“The chicken runs at midnight” isn’t a sentence you’ll find in your Bible, no matter how modern the translation. However, it is a divinely inspired statement that brought proof of heaven to a grieving father who needed to find his way back to God.
As chronicled in author Tom Friend’s new book “The Chicken Runs at Midnight,” Rich Donnelly grew up as a baseball-loving, devout Catholic kid in Steubenville, Ohio, during the 1950s.
During a “Christopher Closeup” interview, Rich recalled, “I said morning prayers, I said evening prayers, I said my prayer to St. Jude for hopeless cases, which I was…I was the pontifical server, which meant I was a server for the Bishop. I absolutely loved my Catholic faith. It was almost as fun as baseball. These were the two places that I loved to be: on the altar and on the baseball field…I have 16 years of Catholic education, so I had no excuse to do anything wrong in this life. I was taught the right way.”
And for a while, Rich followed that “right way.”
He married his college sweetheart, Peggy Haines, and they had four children: Bubba, Amy, Mike, and Tim. Rich also found work in the field he loved best: baseball. He was a player for a few years, but then went on to manage and/or serve as third base coach in the minor and major leagues, including with his favorite team, the Pittsburgh Pirates.
He explained, “My dream was to be in the big leagues, and I thought…that you had to do what big leaguers did. They drank, they smoked, they ran around at night…So that’s what I did.”
Rich’s infidelity destroyed his marriage and damaged his relationships with his kids for a time. Amy took it especially hard and didn’t speak to her father for six months. It was Rich’s second wife, Roberta, who started to get him back on track, and Amy came to forgive him. Then came the phone call that changed his life.
In 1992, Rich was third base coach with the Pirates when he got a call from Amy one afternoon. “Dad, I have something to tell you,” she said. “I have a brain tumor and I’m sorry.”
Rich recalled, “When she said ‘I’m sorry’, that really got me. She was apologizing to her dad for having a brain tumor.”
Amy’s brain surgery took place a few days later, but the surgeons couldn’t get all of the tumor. They gave Amy only nine months to live.
This came as a devastating shock to Rich and his family. He admits that he felt like this was God’s way of punishing him for going astray with his life. “I know that’s probably not right,” he said, “but that’s the way you feel.”
Surprisingly, Amy was the one who responded the best. Rich told me, “She must have had some kind of faith from God…When she contracted the tumor, from that point on, every picture of her had an ear to ear smile. She was so happy – and she knew she was gonna die in nine months. All she cared about was everybody else. And I’m looking at her going, how the devil is she doing this?…She packed more caring, happiness, and consideration into nine months than I have in my 72 years. And as a testimony to her, I’m trying to catch up.”
The sentence that would change the Donnelly’s lives came after Amy, her brothers, and her best friend Cindy were driving home with Rich after a playoff game against the Braves. Amy said to her father, “Dad, when you get down in that crouch with a man on second, what are you telling those guys? The chicken runs at midnight or what?”
Everyone in the car cracked up laughing and asked Amy where she came up with that line. “I don’t know, it just came out,” she answered.
From that point on, “the chicken runs at midnight” became the family’s motto. And when Amy passed away several months later, that was the epitaph they had etched on her tombstone.
Four years later, Rich was third base coach for the Florida Marlins, and his sons, Mike and Tim, were the batboys. The kids noticed that a new player, second baseman Craig Counsell, had a strange batting stance that involved him flapping his left arm like a chicken. Secretly, they started calling him “the chicken.”
The Marlins made it to game seven of the World Series that year. It was the 11th inning of a tie game, and Counsell was on third base hoping to score the winning run. Rich was right next to him. The Marlins got a base hit, Counsell scored, and the Marlins won the Series.
The team erupted in celebration. Rich even recalled, “There were policemen on horseback all around the stadium. I grabbed a horse and kissed it.”
Then, Rich saw his son Tim screaming, crying, and pointing at the stadium clock. Rich turned around to see the time as 12:02am.
Rich said, “Craig Counsell, the chicken, scored the winning run at midnight. A silly phrase that meant nothing five years ago had come to pass. Amy was there that night. There’s no doubt in my mind. I never believed in miracles. I [do] now.”
Rich was already on his way back to being “a good Catholic, a good Christian person,” but this cemented his commitment. He said, “I vowed that I was going to go around the country telling everybody about Amy, telling them about this magnificent, miraculous story. At the same time, [I would tell] people how dumb I was, how egotistical I was, and tell them not to put their personal goals in the way of goals for your family. I always wanted a wife, kids, two car garage, and to be in the big leagues. I got everything I ever dreamed about. And I messed it all up. [The experience with Amy] made me want to go back to church every day.”
Rich also prayed to find a pastor who could be both a shepherd and friend to him in his walk back towards God. He found that in Monsignor Gerald Calovini of Holy Family Church in Steubenville. “[He’s] the greatest representative of Christ on earth that you could ever have.”
Rich needed the strength he gained from his faith earlier this year when his son Mike was killed on a road in Dallas. Mike had stopped to help a stranded woman who had been in an accident. When he saw a car barreling towards her, he pulled her out of the way but got hit himself. One consolation, says Rich, is that “the girl is having a baby, and she’s going to name him Michael.”
Thankfully, another potentially tragic story had a happier ending for Rich. Roberta’s two daughters Tiffany and Leighanne, who he adopted years ago, were present at the mass shooting in Las Vegas on October 1, 2017. Leighanne saved the life of a girl named Natalie, who had gotten shot in the face, by laying on top of her for 15 minutes to shield her from any more harm. Tiffany did the same for another shooting victim, stating, “We are not leaving these girls. If we die, we die.”
Rich comments, “As parents, we’re supposed to give strength and be heroes to our kids. It’s reversed in my family. My daughters, my sons, all my kids have given me strength. They’re my heroes.”
Looking back on his life, Rich hopes people read Tom Friend’s book “The Chicken Runs at Midnight” so they can learn from his mistakes, as well as from the repentance and miracles he’s experienced.
Rich also sees a connection between his career and the family he so dearly loves. Using a baseball metaphor, he knows that his actions led him out of the baseline in life: “I am a third base coach. I waved guys home for 30 years in the big leagues. In my life, my daughter Amy and my wife Roberta became my third base coaches and got me back into the baseline. [They] waved me back to where I was happiest in my life – in my peace of mind, in my faith – and that was home.”