Because he is an amiable baseball lifer, Rich Donnelly has friends and rooting interests for all of the teams in the postseason. One connection stands out, though. Brewers manager Craig Counsell will forever be linked to the third-base coach who saw him score the winning run in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series.
Counsell was an unwitting character in the life-changing event Donnelly experienced that night 21 years ago, the moment that is celebrated in a new book, “The Chicken Runs at Midnight,” which is soon to be a motion picture.
“I call him my sixth son,” Donnelly said on the phone from his home in Steubenville, Ohio, on Wednesday morning, having stayed awake through the 10th inning of the Brewers’ 13-inning loss in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series.
The former coach is the father of five sons and three daughters, with the latter group featuring his beloved late Amy — the key figure in Donnelly’s unforgettable story.
She was the one who coined the signature phrase seemingly out of thin air. In the early 1990s, Amy was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The father-daughter bond, which Donnelly admits had taken a back seat to his baseball career, grew strong during her illness. She enjoyed watching his animated style in the third-base coaching box for the Pirates. After one game, she asked her dad if he was telling the baserunner, “The Chicken Runs at Midnight.”
He asked what that meant and she said the words had just popped into her mind. It became a pet code between the two of them and spread into a fun jingle for the Pirates. Donnelly insisted it be inscribed on her tombstone in Arlington, Texas, after her death at 18 in early 1993.
She had written to her dad that he really deserved to win a World Series. He knows she would have loved to have seen the exhilaration when he waved Counsell home against the Indians in 1997. In fact, he believes she did see it.
While the Marlins swamped Counsell at the plate, Donnelly noticed that his son Tim, a batboy, was sobbing. The coach asked why and the boy reminded him that their family had nicknamed Counsell “The Chicken” for the way he flapped his arm in the batter’s box. And the youngster noticed that Counsell had crossed the plate at exactly 12 o’clock. The Chicken had run at midnight.
Donnelly took that as a sign. He reconnected with his faith. He focused outward instead of inward. He shared his story with Counsell the following spring and with all kinds of people at his subsequent baseball stops (including as manager of the Brooklyn Cyclones in 2011). He set out on a series of inspirational talks that is ongoing. He is adamant in telling fathers to spend time with their daughters. His message has earned plaudits such as the Presidents Award from Franciscan University in his hometown. “I guess they ran out of people to honor,” he said.
Sportswriter Tom Friend, who wrote the Donnellys’ story years ago for ESPN The Magazine, insisted on sitting down with the former coach for a book, which has just been released.
“I could write two books,” Donnelly said, noting that every time he talks about Amy, another anecdote pops up. Such as the fact that the priest who presided at her funeral had just moved to the Texas parish from Pennsylvania and was an ardent Pirates fan. He had been able to go to only one game in 1992 — Game 5 of the NLCS, which was the final one Amy ever attended.
In the past 21 years, Donnelly has weathered more rough tides. He has twice endured cancer. He sustained the loss of a son, Mike, who was hit and killed by a car when he stopped to help a stranded motorist. Yet the old coach still is upbeat, spending his days playing high-level racquetball and encouraging people. He still is the guy waving home the winning run.
Before this season started, he and Friend spoke of the possibility of Counsell leading his team into the postseason just in time for the book’s release. Donnelly recalls saying at the time, “That would be a miracle.”
And he does not take that term lightly.