When then-Pirates third base coach Rich Donnelly would crouch down, cup his hands and shout to the runner on second base, his daughter, Amy, once asked him, "Dad, what are you yelling to the runner, 'The chicken runs at midnight'?" The statement had no origin, no specific meaning, yet became a buzz phrase in the Donnelly home, and among the Pirates. When Pittsburgh second baseman Jose Lind ran on the field before a game in 1992, a microphone caught him yelling to teammates, "Let's go, the chicken runs at midnight!"
Amy Donnelly was diagnosed with a brain tumor in spring training 1992. She died nine months later at age 18. Four years later, the Marlins won the World Series, and it was third base coach Rich Donnelly who waved home Craig Counsell with the winning run in the 11th inning of Game 7. Counsell was nicknamed "The Chicken" in the Donnelly house because he flapped his left elbow as he got ready for the pitch to be delivered. As Counsell crossed the plate, and bedlam followed at Dolphin Stadium, Tim Donnelly, one of Amy's younger brothers, looked at clock on the scoreboard. He screamed at his brother, Mike, who also was a bat boy that night. Then they screamed to their dad, Rich Donnelly.
"Dad, look at the time! Look at the time!"
Rich Donnelly looked at the scoreboard clock. It was midnight. The chicken runs at midnight.
"It's a true story, you hear it and you can't believe it happened, but it happened," said Counsell, who is a utility infielder for Brewers 13 years after scoring the winning run in the '97 Series. "I've said that someone should make a movie out of this story, that's how amazing it is. Anyone who hears it is moved by it. I get chills every time I think about it."
John Canuso, a home builder in Philadelphia, was so inspired by this story, he called Rich Donnelly. Canuso had also lost a daughter, Babe, to cancer. Canuso was also very close to former Phillies coach John Vukovich, who died of cancer in 2007. Canuso runs the Canuso Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps brighten the lives of children who are coping with cancer, other serious illnesses and disabilities. A division of the Canuso Foundation is called Babe's Kids, named for his daughter. A fundraiser for 37 years, John Canuso started the first Ronald McDonald House in Philadelphia in 1974.
Canuso is now raising funds for a family with a child with leukemia in Haddonfield, N.J. On May 21, Haddonfield is going to close down the town for two hours and run relays for kids at 5 p.m., then a 3K race at midnight, starting at the Haddonfield Memorial High School football field, and finishing down Kings Highway, all to support 7-year-old Mia Strobel, who has leukemia. Canuso said $30,000 has been committed to Mia's family.
The theme of the 3K run: The Chicken Runs At Midnight.
"Rich came to our town and told our kids the story at the high schools; he really inspired them," Canuso said. "There has been a groundswell. The whole town has gotten involved."
Canuso wasn't certain how many runners would run May 21, but he estimated as many as 2,000.
"I am humbled; I am overwhelmed," Donnelly said. "All these people who are running know the story. They're not just running a race; they know why they're running. It's all because of John. I've never met anyone like him. He doesn't have to do this. He's a successful home builder. He put up $10,000 just to secure the police force. He's a saint. He wants to help kids."
The "chicken runs at midnight" story is known by many current and former major league players, including Nationals closer Matt Capps, Cardinals pitcher Brad Penny, Phillies outfielder Jayson Werth and Marlins pitcher Anibal Sanchez. No one knows it better than Counsell because he lived it. Counsell has shipped memorabilia, including a signed bat, to Canuso. He also sent a check that will be matched by the Major League Baseball Players Association.
"There is baseball in the story, but it's not a baseball story," Counsell said. "It's about a family. It's about a family going through tough times and bonding together. That's one reason why people love baseball because it can connect them to other parts of their lives."
Anibal Sanchez threw a no-hitter on Sept. 6, 2006. Exactly one year later, his son, Alan Sanchez, was born. But he died a few months later after contracting Dengue fever, an ailment common in the tropics, from a mosquito bite. Two years ago, Sanchez heard of "the chicken runs at midnight," as part of a Lifetime channel segment about Amy that ran several years ago. Sanchez called Donnelly. Soon after, Sanchez was jogging before a game at Pittsburgh's PNC Park at 8:30 a.m. Donnelly, then a coach with the Pirates, met Sanchez for the first time.
"I went up to him and said, 'I'm Rich Donnelly,' and he started crying," Donnelly said. "He said that Amy's story helped him and his wife with the loss of their son. It was cold and foggy that day, he took his shirt off and showed me a tattoo of his son on his right arm."
Sanchez said he considered quitting baseball after the death of his son.
"Now when I go to the mound every time, my son is with me," he said. "Watching that video of 'The Chicken Runs At Midnight,' and knowing the story, made me think that I'm not the only one who has been through this. It made me continue my career. When I talked to Rich about his daughter, it was like it had just happened yesterday. I get very emotional thinking about it now. I'll never forget my son, but Amy's story helped me get through."
Amy Donnelly is buried in Arlington, Texas. On her tombstone is the inscription "The Chicken Runs at Midnight." It has been 17 years since she died, and Rich Donnelly says he thinks about her every day. He was a major league coach for the Rangers, Marlins, Brewers, Dodgers and Pirates, as well as a minor league player and manager, for 42 years. He is looking for another job in baseball, preferably as a third base coach in the major leagues, or a college baseball coach, but as he waits, he does speaking engagements across the country. Many times, he recounts his beautiful daughter's story of The Chicken Runs At Midnight. And a week from today, a town will close down and run a race at midnight for Amy, for 7-year-old Mia Strobel and for children all across the country who have serious illnesses.
"If Norman Rockwell was to paint America, he would paint Haddonfield; it is beautiful," Donnelly said. "When those people line up to run at midnight …" his voice cracking, as it always does when he thinks about Amy … "it will be the greatest tribute ever to our Amy."
Indeed. The chicken runs at midnight.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.