Elliott: From berm to bat boy, to batting second for Dawgs: Danny Donnelly

 Chicago Cubs RP Jimmy Henderson (Calgary, Alta.), an original Dawg, presents the Jimmy Henderson award to OF Danny Donnelly (Okotoks). Photo: Amanda Fewer.

Chicago Cubs RP Jimmy Henderson (Calgary, Alta.), an original Dawg, presents the Jimmy Henderson award to OF Danny Donnelly (Okotoks). Photo: Amanda Fewer.

By Bob Elliott

Canadian Baseball Network

OKOTOKS, Alta. _ Danny Donnelly hasn’t been around long enough to remember the flood of 1999.

That’s when the Sheep River overflowed, soaking storefronts of the business district of this burg, some 45 minutes from Calgary.

Donnelly has been around Okotoks since before managing director John Ircandia brough the Okotoks Dawgs to town to take the field in 2007 in the Western Major Baseball League.

He’s been around longer than those last couple of weeds Hall of Famer Blair Kubicek found after cutting the grass the first time at Seaman Stadium.

Donnelly watched his heroes -- the Okotoks Dawgs summer college team -- as a seven-year-old from the berm in left field, with his father Pat. Three years later, he watched from the dugout as a hustlin’ bat boy.

Eventually he grew into a Dawgs uniform as a player and at the 10th anniversary banquet he was on stage at the Foothills Centennial Centre.

Jimmy Henderson, the first Dawg to make the majors, presented Donnelly, the only original Dawg -- from birth to berm to bat boy to batting lead off or second in the Dawgs order -- the annual Jimmy Henderson scholarship award as the JDawg player of the year.

As Bruce Campbell wrote so elegantly in The Western Wheel, “If he had any more Dawgs’ blood flowing through his veins, he’d need to go for distemper shots.”

Donnelly was born June 1, 1999 at Rockyview General Hospital in Calgary (there were not any medical services in Okotoks) and soon after mom Marlene was home in Okotoks.

Marlene was the Dawgs academic adviser from Day 1, checking and double-checking marks, making sure assignments were handed in ... and ahem everyone went to class at Holy Trinity Academy. For as every young player should know, you will work longer than you play.

While Donnelly maintains an 80% average he admits that about once a semester he hears from the academic advisor saying: “I get the message and deal with the subject that needs to be delt with.” Some nights the academic advisor sounds an awful lot like mom. 

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The berm down the left field line was always a family place. Grandpas and grandsons, mothers, fathers and sticky-figured children content to eat rather than watch and fathers and sons.

From the Dawgs first year until 2015 the berm could at time be a dangerous place when right-handed hitters pulled inside pitches foul. That’s when former Team Canada OF Doug McPhail, who played in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and his wife Winny donated $10,000 to the Dawgs for netting.

“Brett Thomas was my favorite player,” Donnelly said inside the coaches' office at Duvernay Fieldhouse. “He played with a fire and a passion. I remember one game he slid in on a play at the plate, the throw came in from the outfield, was called out, he jumped up and got ejected.”

Jonathan Hodgson, the legendary formerr Dawgs broadcaster, seated nearby, nodded the way Jerry Howarth would listening to a story ... as in “I remember that night.”

Those were heady times as Thomas and the Dawgs won three WMBL titles: 2007-09. He was there to see the Dawgs Dawgpile.

Those Dawgs? “They were my super stars,” Donnelly said.

Growing up hockey was his No. 1 sport, but all those games on the berm with pops led him to deciding what everyone else knows, “Baseball is a more exciting game.”

* * *
Three years later he was in the first base dugout, replacing a bat after the hitter broke his weapon, hurrying to pick up the tossed bat ... and just like on the berm: rooting for the Dawgs. Thomas was in the dugout, now as an assistant to manager Dave Robb.

“As I got to know them they were more than player,” the teenager said, “they were regular people.”

Parents Marleen and Pat were a billet family for the Dawgs, part of the appeal which has getting a Dawg ticket tougher to find than Atlanta Flames fans in Calgary.

In 2010, there were Dayton C Dan Welch (Victoria, BC), who spent a year in the Oakland A’s system and C Toby DeMello, of Roseville, Calif. drafted from St. Mary’s College in the 29th round by the Seattle Mariners; the next year 1B Justin Juneau from the University of Texas-Tyler and INF Drew Pettit (Fonthill, Ont.) from Canisius and in 2012, Adam Clarke (Saint John, NB). 

Two players Thomas Rodrigues (Pierrefonds, Que.) and Tyler Hollick (Calgary, Alta.) helped Donnelly the most. Rodriguez and Donnelly would hook up after early batting practice for tips: batter to bat boy. Hollick taught Donnelly that “everything you do some will fail, you succeed when you adapt and change.” Both taught him to trust himself. 

* * *
On the diamonds Kubicek first built and then carefully maintained -- Tourmaline, Conrad and Riverside -- Donnelly played bantam as a peewee for coach Scott Smith, then bantam black Dawgs for coach Greg Wolfe, Val Helldobler with the midget red team and this season with the midget black team for former pro Tyler Hollick.

The outfielder says he loves to hit and Donnelly’s best was probably as a bantam when he had a four-hit game against St. Albert which included a pair of homers as Dawgs advanced to the nationals in Vaughan.

To better his speed he ran up and down hills, as a sprint coach suggested. Just like George Posada the scout had his son George Posada, Jr. do before he would draft the shortstop. The Toronto Blue Jays drafted Posada, he went to junior college in Alabama. The Yankees selected him and moved him behind the plate.

When he was not playing for the bantams or the midgets and the college Dawgs were, he would fill in as the scorekeeper seated in the press box behind home plate.

And some day, maybe not too far down the road, Donnelly who heads south this fall to play for the Chandler Gilbert Community College Coyotes -- where Hollick played --  maybe some youngster will sit with his father on the berm behind the McPhail netting and watch in awe of Donnelly.

Presented with the scenario, Donnelly admitted with a smile “that would be cool.”