I went to the funeral of Amy Donnelly, 18, in Arlington, Texas, in 1993, and it was the saddest thing I’ve ever seen. Soon, I will attend the funeral of Mike Donnelly, 38, who was killed Sunday night in Dallas when he was struck by a car while assisting a motorist, a stranger who needed help. To lose two children is unfathomable; it is tragic and personal for me, given the father of those children is one of the most beloved and respected coaches in baseball the past 35 years, everyone’s friend, my dear friend, Rich Donnelly.
As writers, we’re not supposed to become friends with the people we cover, to socialize with them, but, in a writing career that has lasted 40 years, I have crossed that line once: with Rich Donnelly.
I met him in 1982 when I became the beat guy for the Texas Rangers for The Dallas Morning News. We talked a lot about baseball and basketball, our shared passions. Rich even coached our winter league basketball team in Texas. But mostly, we talked about his children, Bubba, Mike, Tim and Amy. Bubba became a really good basketball player, going on to play point guard at Robert Morris University, and his dad prepared him for it by, among many things, making every Tuesday “Left-Handed Tuesday,” which meant Bubba had to eat, write and do just about everything with his left hand.
Amy was beautiful, joyful, vibrant. When she was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1992, she called her dad and said, “I need to tell you something. I have a brain tumor, and I’m sorry.”
A year later, she died, leaving a legacy of love and kindness, and she remains a key part of a wonderful story that extends beyond baseball. When her dad, from the third-base coach’s box with the Pittsburgh Pirates, would cup his hands and yell to a runner on second base, Amy once asked, “Dad, what are you yelling to the runner, ‘The chicken runs at midnight’?”
It became a rallying cry with the Pirates: The Chicken Runs At Midnight. And when Rich became the third-base coach for the Marlins in 1997, they had an infielder, Craig Counsell, whom Mike and Tim Donnelly nicknamed “The Chicken” because of his odd batting stance: He flapped his back elbow, like a chicken, as he waited for the pitch. Counsell scored the winning run for the Marlins in the 10th inning of Game 7 of the 1997 World Series, four years after Amy’s death. That night, Tim and Mike Donnelly were bat boys for the Marlins. Seconds after Counsell scored, Tim looked at his father, pointed at the clock on the scoreboard and screamed “Dad, look, The Chicken ran at midnight!”
That remarkable story was turned into a song by Brad Holman, a former major league pitcher. It is also being made into a movie with the help of our writer friend Tom Friend. And on that night, on the top of the pile of Marlins, was Mike Donnelly, age 17.
“He was the funniest human being I’ve ever met,” Rich said. “So, as the celebration was going on, Mike went into [Marlins manager] Jim Leyland’s office, shut the door and called every friend he had on Jim’s phone. In between calls, a representative from the White House called Jim’s office and said, ‘This is the White House, President Clinton would like to talk to Jim Leyland.’ Mike answered the phone and said, “Right, and I’m Santa Claus!’ then he hung up. Five seconds later, the White House called again and said, “No, this really is the White House; President Clinton really does want to talk to Jim Leyland.’ So, Mike went flying out of the office and got Jimmy. That was Mike.”
Mike Donnelly was a kicker at Steubenville High School. Reno Saccoccia, the famous football coach at that Ohio school, calls him “the toughest kid I ever coached.” A 5-foot-6 kicker. Mike was then a kicker for four years at Cumberland College. He got his degree, but he founds lots of trouble from there, and he served time in prison.
“For the last 15 years,” Rich said, “I have been waiting to get the call that Mike had OD’d, or someone had killed him.” Instead, on Monday morning, Rich got a call from his son Tim saying Mike had been killed in Dallas. He had stopped on the side of the road to assist a motorist and was struck by a car.
“A certain warmth came over me when I heard that he had died making such a wonderful gesture. Most people would have just kept on driving; my son stopped to help,” Rich said. “He has been in trouble for 20 years. But when he came over for Christmas, Peggy [Rich’s first wife, and Mike’s mother] told me that Mike was different, it was like something had touched him. I really felt like he was on his way back to being a good person.”
Good people live in the Donnelly house. During the shooting in Las Vegas at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival across from the Mandalay Bay hotel, two of Donnelly’s daughters, Tiffany, 37, and Leighanne, 35, from his current wife, Roberta, were in the crowd that October night. A woman sitting in front of Leighanne, Natalie Grumet, was shot in the face. Leighanne took off her blouse, fashioned it into a tourniquet, lay down on top of Natalie to protect her, looked at her sister and, with bullets flying around, said, “We are not leaving this girl behind!”
Seconds later, a woman sitting in front of Tiffany — also a total stranger to the sisters — was shot in the stomach. Tiffany also prepared a tourniquet, lay on top of the woman to protect her and screamed to her sister, “We are not leaving these girls! If we die, we die!”
They lived. Natalie lived, too. So did the woman who had been shot in the stomach. Leighanne and Natalie have connected on Facebook, and it turns out they live 10 miles apart in Los Angeles. Natalie has said that she will be friends with Leighanne for life.
“Our Amy was amazing, she helped donate bicycles to the children’s hospital while she was dying of cancer, and what our girls did that night in Las Vegas was amazing, too,” Rich said. “Most people would have run. Our girls stayed. We could have been burying four kids. But when I think of our kids, and what they have done to help others, it gives me a peace that I will have forever. The moms of our kids — Peggy and Roberta — deserve all the credit for our kids, but I am just so blessed, so proud and so humbled to be their father.”
It is jarring to see Rich Donnelly choke back tears because every other time I’ve talked to him, he is laughing, and he is making me laugh. He is 71 and no longer a major league coach, and no one enjoys life more than he does. Everyone in baseball knows Rich Donnelly, and everyone loves him. And whenever I needed help with a story, I would always call Rich first. No one has ever laughed as many times, or as hard, as Rich Donnelly.
But Monday night, again, he made me cry.