The Chicken Runs at Midnight


Amy Donnelly's headstone

Amy Donnelly's headstone

Dec. 6, 2013


By CAITIE SMITH

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Marshall assistant baseball coach and recruiting coordinator Tim Donnelly has been with the Thundering Herd program for eight seasons. During that time, he’s recruited more than 30 players to the Herd. He’s helped multiple players reach the Major League Baseball Draft.

Donnelly’s father, Rich, has spent more than 25 years coaching in the Major Leagues, and has a World Series ring to prove it.

To put it simply, baseball is in the Donnellys’ blood. But that’s not what this story is about. Well, it is about baseball, but it is also about a daughter and sister, a saying, and a moment.

Tim Donnelly was young when his parents divorced. He and his older sister, Amy, took primary residence with their mother in Texas, while his older brothers stayed with their father in Ohio. Although separated by hundreds of miles, every baseball season the family members found their way back to one another.

Tim was in the sixth grade when Amy, then 17, was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. During the summer of 1992, Rich Donnelly was on Manager Jim Leyland’s coaching staff with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Bucs were was entering into the postseason push. Rich had a friend with a private jet and flew Tim, a bald Amy (from chemotherapy), and their mother to Pittsburgh for Games 3, 4, and 5 of the National League Championship Series.

Rich coached third base for the Pirates, and could often be seen cupping his hands around his mouth, shouting directions to his baserunners on second base. Nobody could ever really make out what he would say.

“It was after Game 5, and we were on our way to the hotel,” Tim said. “Amy just said, ‘Dad, what are you saying to him? The chicken runs at midnight?’”

The whole car was immediately filled with laughter at the spontaneous question.

“We were like, ‘What are you talking about? The chicken runs at midnight? What?’” Tim said.

The family did not understand the statement or where it originated. Amy did not even know, yet it became the motto for the Donnellys. Even some of the Pirates adopted the saying.

After Game 5, Tim, Amy, and their mother returned home to Texas with the promise that if the Buccos made the World Series, they would be in attendance.

Throughout the rest of the 1992 Pirates’ playoff chase, the saying stuck with them. During the final game of their season, Pirates second baseman Jose Lind was caught on camera running out to his position screaming, “The chicken runs at midnight! The chicken runs at midnight!”

But Lind and the Pirates lost Game 7 in Atlanta, and the World Series hopes were doused. Rich promised his children that if he ever made it to the Fall Classic, he would get them there.

That offseason, Amy Donnelly died. She was only 18.

Tim recalled that her funeral was perhaps one of the biggest he has had the misfortune of attending. The e entire church was filled. Not only were family and most of Amy’s high school classmates in attendance, but Tim’s close friends, his brothers’ close friends, and some of the ‘92 Pirates. Leyland was there, along with other MLB coaches with whom Rich had formed bonds.

“After she died, the question was about what to put on her tombstone,” Tim said. “It only made sense to put ‘The Chicken Runs At Midnight.’”

After Amy’s passing, the saying faded but never fully went away. It was always on the minds of Tim, Rich, and the rest of the family. The Donnellys went on about their lives, always keeping the memory of Amy in a special place within them.

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It was 1997 and Rich took a coaching job with the Florida Marlins, sticking with Leyland. The team battled all season, and found itself in the NL wild card spot. Rich flew Tim -- then a junior in high school -- out to San Francisco. After successfully beating the Giants, Tim prepared to go back home and return to school.

Marlins Owner H. Wayne Huizenga and Leyland had other plans. The two called Tim’s principal, saying he could not leave because he was the team’s good luck charm. The principal obliged, and the 17-year-old Tim was allowed to stay through the NLCS versus Atlanta.

In Game 6 of that series, a spark was ignited in the Donnelly family. The Marlins clinched the World Series berth with their win against the Braves.

That win happened to occur at midnight.

“Nothing was said about it, but I just knew it was midnight,” Tim said of the encounter.

He again planned to return to Texas, and again Huizenga and Leyland convinced the principal that the teenager was too valuable to part with.

“I ended up missing a whole month of school,” Tim said, grinning. “My excuse pass literally says ‘World Series’ on it.”

He sat in the dugout for every game.

Call it a coincidence or call it fate, but the Marlins happened to have one player on the 1997 roster with the nickname “Chicken Wing.”

Infielder Craig Counsell was dubbed “Chicken Wing” because of his awkward approach to the plate.

