story begins in Steubenville, Ohio, an industrial town on the Ohio River about a half- hour west of Pittsburgh, where he attended Catholic schools and learned to love baseball. His best friend in those years was a kid named Dan Abramowicz, who also came from a good Catholic family and became a football star for the New Orleans Saints.

“We were best of friends, very religious altar boys,” Donnelly told this reporter in a recent interview. “When other kids were goofing around, all we ever did was play ball and go to church. Everybody thought we were nuts.”

When it came time for college, Abramowicz convinced Donnelly to attend Xavier University in Cincinnati. For both young athletes, it proved a stepping stone toward fulfilling their childhood dreams. Abramowicz was drafted as a wide receiver by the New Orleans Saints and Donnelly was taken in the ninth round of the baseball draft by the Twins. (Abramowicz would star for the Saints for seven seasons; today he is a popular speaker on Catholic men’s spirituality and host of EWTN’s show “Crossing the Goal.”)

Four years later, Donnelly’s playing career stalled and he became a manager in the Rangers’ minor-league system, earning Manager of the Year honors three years running and leading his squad to a league championship. By this time, Donnelly had married, and he and his wife had started their family. In the early 1980s, he got his first big-league stint as an assistant coach with the Rangers.

The world of professional sports, however, was having a deleterious effect on Donnelly’s spiritual life.

“I was afraid to be Catholic. I was ashamed to go to church,” he explained. “I felt that to be in the big leagues you had to be a tough guy, and church wasn’t a part of that. It just wasn’t important to me. It wasn’t a priority in my life.”

The loss of his spiritual center affected his marriage and family life. Donnelly looks back on those years with great regret.

“I was very self-centered. I’ve always had an ego, but it was out of control,” he said. “Now that I look back, I can’t believe some of the things I did during that time. I can’t even fathom acting like that ever again.”

Finally, after eight children and 18 years of marriage, Donnelly and his wife were divorced. They later obtained a Church annulment.

The road back to the faith was circuitous and prolonged, a series of very small steps.

“I was miserable,” he said. “I started to ask myself: When was I most happy in my life? And I realized it was when I was young, when I practiced the faith, when I went to Mass every day and said three decades of the Rosary every day. And I said to myself, ‘That’s what I’ve got to start doing.’”

The process was slow.

‘Chicken Runs At Midnight’

In 1989, Donnelly married his present wife, Roberta. Three years later, when he was at spring training with the Pittsburgh Pirates, he received a life-changing telephone call, the beginning of every parent’s nightmare: His 16-year-old daughter, Amy, had been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.

“I was just starting to come back to the Church and was asking myself, ‘What should I do here?’” he said. “And then she got the illness.”

Always her father’s biggest fan, Amy managed to attend Game 5 of the National League Championship Series, although weakened from her medical treatment. After the game, she had a question for her dad: What did he say to the runner on second base when he cupped his hands over his mouth to give him a signal? “Chicken runs at midnight?” she suggested. The phrase was apparently meaningless, but Donnelly began repeating it to players in the clubhouse and it became a family motto of sorts.

The Pirates lost the playoff series, and Amy died a few months later, on Jan. 28, 1993.

The agonizing final months both tested and strengthened Donnelly’s resurgent faith.

“After you have something like that happen, everything else in life, no matter what, seems kind of trivial,” he said. “Everybody has problems in their life, and I would never wish that on anybody, that they would have to go through losing one of their kids to become a better father.”

For Donnelly, Amy’s death was his final wake-up call.

“It was like somebody was trying to get my attention, but they weren’t getting my full attention,” he said. “In those nine months, I did a lot of soul-searching, and I was pretty well resolved to try to be the person I should be. It basically brought me all the way back to the Church. Now I’m proud to go to church, proud to be a Catholic, proud to be a Christian. I don’t go out and carry signs and profess it like that, but I live my life with the values I learned growing up — and I’m happy.”

Four years later came the magical 1997 season with the Marlins. In Game 7 of the World Series against the Cleveland Indians, in the top of the 11th inning with the score tied, Donnelly waved home Marlin base runner Craig “The Chicken” Counsell with what would prove to be the winning run. As the players leaped in celebration, 10-year-old Tim Donnelly told his father to look at the scoreboard clock. It was midnight. “The chicken” had indeed run at midnight.

Donnelly saw it as a message from his daughter. He still thinks about her daily.

“I talk to her every day,” he said. “In everything I do, I ask, ‘Amy, I hope you like this. I hope you like what your dad has become.’ I didn’t do that before. It was all about me.”

Since that time, Donnelly has tried to make up for lost opportunities. He talks to his children often, and to their children, phoning every few days. When he travels to California and Florida for his new job with the Pirates, he makes sure to visit his family in both places. He has recast himself as the father and grandfather he feels he is supposed to be.

He even talks to men’s groups about fatherhood and is featured in a DVD “Champions of Faith,” in which Catholic athletes offer personal testimonies.

If he had to do it over again, he’d do it a lot differently. For one, he would focus on enjoying time with his children more.

“I’d be sitting in my big chair, and there were times my daughter Amy would come up to me and ask me to play ball with her,” Donnelly recalled. “And I would say, ‘Amy, I’m watching my football game. I’ll play with you later.’ But I never would. I regret that to this day.”

Children “want you to be there,” he said. “You can tape the game and watch it a hundred times. If your daughter or son asks you to do something with them, then just go do it. Don’t be selfish like I was. They might not ask you that again.”

(For more information on the “Champions of Faith” DVD, visit www.championsoffaith.com.)

Gerald Korson writes from Fort Wayne, Indiana.