The remarkable story of how the lives of Brewers manager Craig Counsell and former Brewers third base coach Rich Donnelly intersected in the most amazing way.
It's a story of life, death, love miracles...and a chicken.
Rich Donnelly was never a man of faith; in fact, he was never a man of anything except baseball. He lived it, breathed it, and gave everything he had to it.
“Nothing was going to get in the way of me getting to the big leagues,” he recalls. “It took me a long time to get there. It took me 37 years to get there, and at that time, I wasn’t going to let anything—including my family—sidetrack me from getting there.”
In the spring of 1992, he had finally made it as the third base coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates. But along the way, he had lost his family. He and his wife divorced, and he was living thousands of miles away from his three sons and his daughter Amy.
Still, Rich thought he was on top of the world. Until a phone call changed his life forever.
“Amy called and I said, ‘Hey Ames, what’s up?’ and she goes, ‘Dad, there’s something I’ve got to tell you.’ I said, ‘Oh boy, what’s this one?’” Rich says. “She said, ‘Dad, I have a brain tumor and I’m sorry.’ When she said the words ‘I’m sorry,’ it floored me that she was more concerned about me because she knew how badly it would affect me and make me hurt.”
Even though she was given just months to live, Amy didn’t want to get in the way of her dad’s dream and his new life’s mission—to win the World Series. The Pirates were one of the best teams in baseball then, and made the National League Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves.
And for the first time ever, Amy saw her dad coach in the Majors.
“She flew up for one day when she was getting chemotherapy in Dallas and she flew up to Pittsburgh and after the game, driving home, she put her arms around my neck from the back seat and she said, ‘Dad, when you get in that stance with a man on second and you cup your hands, what do you tell those guys, ‘The chicken runs at midnight,’ or what?
“All my kids laughed hysterically and I’m going, ‘Where did you come up with that?’ And she said, ‘I don’t know, it just came out: The chicken runs at midnight.’”
It was so nonsensical, so silly, so perfectly Amy that the phrase became a family motto. They would say it everywhere, write it in notes to one another, and even end phone conversations with “The chicken runs at midnight.”
The months passed, and Amy’s condition worsened. She slipped into a coma in January of 1993 and never woke up. She was just 17 years old.
But her sense of humor and her nonsensical phrase lived on.
“We chose to honor her by putting ‘The Chicken Runs at Midnight’ on her tombstone,” Rich says with a laugh. “We said, ‘Man, she would have loved this’ because everybody is going to walk by and go ‘What the heck is that?’”
The years went by but “The chicken runs at midnight” remained the Donnelly family motto; they said it often if only to keep some small part of Amy alive.
By the spring of 1997, Rich was able to move closer to his sons by taking a job as the third base coach of the Florida Marlins. Two of the boys, Tim and Mike, became the team’s batboys, and their favorite player was a young, skinny infielder named Craig Counsell.
“Couns was our second baseman and when he hit, he held his hands real high and flapped his left arm like a chicken,” Rich remembers. “So my sons Tim and Mike called him The Chicken Man and we never thought anything of it. He’s a chicken!”
That summer proved magical for the Marlins. An expansion team just five years earlier, they played their way into the World Series against the best team in baseball that year, the Cleveland Indians.
Amazingly, the upstart Marlins took the series to a decisive seventh game in Miami.
“The place is going crazy,” Rich says. “You can’t even spit, you can’t even breathe. This is the pinnacle of your baseball career—the seventh game of the World Series, extra innings, 70,000 people were roaring. You couldn’t even hear. Craig Counsell is standing on third base and I’m standing right next to him. Edgar Renteria gets a base hit up the middle, Counsell scores the winning run, and it’s pandemonium!
“I was trying to find Tim or Mike, my sons, and I finally saw Tim halfway between first and second base and he’s running at me screaming bloody murder and I’m going, ‘What’s going on? Your face is red. What are you crying about?’
He said, ‘Dad, Dad, look at the clock!’ I turned around and looked at the stadium clock and it was 12:02. He said, ‘Dad, the chicken ran at midnight.’
“I lost it,” says Rich, his voice wavering slightly. “A phrase that she just came up with happened just like she said five years later. A phrase which had no meaning all of a sudden had more meaning than anything I’ve ever come across in my life.
“I fell to my knees and I put my head down and all I could think of was that she was there. I wanted her to be at the World Series and she wanted me to be at the World Series and when I fell to my knees and hugged Tim that we were all hugging each other.
“I had kept a note from her five years earlier in that Atlanta series that said, ‘Good luck Dad. The chicken runs at midnight’ and I kept that note with me in my little phone book. I went in after all the celebration was over at about 5:00 in the morning and I grabbed that note and I read it: ‘Good luck Dad. The chicken runs at midnight’ and I just said to myself, ‘Yes Amy, it sure did. The chicken ran at midnight.’”
Rich Donnelly was never a man of faith; he was a baseball man. He had lived it, breathed it, given everything he had to it. But now he saw that baseball wasn’t everything; his dreams of material success in it weren’t what his life was really all about. They were just a means to a far deeper end.
“I cannot believe that this happened. I don’t believe in miracles, I wasn’t a big miracle believer, but after this, I believe.”
Tom Friend's new book, The Chicken Runs at Midnight: A Daughter's Message from Heaven that Changed a Father's Heart and Won a World Series, is available now wherever books are sold and at TheChickenRunsAtMidnight.com.