“His batting stance was just weird,” Tim said. “He held his one arm really, really high, like a chicken wing just flapping.”

There were some defining elements about that ‘97 World Series. The Marlins had only been an organization for five years, and, of course, the midnight win of Game 6 that got them there.

The series with the Cleveland Indians went back and fourth, forcing a final Game 7. Tim’s older brothers got to attend, and rules limiting the number of people in the dugout posed an interesting situation.

“I let them sit in there, because I had gotten to every game before that, and I stayed in the clubhouse,” Tim said.

The Marlins fell behind without their good luck charm.

“It was the sixth or seventh inning, and one of the clubhouse guys came to me and said, ‘You’ve got to suit up and get back out there.’”

The team rallied and forced extra innings. In the bottom of the 11th, Counsell found himself on third base. A single up the middle by Edgar Renteria sent Counsell home. The Marlins won 3-2 and the entire dugout rushed the field.

“There ended up being two dog piles, one at first with Renteria and one at home with Counsell,” Tim explained. “I didn’t know where to go, and my dad, down (coaching) third, was the same way.”

What happened next some might call coincidence, but most would call fate.

“We just met in the middle, just me and him. He picked me up and spun me around, and I saw the scoreboard. It was midnight,” Tim said, pausing as if still in awe years later.

Tim looked at Rich and two stood there, taking it all in.

It had come back … the chicken runs at midnight. A 17-year-old Amy started the Chicken runs at midnight, and a 17-year-old Tim was able to see the moment come full circle.

“The guy we called ‘Chicken Wing’ scored a run ... at midnight. We lost it right there, and it was amazing,” Tim said. “It was so surreal. I love thinking about it and going back to that moment.”

Even as Counsell was on third, Tim said the thought never crossed his mind. As the celebrations started, it was fate -- or Amy? -- pulling Tim and Rich together on the field.

“If we wouldn’t have met in the middle like that, I may not have even seen the time. It was the best moment of my life, and not because of the World Series, but because of all of that happening,” Tim said.

It is not a story he will just bring up, but Tim said people usually find out. Several newspapers have told the story, and even television networks have made documentaries on the unbelievable impact Amy Donnelly’s saying has inspired.

Tim said he cannot recall the number of times he has been approached by someone who simply says, “The chicken runs at midnight.”

“Last year, we were playing Southern Miss down there, and the groundskeeper came up to me and just said ‘The chicken runs at midnight.’ I was like ‘What?’ because it just surprised me,” he said.

Southern Miss coach Scott Berry had showed a TV segment to his entire team and the impact had spread around the Hattiesburg community.

Tim said it has always been a motivation for anyone who hears about the story.

“Anyone going through problems needs to hear the story,” Tim said. “It was five years later, but it still makes you feel good.”

Rich Donnelly is now the manager of the New York-Penn League’s Brooklyn Cyclones, a short-season Class A affiliate of the New York Mets. His last year in the Majors was 2007 with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“It (1997 with Florida) was his only World Series and it is his only ring, and the chicken ran at midnight,” Tim said, proudly referencing his sister. “She was there and she was watching. It makes it a little more special that that is his only ring, and it was so fitting and great that we all got to spend that moment together.”

Tim said he was the typical little brother to Amy, occasionally being the pest and sometimes actually being cooperative.

“I gave her hell all the time,” Tim laughed. “We had some good times though, and she would always take me places in her car, because you know, she was the cool one with the car.”

While he does not bring up his sister in everyday conversation, Tim doesn’t hesitate to share the story and the moment with anyone who asks.

“I love talking about it,” he said. “It is a baseball thing, but it’s not. It’s more than that. But anytime I can honor my sister Amy’s memory and share her story, I’m going to.”

Rich Donnelly spends the offseason traveling the country, speaking about Amy’s story and the inspiration it brings. During Tim’s first year with the Herd, Rich spoke at Marshall, but Tim said his father’s destinations certainly haven’t been limited to the region.

“Last winter, for example, he went out to like Wisconsin and California and Louisiana and such, but it’s just so cool because you honestly never know who is hearing about it,” Tim said.

The story lives on today.

In New Jersey, a 5K run for cancer research was organized by a father who lost his daughter to cancer, much like Amy Donnelly. The father was inspired by the Donnellys love for Amy and her legacy.

The 5K begins at midnight, properly deemed “The Chicken Run.” Every year, Rich Donnelly is in attendance.

See, I told you … This isn’t a baseball story. This is about a daughter and sister, a saying, and a moment.