Craig Counsell will enter his role as a special advisor in the Brewers’ front office having proved to be a consummate professional over parts of 16 seasons in the bigs. And he has the distinction of being part of two dramatic Game 7 rallies in the World Series.
But Counsell holds a much more meaningful distinction to former Major League coach Rich Donnelly. To him, Counsell was, and forever is, “The Chicken.”
And while the nickname might sound silly, its significance to Donnelly and his family is anything but.
“Craig is part of our family,” Donnelly says.
It’s a family that lost a precious member far too soon but has become spiritually strengthened by an event in 1997 that still, to this day, overwhelms those who hear about it. It’s a story that, as Counsell himself says, “screams Disney movie.”
“Anybody I’ve ever told the story to… they’re blown away,” Counsell says. “You can bring people to tears just by telling the story.”
* * *
The story begins with five words that, when strung together, sound nothing short of nonsensical:
“The chicken runs at midnight.”
Rich’s daughter, Amy, first said that phrase the night of Oct. 11, 1992. Rich, then the third-base coach for the Pirates, was driving home from Three Rivers Stadium after the Buccos beat the Braves to force Game 6 in the National League Championship Series. Amy was in the backseat. And after watching her dad in action, she was curious what he would say when he would often crouch down, cup his hands and shout over to the runner at second base.
“Dad, what are you yelling to those guys?” she said as she leaned forward. “‘The chicken runs at midnight?’”
Rich, incredulous, looked back at his daughter and said, “What? Where did you come up with that?”
Amy laughed. She had no idea. It just came to her.
The Donnellys cherished those laughs and those whimsical musings from the mind of an 18-year-old girl whose life should have just been blossoming. But while the Pirates and Braves were battling each other to get to the World Series, Amy was waging a far more serious fight. Diagnosed with a brain tumor earlier that year, she was undergoing regular chemotherapy treatments at a hospital in Arlington, Texas. In fact, her attendance at Game 5 was merely a brief respite from the routine.
When the Pirates headed to Atlanta for Game 6, Amy headed back to Arlington. But she wanted her father to know she was still with him. So she called Fulton County Stadium and left a message that was waiting for Donnelly when he arrived to work. It was scrawled on a “while you were out” note left in his locker:
“The chicken runs at midnight.”
Donnelly showed it to second baseman Jose Lind, who began repeating it to the other guys on the team. It quickly became a motto, of sorts, in the Pirates' dugout, though it ultimately wasn’t enough of a rallying cry to will them to victory in that NLCS.
No matter. The phrase stuck with the Donnellys. For when they were dealt the most devastating of blows the following January, when Amy lost her battle with the brain tumor, that simple, strange phrase served as a reminder of the light-hearted girl she was.
That’s why, if you ever come across the gravestone marking Amy Elizabeth Donnelly’s final resting place at Moore Gardens in Arlington, you’ll see that phrase looking up at you:
“THE CHICKEN RUNS AT MIDNIGHT.”
“They were telling us all these nice, flowery things they can write on the stone,” Donnelly recalls. “We said, ‘Lady, we want, "The chicken runs at midnight” or we’re out of here.’ We just thought that was appropriate for Amy.”
* * *
Four years went by. Donnelly followed Jim Leyland to Florida, and their Marlins stunned the baseball world by reaching the World Series against the Cleveland Indians -- a Fall Classic that went to a decisive seventh game.
Counsell, then a rookie, was on that club. The Marlins had acquired him from the Rockies midseason, and he made an instant impact with some big hits and big plays down the stretch.
“He is the epitome of the phrase ‘Major League Baseball player,’” Donnelly says. “He plays the game right, and he’s always aware. And he’s a great person.”
As great a person as he was, Counsell also reminded Donnelly’s sons, Tim and Mike, of a fowl. For when he would get in his batting stance, he would hold his left elbow high, resembling a chicken wing.
“The Chicken Man,” they called him.
So now it’s the bottom of the 11th inning of Game 7 of the World Series. Tim and Mike are working as bat boys for the Marlins, and Rich is in the coach’s box near third base. Counsell’s on third, having reached on an error, and he represents the winning run.
With two out, Edgar Renteria hits a ground-ball single to center, and there goes “The Chicken Man,” sprinting home with the decisive run in one of the sport’s all-time classic games.
As the celebration erupted on the field, Donnelly found Tim, tears welling in his eyes as he looked up at the clock on the scoreboard.
“Dad!” Tim screamed. “Look at the time!”
“Oh my God,” Donnelly recalls. “I lost it.”
It had been Amy’s dream to watch her father win a World Series. And now, nearly five years after her death, with “The Chicken” having run at midnight and the champagne flowing at Pro Player Stadium, Donnelly knew: Amy was there.
* * *
In the years since, Donnelly, a devout Catholic whose faith was renewed by this sequence of events, has told “The Chicken Runs At Midnight” story more times than he’d dare try to count. When he told it to Mike Hargrove, who managed that 1997 Indians team, Hargrove told Donnelly he’s glad, in retrospect, that his club lost. In 2000, Lifetime featured the story on its program “Beyond Chance,” and Donnelly has told it at speaking engagements across the country.
The story simply can’t be told enough. Because it’s still causing dynamic domino effects to this day.
A few years back, Donnelly got a call from a guy named John Canuso, a home builder form Haddonfield, N.J., who lost his daughter, Babe, to a brain tumor when she was 40. Years earlier, after Babe had been diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 9, Canuso had opened the nation’s first Ronald McDonald House in Philadelphia and had started the Canuso Foundation, a non-profit that seeks to brighten the lives of children coping with cancer and other serious illnesses and disabilities. He had heard Donnelly’s story and was blown away, feeling a certain kinship with the coach. So he invited him to come speak to some high school classes in his area.
“The kids were just in awe,” Canuso says.
Canuso came up with an idea: a 3K fun run through the streets of Haddonfield to raise money for a child in need. The race time would be 12 a.m.
And the name of the race? “The Chicken Runs At Midnight,” of course.
The initial race was held in May 2010. More than 1,500 runners showed up, and about $90,000 was raised for 7-year-old leukemia patient Mia Strobel. Last year, a similar total was raised for Tyler Townsend, a 5-year-old with a rare neurological disorder. Counsell got involved, too, securing a $1,000 donation from MLB.
“We closed the whole town down,” Canuso says. “It became a festival for the town.”
Haddonfield will shut down its streets again this May for the third annual “Chicken Runs At Midnight” event. And another young child will be blessed by the benevolence of hundreds of strangers, all inspired by a story that began with five words that poured out of Amy Donnelly’s mouth almost 20 years ago.
“This story is still affecting people,” Donnelly says. “I go all around the country telling people about it, and I got inducted into something called the Sports Faith International Hall of Fame. All because of this story.”
Donnelly, now the manager at Short-Season A Brooklyn in the Mets’ system, finds it hard to believe how much time has passed since that night in Miami and that Counsell’s career is over.
He knows, though, that the story doesn’t end here.
“Maybe when Craig gets a managing job, he can take me as his bench coach,” Donnelly says with a laugh. “That would be the ultimate honor. He’s probably one of the few players who could walk right into managing without skipping a beat. My daughter and our family will always be close with him.”
In their minds, they can still see Counsell making that midnight sprint into their hearts. His playing days are over, but long may “The Chicken” run.