The Chicken Runs at Midnight, the Rich Donnelly story on ESPN

What makes Baseball a pastime is its story time. Go to any big league or minor league clubhouse, and there is bound to be somebody holding court — somebody telling a story that has half the team doubled over.

By Tom Friend for ESPN

WHAT MAKES BASEBALL a pastime is its story time. Go to any big league or minor league clubhouse, and there is bound to be somebody holding court — somebody telling a story that has half the team doubled over. Some are genuine whoppers, many are R-rated, others are mainly about someone’s IQ — or lack thereof. But once in a while, there’s a story you would take home to your mother, a story you’d write a song about.

Like Brad Holman’s song.

Holman is the bullpen coach for the Texas Rangers. He pitched in the big leagues for the 1993 Seattle Mariners and has led a typical nomadic baseball existence. There were minor league stops in the Kansas City, Colorado and Baltimore organizations, followed by coaching stints all over the map, from Hickory to Round Rock.

There were days he went to bed in El Paso and thought he’d woken up in Odessa. But the one thing he’ll never forget is where he first heard “The Chicken Runs at Midnight.” It was spring training of 2008, and he was the pitching coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Double-A affiliate, the Altoona Curve. He was about to complete a six-week stint in Bradenton, Florida, but, just before camp broke, he and the other coaches were ushered into a conference room and told they’d be hearing from a man named Rich Donnelly.

At the time, Donnelly worked in the team’s player-development department, but everyone around the complex treated him like the Pirate emeritus. Donnelly had been part of the organization during the halcyon days of the early 1990s, when Barry Bonds was a doubles hitter and Bobby Bonilla was an underdog. Those were electric teams on the cusp of championships, and the 2008 staff members were sure he had stories to tell, certain he could impart some wisdom to help get the Buccos back on top.

As expected, Donnelly began with a reference to the 1992 Pirates. Everyone remembered the season like it was yesterday: a division title under manager Jim Leyland, a trip to the NLCS against Atlanta, a riveting seventh game on the national stage. Donnelly, who had been the team’s third-base coach, was going to get to all of that. But first, he began to talk about his daughter.

Her name was Amy, and during spring training of ’92, she had called her dad from her home in Arlington, Texas. A 17-year-old high school senior, Amy had been having problems with her peripheral vision — enough that her eye doctor had sent her in for extensive tests. A couple of years prior, she’d collapsed while playing basketball, which had raised some suspicions. But this was a different sort of concern. She could see straight ahead, but when the doctor moved his finger away from her face, she had zero ability to follow it.

Her dad, who was divorced from her mom and out of pocket in Bradenton, had no idea all of this was playing out, no idea she’d undergone a CT scan. So when she called Rich that spring of ’92, he had no inkling anything was up.

“Dad, there’s something I gotta tell you,” Amy said. “I have a brain tumor, and I’m sorry.”

As Rich shared all of this in that Bradenton conference room, Brad Holman — 40 years old at the time — could feel himself welling up. He sensed this story was going to end badly, which was confirmed when Rich told the group that Amy’s doctor gave her nine months to live. Still, Holman found himself unable to turn away from the speech.

Rich began telling the coaches about the rest of the ’92 season, how the Pirates surged into first place, all while Amy was undergoing chemo and radiation. By August, Amy was telling Rich she was going to beat the cancer, and Rich told the group, “She talked me into believing she was going to get through this.”

When the Pirates then reached that ’92 NLCS against the Braves, Rich talked about how he invited Amy, her brother Tim and her best friend, Cindy Sample, to Pittsburgh for Game 5. At the time, the Pirates trailed Atlanta 3-1, but it was still a festive outing for the Donnelly family. Tim was in the dugout as a batboy, while Amy and Cindy had seats about seven rows behind home plate.

From their perch, the girls had a close-up view of Rich coaching third base. He was unique in the way he went about his job, cupping his hands together when a runner was on second base, the better they could hear him howl instructions. The girls joked about what he might be telling the runners. They cackled that he was probably asking them if they wanted Chinese food or pizza after the game. As the Pirates pulled away and won the game, Amy was having the time of her life.

During the car ride home, Amy dangled her arms around Rich and said, “Hey, Dad, when you get down in that stance and you cup your hands, what are you tellin’ those guys at second? ‘The chicken runs at midnight,’ or what?”

Everyone in the car belly-laughed, and Rich almost drove off the road. No one in the family knew where that line came from — it was too nonsensical. When do chickens run at midnight? Who would be up at midnight to see it? It’s too dark to see them run anyway. Rich asked Amy how she thought of that, and she said she didn’t know, that it just whooshed out of her mouth.

As Holman heard this portion of the story, he grinned and locked in on Rich. Soon, Rich was telling them about the ensuing Game 7 against the Braves. Hours before the first pitch, a clubhouse kid had dropped by to hand him a note. He grabbed it and saw that something was written on the “While You Were Out” stationary. It said: “The Chicken Runs at Midnight.”

As Rich was chuckling to himself, Pirates second baseman Jose Lind sneaked a peek over his shoulder and saw the note.

