A version of this story originally appeared in The Tablet Newspaper.
Brooklyn Cyclones’ manager Rich Donnelly is known for being a passionate man.
He’s coached professional baseball at various levels for nearly 40 years, including winning the 1997 World Series as a coach with the Florida Marlins.
But Donnelly has another passion – that actually rivals his love of baseball. The 67-year-old coach is a world-class racquetball player for his age category.
Now in his third season as the Cyclones’ manager, the Gravesend, Brooklyn, resident played baseball and basketball at Xavier University, Cincinnati, but in his spare time, he took up handball. The left-handed hitting catcher signed with the Minnesota Twins in 1967, but he kept playing handball throughout his stops in the minor leagues.
By age 24, the Steubenville, Ohio, native was already a manager. While managing the Tacoma Rainiers, he was given a wooden racquet, and handball began evolving into racquetball.
“I just got into it (racquetball),” Donnelly said. “I fell in love with it. It was a perfect game for me. The Lord blessed me with a couple of good things: great hands and great reflexes. It just seemed like it fit.”
Donnelly continued to play whenever he could, but with his hectic coaching schedule, it was always tough for him to find a consistent rhythm. But that changed in 1999, while he was a coach for the Colorado Rockies.
He played at the Lakewood Athletic Club in Denver, which was hosting a pro-am tournament. The director, Marianne Alonzi, asked Donnelly to bring a few Rockies’ players, so he brought slugging first baseman Todd Helton and speedy outfielder Juan Pierre.
Donnelly thought he was just going to the tournament to have some fun, but Alonzi wound up entering him in his age bracket. He said he was not in prime racquetball shape at the time, and he lost to his opponent.
“I went home that night and made a vow,” Donnelly said. “First off, I got that guy’s phone number. And I said, when I’m ready, I’m going to call him. So I did.”
Donnelly won five sets in a row the next time the two played, and from there, he knew he could play with anyone. He even began training with professional racquetball players, including Staten Island native Sudsy Monchik – a five-time world champion and 17-time national champion who is revered as the greatest player in the history of the sport.
Donnelly and Monchik have become good friends who try to play whenever possible. Monchik said that Donnelly could have easily been a national champion had the latter taken up racquetball instead of baseball.
“He’s (Donnelly) a competitor,” Monchik said. “Racquetball being an individual sport, he needs to have that competitive nature. It’s unlike baseball where there are eight other guys on the field with you. Rich has that one-on-one, ‘I’ll be fully accountable’ mentality, and obviously he takes that into coaching with him.”
Donnelly seems like a kind-hearted man in person, but he transforms whenever he steps inside the racquetball court.
“Don’t let him (Donnelly) fool you; he always wants to rip your heart out when you play him,” Monchik said. “Coach is vicious. I always say don’t mistake kindness for weakness.”
Through Monchik, Donnelly has established friendships all over the country with world-class racquetball players. When he coached in the big leagues, he would bring his racquet on road trips and simply make a phone call, and he’d be able to find an opponent in any city at any time.
Many of Donnelly’s opponents are often puzzled by his unorthodox style. The No. 2 ranked female player in the world, Rhonda Rajsich, has even called Donnelly “The Freak.”
Donnelly’s style of play involves cutting every ball off – a method he learned from former 18-year MLB veteran Al Oliver. The hand-eye coordination and reflexes he developed for years in baseball as a catcher allow him to reach the ball before it hits the back wall.
“I cut ceiling balls off, and nobody cuts ceiling balls off,” Donnelly said. “I play a strange game, and it messes some people up.”
His competitive nature has allowed him to play through the pain, including not having any cartilage in his right knee. After a grueling tournament 25 years ago, the coach was forced to undergo knee surgery the very next day.
“The doctor told me 25 years ago, ‘Don’t do anything stupid like play racquetball,’” Donnelly said. “I said ‘OK good.’ But I’ve been playing for 25 years, and it doesn’t bother me. I’ve been blessed that way.”
While managing the Cyclones, Donnelly has little time for racquetball. He arrives at MCU Park at 9 a.m. and sometimes does not leave until 1:30 a.m. But part of his preparation for his day in the morning involves studying racquetball videos and tracking the progress of all his playing buddies.
From October to December, Donnelly is at the top of his game. He plays three days a week each offseason, which allows his competitive juices to flow freely. His competitive edge has been ingrained in him through his baseball career, and it developed as a youngster.
As a kid, he would pout in the back seat of his parents’ car on the way home from Pittsburgh Pirates’ games if the team lost. He would then lock himself in his bedroom as he muttered phrases like, “Why aren’t you trying Roberto Clemente?”
But while racquetball is an individual sport, Donnelly said it’s tough to beat the feeling of winning in a team sport.
“It’s more exciting when it’s a team,” he said. “It’s a lot of guys; it’s more satisfying. As in racquetball, it’s more competitive. It’s just you. If you beat somebody, it’s a great accomplishment, but there’s nothing better, I think, than team sports.”
The sport of racquetball has also played a role in saving Donnelly’s life. Three years ago, it was discovered that he had a softball-sized cancerous tumor in his colon. He actually played racquetball the day before visiting the doctor and experienced no discomfort whatsoever.
The doctors could not believe that he had no symptoms from such a large tumor. They all agreed that he was saved because he was in such great shape from playing the sport that he loved. A few days after successful surgery, Donnelly was notified that he’d be the Cyclones’ new manager.
Though Donnelly’s career has been in baseball, he said he would much rather physically play racquetball. He’s even tried to get some of his current Brooklyn players involved in the sport.
“It’s (racquetball) the greatest sport in the world,” he said. “There is nothing else that can compare with it because there’s nothing else that has hand-eye coordination, quickness, reflexes, strength and mental…all five. It’s the fastest game in the world.”
Donnelly currently serves on the board of advisors of the International Racquetball Tour. At this point in his life, he lives every day to the fullest.
“I’ve slept enough!” he said. “I’m full of energy.”
And it’s this energy that has allowed Donnelly to thrive in all aspects of his life, whether he’s managing the Cyclones or competitively playing racquetball.