When Running the Bases Became a Sign of Faith

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Longtime baseball writer and broadcaster Tim Kurkjian has called it “the greatest baseball story ever told.” And one of its central characters is a Catholic who never played an inning in the big leagues, but coached for 30 years in the majors.

“The Chicken Runs at Midnight,” written by Tom Friend, tells the wildly improbable story of the strong-willed coach, Rich Donnelly, and his equally strong-willed teenage daughter Amy as she was battling brain cancer while her dad’s team was making a playoff push.

To make a great story short, it’s not the happiest of endings. She died in 1993, but the chicken indeed did run at midnight.

Donnelly, in a phone interview with Catholic News Service before the book’s publication by Zondervan in early October, talked about his faith, how he strayed from it—and how he regained it.

“I was a ridiculous Catholic,” said Donnelly, now 72.

“Besides being a priest, I don’t think there was anyone more religious in the world,” he said, recalling his youth: “Say your morning prayers when you wake up, say a prayer to St. Jude, the patron saint to helpless causes—which is me—say three decades of the Rosary, go to morning Mass, do the Stations of the Cross, make a May altar in your room when you are 8 and keep it in there until you are 17.

“I would pray to God all day. I’d walk my hometown of Steubenville, Ohio. It had 14 Catholic churches. I felt if I didn’t have a visit (when passing by), that was like a sin. So that’s what I did,” Donnelly continued. “When I was 8, 9 and 10 I celebrated Mass myself. I got a load of DiCarlo’s Italian bread. I made little hosts up, I had an imaginary congregation. I knew all the prayers in Latin—I was an altar boy—so I did all the Latin prayers by myself.”

Donnelly thought swearing was uncouth, and proclaimed he would never swear once he got into the minors. He also never thought he would have sex before marriage. Or cheat on his wife.

Donnelly admitted his focus on baseball took focus away from his family, which by then included four children, including Amy, his second child and first daughter.

“I was all Catholic-ed out when I was 16,” Donnelly told CNS. “There wasn’t much to do, so I went in a different direction, which was bad.”

Donnelly said he thought that going to church while being active in baseball was a sign of weakness—until he went to church as a coach, and found one of his players at the same Mass.

That player, Craig Counsell—the Catholic manager of the Milwaukee Brewers—was nicknamed “Chicken” due to his batting stance. And it was Counsell who scored the winning run in extra innings for the Florida Marlins in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series right around midnight—a fact pointed out to Donnelly by one of his sons, who was a Marlins batboy, as the rest of the team was celebrating on the field.

As remarkable as all that was—especially as it had seemingly been prophesied by Amy years earlier when her dad was coaching another team, a club that didn’t even have Counsell on its roster—it nearly pales to Donnelly’s return to his Catholic faith.

“I prayed to God for funny things: ‘Put a priest into my life like the priest (he had) when I was growing up,’” said Donnelly, who is now retired from baseball and has beaten cancer twice himself. “I got connected ... in my hometown. Holy Family (in Steubenville). Msgr. Jerry Calovini.”

The priest, he added, is “a baseball nut. He’s my confessor, he’s my adviser...someone who understands me.” He added, “In the winter, I go to Mass pretty much every morning with Msgr. Jerry.”

—CNS

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