By Steve Kornacki / MGoBlue.com
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Charlie Donovan never played an inning at the University of Michigan. He could run like a deer, throw a baseball 96 mph, catch everything in his wide range at shortstop, and hit for power as well as average.
Donovan was the Gatorade Player of the Year in Illinois at Westmont High, in the west Chicago suburbs, and was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers. He had a 4.36 grade-point average and volunteered in homeless shelters and youth sports programs, too.
Charlie had so much to offer in so many ways, but he died in 2015 after graduating high school and before reaching Ann Arbor.
He was the kind of kid who made such an impact on Wolverine head coach Erik Bakich and his coaching staff that they decided to honor Charlie with the rest of the senior class he remains part of prior to Sunday’s (May 12) game with Indiana.
It also was Mother’s Day, and Karen Donovan donned Charlie’s favorite baseball cap, a gray one with a blue block M on a maize circle. “I was with him on campus when he got it,” said Karen. She also wore a pendant holding a miniature maize Michigan baseball jersey with the No. 0 on a gold chain around her neck.
That was the number Charlie wore in high school and that his young brother, Wolverine starting catcher Joe Donovan, now wears. Karen said all the mothers of freshman players entering the program for the 2018 season received the pendants.
It was a day for moist eyes and warm memories.
“It’s hard to put into words,” said Karen. “My heart feels very full. We’re very thankful and very grateful that we’re all part of the Michigan family. I feel a little out-of-body after today, just knowing how much he wished he would’ve been here. It’s the sad, bittersweet with everything.
“As time goes on, you realize the importance of him being remembered. He was an amazing kid, mature beyond his years. So selfless and a fantastic athlete. He just loved baseball — love it, loved it. Having him remembered is important. Losing a child is difficult and makes people uncomfortable. Sometimes, they don’t know how to act. They don’t want to bring it up to make us cry. But you’re always thinking about him, so you should talk about him. It brings joy to us.”
Karen and her husband and the boys’ father, Jim Donovan, were presented a framed, full-sized No. 0 jersey with Charlie’s name on it and a photo of him playing in high school. Joe was out there near the mound with them, too, before the game.
“It was a surprise to me and very touching,” said Jim. “We found out on the heels of Joe’s walk-off homer a couple of weeks ago, and that was obviously exciting in itself. I found the whole walk-off situation emotional even though I wasn’t present.
“And then to hear that we would be included today is just such gratitude. I feel very blessed to be a part of it and have the boys — even though Joe is not finished with his career here — it’s a tip of the hat to Charlie. It’s Joe’s best friend and brother, and it was a nice way to do it. It just warms the heart.”
Joe’s three-run homer in the 10th inning on April 28 made the Wolverines 4-1 winners over Rutgers at Fisher Stadium.
Afterward, soaking wet from his Gatorade bucket drenching by teammates, Joe sat in the dugout and explained the meaning behind his thick white bandana with a blue block M in the center.
“I had a brother who passed away,” said Joe. “When he passed away (in 2015), I was in high school, and all of the surrounding neighborhoods, friends and family in the western suburbs (of Chicago) would tie white bandanas or ribbons around their trees in memory of my brother. So, I’m not a tree, but I wear it every inning of every game.
“It’s something I like to think about. I just try to do a lot of things for him, and my coach (Bakich) said it, but I think we had a 10th man out there today, and it was my brother.”
Jim shook his head and said, “The interesting thing is, your article was the first time he told us about that. We’ve allowed him to grieve in his own way, and we learned as a family that everyone has their own way of grieving. His style was more within, while others of us were more inclined to talk and share. He tended not to be that way.
“So, hearing Joe say that made me feel so good, to know that’s the case.”
Joe said he asked Charlie if he could wear the No. 0 in high school, and Charlie was happy to have his younger brother carry on that tradition. Though, Karen said Charlie was going to wear No. 2 for the Wolverines. He idolized New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter and wanted his number at a school very close to Jeter’s heart. Jeter signed with Michigan coach Bill Freehan but took the first-round bonus money of the Yankees as expected and never played in Ann Arbor.
Zero would go to Joe, perpetuating his connection to Charlie.
“When you look at the symbolism of zero it becomes bigger,” said Karen. “It’s infinity and never ending. The number has even more meaning to us now.”
