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Pandemic idles Steubenville’s Rich Donnelly

New York Yankees bench coach Tony Pena, left, talks with Seattle Mariners third base coach Rich Donnelly, right, before a baseball game, Wednesday, June 11, 2014 in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

STEUBENVILLE — Rich Donnelly has seen about all there is to see in his 73 years on this earth. The baseball lifer has traveled coast-to-coast via his many diamond playing and coaching assignments.

But the Steubenville Catholic Central product has never witnessed such a past four months as the nation has endured. The coronavirus pandemic has radically changed the lifestyle in the United States.

Sports, at all levels, have taken a major hit. Professional leagues, shuttered since mid-March, are just now laying the groundwork for return to play.

Donnelly, as well-respected a baseball mind as you will find, was all set in March to begin a coaching position he truly relished. He was named manager of the Port St. Lucie Mets. They play in the Florida State League and are the Class A-advanced affiliate of the New York Mets.

Donnelly was originally tabbed to be the bench coach for Syracuse this year, the Class AAA-level affiliate of the Mets. The Mets’ hierarchy, however, felt his three-plus decades of Major League Baseball experience would be better suited tutoring up-and-coming prospects. His new coaching gig came to fruition when Syracuse’s manager was promoted to the parent club. Then Port St. Lucie’s manager subsequently filled the Syracuse void.

“They asked me what position I liked better. This (Port St. Lucie) is a dream job. I like managing,” Donnelly said.

The ongoing pandemic, however, has proven a nightmare for Donnelly’s dream job. Minor league baseball will not be played this summer. Its future is uncertain at best.

“I talked to my boss last night (Monday). He said there will be no minor league baseball this summer,” Donnelly said. “The best they can do is have a taxi squad of players based in Brooklyn. That means some 150 players in the Mets’ organization won’t be playing this summer.

“The Mets’ organization is trying to place some of the players in winter ball in Australia and other venues. We are also hoping for a fall instructional league,” he added. “But that is a 50/50 proposition. It’s a bad time for young players right now.”

So what does the shutdown of minor league baseball mean for Donnelly this summer?

“My boss told me to stay on alert. In case someone gets the virus they may need me in New York,” Donnelly offered. “Until then I will do some (baseball) lessons here and play a lot of golf and racquetball.”

If baseball life returns to normalcy in 2021, Donnelly said he will likely return to the Port St. Lucie managerial post. He said about 95 percent of the players from his year’s squad would also return.

“Minor league baseball will undergo major changes. Major League Baseball teams will pare their minor league affiliates down to just four teams,” Donnelly said. “We will probably keep our AAA, AA, High A and Low A affiliates. There will be a lot of jobs lost.”

While the coronavirus has wreaked havoc with baseball, it hasn’t impacted Donnelly’s loved ones health-wise.

“Everyone in my family is fine. My hitting coach is the only person I know who has had the virus, and he has recovered,” Donnelly noted. “But this is the first time in 52 years I have been home in July.”

Port St. Lucie’s season was originally scheduled to open April 9 and end Sept. 7. In a normal Florida State League campaign, the young Mets would play 142 games.

“I was really excited about that opportunity. We play in a $60 million park, we don’t have to travel more than two hours, while getting to work with some very talented players. They are 18- and 19-year-old players,” Donnelly said.

The young Met prospects this summer would have been mentored by a manager boasting priceless Major League Baseball experience.

During that time, Donnelly has served as a first-base coach, third-base coach, bench coach and bullpen coach. He owns a World Series ring when he was third-base coach in 1997 with the Florida Marlins, under the direction of Jim Leyland. Donnelly also worked with Leyland on the Pirates’ and Rockies’ staffs, respectively. He also had stints with the Texas Rangers, Milwaukee Brewers, Seattle Mariners and Los Angeles Dodgers.

Donnelly is quite familiar with the Mets’ organization.

He has managed its Brooklyn Cyclones Class A affiliate from 2011-13, was the Cyclones’ bench coach in 2018 and managed the rookie-level Kingsport Mets in 2019. Two former Port St. Lucie products are now on the New York Mets’ roster. They are star hurlers Noah Syndergaard, a former rookie-of-the-year, and Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom.

After picking up his diploma from Steubenville Catholic, Donnelly continued his academic and baseball careers at Xavier University. Following his playing days with the Musketeers, he was signed as a catcher by the Minnesota Twins in 1967. He played four seasons in the Twins’ and Washington Senators’ minor league systems.

Donnelly’s life has been touched by tragedy.

Two of his children have died. His daughter, Amy, died of a brain tumor in 1993, while son, Michael, was killed in a car accident in 2018. He was acting as a good Samaritan, helping a stranded motorist. He was struck and killed by a speeding driver.

Amy was the inspiration for Donnelly to pen his best-selling book, “The Chicken Runs at Midnight.”

Craig Counsell was a member of the 1997 Marlins. Donnelly’s son, Tim, nicknamed him, “The Chicken.” As fate would have it, Counsell scored the World Series clinching run as the stadium clock read midnight. Years earlier, Amy saw her dad yelling instructions at his base runners. She asked, “What are you telling them? That the chicken runs at midnight, or what?”

Shockingly, tragedy nearly impacted his family again in 2017. Two of his daughters attended the Las Vegas concert where 58 people were murdered. They stepped into the role of heroes as a woman in front of them was shot. The sisters applied tourniquets to help stop the bleeding.

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