After seeing the 2023 finalists for the Casey Award for the best baseball book, I decided to read more of these award winning books and finalist for not only 2023 but past years as well. Looking at past years’ finalists, this tile of a 2019 finalist caught my eye. I then read the synopsis - and then immediately checked out a copy. Wow, what a book! Here is my review.
“The Chicken Runs at Midnight: A Daughter’s Message From Heaven That Changed a Father’s Heart and Won the World Series” by Tom Friend
5 of 5 stars (excellent)
Review: It’s very hard to categorize this book because it touches so many areas. Is it a baseball book? Yes, there’s much about the sport and one man’s quest to reach the major leagues, but it is so much more than that. Is it a spiritual book? Yes, but it doesn’t really have that characteristic until the last third or so. Is it a book on family life and relationships? Yes, that’s important to the story but again, not a complete description. Yet, this wonderful book by Tom Friend will appeal to anyone who enjoys reading about these topics. Field’s writing about the following topics is a joy to behold and will keep the reader glued to the book.
Let’s start with the baseball. Rich Donnelly grew up in the town of Steubenville, Pennsylvania as a huge fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates. While he dreamed of playing for his beloved Pirates, he wasn’t the best athlete in his family - that honor belonged to his brother Jerome Jr. or Romey. Romey was also Rich’s hero, 14 years his senior and continually monitored by their father Jerome. Wanting to ensure that Romey would become a major league pitcher, Jerome Sr. was basically a helicopter parent in that he set strict rules for Romey about practice, social time, eating, dating - you name it, it was monitored by the father. While Romey did end up in professional baseball, he failed to make the major leagues and tragically died not long after giving up the game.
Enter Rich, who was already doing pretty well for himself as a catcher. Jerome Sr. then shifted his focus to Rich who also ended up playing college and professional baseball. Like Romey, Rich had struggles in the minors and also married a woman soon after finally having the freedom to do so. He and his wife Peggy had four children - Richard Jr. or Bubba, Tim, Mike and Amy. It is the daughter, Amy, who spoke the phrase making up the title of the book - and it was just a spontaneous remark when she asked her dad what he told players when cupping his mouth while being the third base coach. This was in the 1992 NLCS when Rich was the third base coach for the Pirates. He may not have made his boyhood team as a player, but he was just as thrilled to wear their uniform as a coach.
But the road there was filled with many issues. Rich inherited his father’s type A personality and while that may work on a baseball diamond, it certainly caused issues with his family. He pushed the three boys hard when they showed promise in baseball and basketball. But Amy…we’ll, Amy was her own person and always tried to show her father how she was important too. Not to mention her talents were on display as well. She would gather kids in the family garage and hold classrooms lessons, complete with homework and forms for parents to sign. She also became an athlete, excelling in basketball. But Rich never saw this - thanks to falling for the vices that often plagued baseball players on the road - drinking and women - Rich and his wife Peggy eventually divorced and Amy was left despondent over not being able to please her father.
Even more so, as Freind wonderfully describes, Rich is also,left with so many lingering doubts - about how good a father he was to his daughter, to his faith and his overall life. But news about Amy and a devastating diagnosis of brain cancer left Rich in shock and the story of how he got back into Amy’s life, how special she was and the time they together in the Pittsburgh playoff drive - capped off by “The Chicken Runs at Midnight” comment is one that is some heartwarming that one would think that wine Amy passed away the following spring, that would be the end of the story.
But Rich, following manager Jim Leylamd to Miami and being the third base coach for the Florida Marlins in the 1997 World Series, there was one more miracle from Amy thanks to Marlin Craig Counsell, who was nicknamed the Chicken and the time that the Marlins won game 7. Not wanting to give away any more of the story than already told, just know that if a reader got this far without tearing up or at least feeling some emotion, they are sure to do so when this occurs.
This book was a finalist for a 2019 Casey Award and once one read it, they will understand why. Not a typical baseball story even though there are many typical baseball plays and personalities in the book, this is one that is sure to captivate a reader. Even this lengthy review cannot do justice to the complete story of Rich and Amy Donnelly.