Jim said “a lot of kids started wearing zero locally after Charlie did,” and he sparked interest in that number back home.
His parents said they could sense Charlie’s presence at Fisher Stadium — particularly during Saturday’s game.
“There was a hawk hovering over the team doing their pregame handshakes yesterday,” said Karen, “and I thought, that’s our ‘Hello’ that he’s here.”
Talking about Charlie put smiles on their faces while they spoke during the Wolverines’ 6-5 win over Indiana in 11 innings. Joe got two singles and scored one run in the game that kept Michigan (37-13, 15-5 Big Ten) ahead of the second-place Hoosiers (33-18, 14-7) headed into the final three conference games at Nebraska next weekend.
The pregame ceremony was the beginning of a special day.
“I could see my parents getting a little misty,” Joe said of the festivities that included seniors Jack Bredeson, Jimmy Kerr, Miles Lewis, Blake Nelson and Ako Thomas (who scored the winning run on a wild play) and their families. “I mean, the coaches didn’t have to do that. It was nothing I expected or would’ve asked for. But it really means a lot to me and my family and my parents.
“It’s awesome having him be recognized as part of the team after he was one of the guys in that recruiting class, and such a great person. I’m so thankful.”
Bakich said it felt normal to include Charlie.
“I felt like Charlie’s been here the whole time,” said Bakich. “During Ako’s freshman year, on his dorm room, the door always read: ‘Ako Thomas, Charlie Donovan.’ Ako had that walk-off hit against Michigan State (as a freshman) and we felt Charlie was with him. It’s always felt like Charlie’s had these moments when he’s been here and showed himself. The first two years, a lot of times it was through Ako, and the last two years it’s been through Joe.
“So, it was only right he was part of senior day as well.”
Thomas, who is from Chicago and would’ve played second base right next to Charlie on the infield, had two hits, two RBI and scored two runs against Indiana.
The Donovans discussed how their older son turned into a special player.
“Charlie was very athletic,” said Dad. “He could dunk a basketball. He could run like the wind. He was just real athletic, smooth.”
Mom added, “He could do triple-flips off the diving board.”
Dad continued, “He got to be known in the neighborhood as the kid who would take his Wiffle ball and bat and hit it across the street, then back to the other side, for hours.”
The boys come by their love of baseball quite honestly. Their father, a three-time all-state selection who played at the University of Illinois, instructs at the Strikes! Baseball and Softball Academy in Broadview, Illinois. Yet, for all the beauty of Charlie as a player, his father remembers him most for his humanity for others and how he “was so nice,” even to travel ball teammates trying to beat him out of a starting job.
“The thing I love about Charlie, more than anything else, was that he was very humble,” said Dad, “We’ve heard so many stories since his passing of his timing in saying something nice to someone at the right time.”
His mother, a nurse caregiver, added, “People would say that when they didn’t know anybody coming in, Charlie would welcome them. I loved his genuineness, such a good soul, such a good kid.”
Charlie opted against signing with the Brewers, who had taken him in the 30th round, in order to become a Wolverine. A Milwaukee scout took the family to dinner and presented them a framed Brewers jersey with Donovan on the back after Charlie passed away.
“We’ve been hesitant to hang it up,” said Jim, “but now it will have company, and we have a good spot for them down in the basement, where we watch TV and sports.”
Zero lives on through Joe, linking the brothers more tightly than ever. Though, it’s impossible to think of one without the other.
“A lot of neighbors tell us that they’ll always remember the sound of them playing catch,” said Karen.
Jim added, “As a baseball guy, the art of playing catch is very near and dear to my heart. Charlie had a real strong arm and Joe, being younger, was in a bit of danger there for a while, and he took his lumps.
“But, toward the end, to see them play catch, it was bliss for me because you could hear the ball whizzing out of their hands and, ‘POP!’ It was like a dance, and they just snapped them off. It was one of my greatest joys, just watching them play catch.”
The faraway look in the father’s eyes told you that he could still see them playing catch as if it were yesterday. And Sunday, before a big win at Ray Fisher Stadium, it was even easier than usual to remember their boys together.
It was a beautiful time.
MAIN PHOTO: (from left) Karen Donovan, Joe Donovan, Jim Donovan and Erik Bakich. Photo courtesy of U-M Athletics.
Used by Permission