When faced with tragedy and pain, faith gave Rich Donnelly the answers that baseball glory could not

Years before Rich Donnelly shouted encouragement and flashed signs to Los Angeles Dodgers’ hitters from the third-base coaching box during the 2006 and 2007 seasons, he could have used some spiritual and life coaching to help him get through some of the most heartbreaking events that put his Catholic faith to the test.

As he was entering high school, he lost his older brother to cancer. That was his baseball hero growing up. With ideas of becoming a priest, Donnelly instead went into a shell.

A painful divorce he admits was a result of his own selfish behavior was difficult to reconcile. It divided his family.

When his teenage daughter, Amy, died of a brain tumor in 1993, Donnelly was full of grief and doubt. But it was her inspirational words that came back to him in a most heavenly moment after he waved home the winning run for the Florida Marlins in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series — a run scored by Craig Counsell, who this October managed the Milwaukee Brewers against the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series.

A new book with an otherwise quirky title, “The Chicken Runs at Midnight,” (Zondervan Publishing, $25) best explains the impact Amy Donnelly had then and still does now on her father’s faith, and it remains his mantra.

This comes after two more soul-searching events in the last 12 months involving more of this children. One was the death of his son, 38-year-old Michael, trying to be a Good Samaritan with a stranded motorist last January. 

And last fall, daughters Tiffany and Leighanne witnessed the  mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival in Las Vegas last fall, avoiding harm while tending to several victims in dire need.

From his home in Steubenville, Ohio, the 72-year-old Donnelly, who has also endured two cancer battles himself, talked about how this book is part of his healing process as well as a way to comfort others.

Tom Hoffarth: You’re a cradle Catholic who has called himself a “ridiculous Catholic” because of the way you were brought up. Then you went through a period as a “casual Catholic” to perhaps best characterized as evolving into a born-again Catholic. What is your status at the moment?

Rich Donnelly: I’d not sure how you’d rate me now (laughing). I’m always trying to be a better husband, a better father and a better human being. This book is a way of doing that.

At one point in my life, when I was 16, I thought I was all Catholic-ed out. I went in a bad direction. I do know that when Amy passed away, I asked the Lord: Please help me be connected again. 

I prayed every day. I needed someone who could strengthen my faith. I was at church one day and the pastor, Msgr. Jerry Calovini, asked me if I could join some men for coffee and talk about my baseball days. That was 15 years ago. 

Now I go to Mass every day with Msgr. Jerry, have breakfast with him a few times a month, and he’s become my best friend. We talk God, baseball … everything.
When you reach an age like where I am, and you realize you got to accomplish so much even if there were some roadblocks and tragedies, you find out that the main reason you go to church is to thank the Lord for my life. 

Many forget the thanking part of all that. I ask for the strength to resist temptation, the strength to get through anything, and to make me more caring about others.

Hoffarth: Could baseball do anything to reinforce about how to act upon your faith?

Donnelly: I can relate to sports in that it’s about helping teammates. That’s also what you do in life. Your family and friends are your teammates. You ask them for help and also give them strength. I know I need someone to help me. 

I have my moments of weakness. I need people to shield me from things that I’ve learned are bad for me. My wife, Roberta, is so good at that. She doesn’t have to tell me, she shows me every day in what she does.

When I give talks to groups, I find out that everyone really has issues they’re dealing with — illness, money, loss of a loved one, their jobs, their faith. … I want to remind people: Don’t run with the herd. Don’t be around negativity. When I see successful people, they are extremely positive. 

My dad used to have me study famous coaches in sports — Don Shula and Vince Lombardi, very strong Catholics. I just did a talk to some athletes at the University of Wisconsin, and they sent me a note: “You helped our team with your message of being strong, helping teammates.” In life, that’s what we do. Just like in sports.

Hoffarth: Does today’s Major League Baseball provide a better culture for family focus? We see road trips happen where players can take their families, where technology allows you instant time with your children.

Donnelly: Years ago, they had what was called the Baseball Chapel, but there was this thing that, if you went, you were less of a man. There were only a couple of stadiums that had a Catholic Mass on Sundays before games. 

That has improved so much now. And it is much easier to communicate with phones and texting. It’s no excuse for how I acted or the mistakes I made, but back in the day, I could have used all those things.

Hoffarth: What’s the greatest takeaway you want people to have from this book?

Donnelly: Everyone has goals, no matter what your line of work. Mine happened to be baseball.

But you can’t put your goals ahead of your family. I did that. I got to the big leagues, and ignored my family, especially my daughter, because I think I paid more attention to my sons. 

You hear that term “workaholic.” But that cannot come before being present in your kids’ lives. The simple act of just being there instead of at some party or some convention or something work related, that means the world to them. If you have a choice, choose family.

Tom Hoffarth is an award-winning journalist based in Los Angeles.

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