“What’s this?” Lind said.

“Chicken runs at midnight, man,” Donnelly told him.

Next thing Donnelly knew, Lind was running all over the clubhouse, saying, “Chicken runs at midnight.” He even said it during the nationally televised lineup introductions. Amy was back home watching the game on TV with Tim and Cindy and couldn’t believe her ears. She felt like she was there. And if the Pirates won, her dad was going to take her to the World Series.

The Pirates lost Game 7 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth when Sid Bream, an ex-Pirate, barely scored from second base on a base hit to left field. The season was over, and three months later, Amy died at the age of 18.

“There wasn’t a dry eye in the room,” Holman remembers.

The men in that conference room thought the story was over, that this was a tale about a hard-luck father losing his daughter. But Rich kept talking. He told them that a few years later, in 1997, he was coaching third base for the Florida Marlins. He spent as much time as possible with the remaining members of his family — his three sons Bubba, Mike and Tim. He even had Mike and Tim join the Marlins periodically as bat boys. The more hours he could spend with them, the better.

The boys made sure to be seen but not heard in that Marlins clubhouse. But they couldn’t help but introduce themselves to a rookie second baseman who had just been acquired at the trade deadline, Craig Counsell. Counsell was not far from them age-wise — Tim being 17 at this point — and the rookie would initiate conversations with the two boys. In turn, Tim and Mike would congregate at Counsell’s locker, and before batting practice, the player would hit ground balls or fungos to them.

The boys particularly got a kick out of Counsell’s batting stance. He held his hands high and would flap his elbows as he’d await a pitch. He was scrawny, too. Tim and Mike instantly said that he looked like a chicken and nicknamed him, “The Chicken Man.” They didn’t dare tell Counsell this, but they mentioned it to their dad ad nauseam. One night, after a game, Rich asked them who their favorite Marlin was, and they immediately spouted, “The Chicken.” On a team with Bonilla and Gary Sheffield, Rich got a kick out of that.

That Marlins team also had Livan Hernandez, Moises Alou and Kevin Brown. They were loaded, and by October of 1997, they were in the World Series against the Cleveland Indians. The series went the distance, to a seventh game, and Tim and Mike were right there ringside as bat boys.

That final, decisive game seemed like it would never end. The Indians held a lead in the bottom of the ninth, but a sac fly by Counsell scored the tying run. In the bottom of the 11th, Counsell ended up on third base with two outs. Edgar Renteria singled him in to win the World Series, sending Rich running deliriously through the infield.

As Marlins jumped on top of Marlins, Rich noticed his son Tim shouting, screaming — and in tears. “Dad … Dad …. look,” Tim shouted to Rich.

“What do you mean, Look?'” Rich said. “Look where?”

“Dad, behind you. Look at the clock,” Tim screamed. “Dad, the chicken ran at midnight.”

Rich turned around, and it was true. Craig Counsell had scored the winning run a few minutes after midnight, and Amy’s prophecy had finally come to light. Rich broke down on the field that night, and he broke down again as he shared the story with Brad Holman those Pirate coaches in Bradenton.

They all stared up at him in awe. The moral of the story wasn’t about a hard-luck father; it was that a daughter had revealed herself to her father after death.

Holman was never the same.

AFTER THE SPEECH, Holman approached Donnelly for a favor: “Would you mind if I wrote a song about this?” he asked.

Donnelly had told his story to people for years. He had shared it with the players and coaches of every team he worked for since — the Rockies, the Brewers, the Dodgers — which meant hundreds of Major League players knew of Amy. Players like Brad Penny and Jayson Werth swore by the story. There was a midnight charity race in New Jersey because of it. But no one — not one person — had asked him whether they could write a song.

Donnelly was flattered and gave his blessing. Holman loaded his guitar in his pickup truck and started driving to Altoona, Pennsylvania. In his mind, the lyrics started coming. Songwriting had been his passion and hobby for over a decade, though he did most of his singing in the shower. And by the time he had driven 17 hours from Bradenton to Altoona, the song, ‘The Chicken Runs at Midnight,” was ready to be written down on paper. Rich’s story had given him more faith, and that was reflected in the chorus of his song:

The chicken runs at midnight, is that what you told him, dad?

He said, ‘Honey, that is silly, what made you think of that?’

The chicken runs at midnight, the imagination of a girl.

Probably should have been forgotten. But instead they’re sacred words.

The next day, Holman brought his guitar to the Altoona stadium press box and recorded the song. “It’s probably the best story — not just baseball story, but family story and story of hope,” Holman said. “It blows the rest of them out of the water.”

In other words, he rated “Chicken Runs At Midnight” over every story he’d ever heard in baseball. Better than Babe Ruth calling his shot at the 1932 World Series, better than David Wells pitching a perfect game hungover, better than anything that had him doubled-over in Hickory.

So he sent the song to Rich Donnelly, who listened to it the first time and broke down in tears. And every Father’s Day since, eight years going strong now, Donnelly plays it again. Because, as far as he’s concerned, Brad Holman can sing Amy Donnelly back to life.