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‘The chicken runs at midnight’

Donnelly’s daughter still an inspiration more than a decade after her death

March 8, 2009
By JOHN PERROTTO, Special to the Herald-Star

BRADENTON, Fla.- At some point before spring training ends, Kyle Stark will gather all the players in the Pittsburgh minor-league camp together.

The Pirates' player development director will have them congregate in the cafeteria at Pirate City and Rich Donnelly, a special instructor in the organization, will show them a DVD. The subject will be a Lifetime Network special about his daughter Amy, who died of a brain tumor in January 1993, when she was just 18 years old.

It will be enough to make even the toughest of baseball men cry. The tears flowed last spring, during Stark's first year on the job and Brad Holman, then the pitching coach at Class AA Altoona, was so touched that he wrote a song about Amy Donnelly's story.

"I can't tell you the number of people this story has made an impact on," Donnelly said. "Amy always wanted to be a teacher. In her own way, she is a teacher because her story teaches some very valuable lessons about how fragile life is and the importance of family."

To understand Amy Donnelly's story, one must go back to spring training in 1992. The Pirates had won the National League East title each of the previous two seasons and were gearing up for another division championship when Rich, then the third-base coach, received a call from Amy informing him that she had the tumor.

"She said she was sorry," Donnelly said. "Can you imagine? She had a brain tumor, yet she was the one apologizing. That tells you about the kind of person she was."

Although doctors told the Donnellys that Amy had just nine months to live, she became engrossed in yet another championship season and rejoiced in the Pirates clinching first place in the NL East.

"She just loved baseball and she knew as much about it as a lot of people who are in the game," Donnelly said. "She loved to go to the ballpark, get there early and stay late."

Amy Donnelly also was very inquisitive about the game.

While the family drove from their home in Steubenville to Three Rivers Stadium for Game 3 of the National League Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves that October, Amy leaned forward from the back seat and asked her father what he said to players when he cupped his hands around his mouth while coaching third base and shouted instructions to the base runners.

"She said, 'Dad, what are you telling them? The chicken runs at midnight?' " Rich Donnelly said. "I don't know where in the world she came up with that."

His daughter's odd line was still on his mind that night as the Pirates got ready to take the field. Donnelly stopped fun-loving second baseman Jose Lind and told him, "The chicken runs at midnight."

Lind began repeating the line in the dugout and suddenly all of the players were chanting the goofy phrase.

"Nobody knew what it meant, but everybody was saying it," Donnelly said. "From then on, it became our family motto."

The Pirates won that game behind rookie knuckleballer Tim Wakefield to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series and seemed in position to go to the World Series for the first time since 1979. However, the Braves rallied to win the series by scoring three runs in the bottom of the ninth inning for a 3-2 victory in the decisive Game 7 to send the Pirates to one of the most gut-wrenching losses in baseball history.

That loss, though, was nothing compared to what happened three months later when Amy died.

"You never think in your worst nightmare that you're going to have to say goodbye to your little girl," Donnelly said. "But our whole family decided to put, 'The chicken runs at midnight' on her tombstone and I still get a chuckle out of it every time I see it."

After coming so close to a World Series berth in 1992, Donnelly finally made it to the Fall Classic in 1997 as the Florida Marlins' third-base coach. The Marlins and Cleveland Indians took that series to the limit and Game 7 went into extra innings at Pro Player Stadium in Miami.

The score was tied 3-3 in the bottom of the 11th inning with Craig Counsell on third base for the Marlins and Edgar Renteria at bat.

Counsell, now an infielder with the Milwaukee Brewers, has one of the more unique batting stances in the major leagues as he holds his right elbow extremely high. That prompted Donnelly's sons Tim and Mike, who served as Marlins' batboys during the '97 postseason, to refer to Counsell as "Chicken Wing."

Renteria lined a single back through the box off pitcher Charles Nagy's glove and into center field to drive home Counsell with the winning run. Donnelly, like everyone else in a Marlins' uniform, went bonkers as he jumped up and down while running from the third base coaching box to join the mob scene around Counsell at home plate.

"I'm going crazy because we had just won the World Series, which is what you dream about from the time you're a little kid," Donnelly said. "I'm just ecstatic. It's the greatest feeling in the world."

In the midst of the celebration, Tim Donnelly intercepted his father before he made it to home plate and pointed to the stadium clock.

It was exactly midnight.

"Look, Dad, the chicken ran at midnight,' " Tim said.

Rich Donnelly stopped in his tracks and tears still form in his eyes all these years later when he recounts the moment.

"My God, I was stunned," Donnelly said. "My whole body just went limp. Amy knew how much it would mean to me to win a World Series. You sacrifice a lot when you're in this game. You're on the road and away from home a lot, but your kids just understand why you're gone and how much the job means to you.

"There is no doubt in my mind she was there with me. I just wanted to call her and tell her the chicken ran at midnight."

Sadly, Donnelly could not call his daughter, but it now appears her story will be made into a feature-length film and reach theaters within the next two years.

Amy Donnelly's story has drawn the attention of Anthony E. Zuiker, creator of the popular "CSI" television series on CBS. Donnelly's son-in-law, Orlin Dobreff, is Zuiker's personal assistant.

Zuiker has told Donnelly the first step of process is writing a book about Amy and then adapting a screenplay from it. If all goes as expected, a film should be released no later than 2011.

"I think it would make for a great movie," Donnelly said. "Hopefully, people who have been in the unfortunate situation of losing a child will be able to draw comfort from it, and people in general can draw inspiration from the story. I couldn't imagine a better and more lasting tribute to Amy."

(Perrotto can be contacted at jperrotto@piratesreport.com)

 
 

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