Charlie Donovan: Beyond the Basepaths

Nov 22, 2016 8:49 AM
Dan Napper, Correspondent

Charlie at the 2014 WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, FLToo often we only know a baseball player by two things: their number and their swing. A swing to a baseball player is unique, it is specific, it is a response of every fast twitch muscle in our bodies that react to a decision made in a quarter second. Many players have that swing naturally; it is a feel, a gift, honed by years and years of repetition in a cage, a movement that at times is difficult to explain.

“The one thing I’ll never forget was how loud it was…”

Baseball is a unique game. Despite the fact that it is a team sport, too often it comes down to a single matchup: the pitcher versus the batter. As outsiders watching from the comfort of our couch we marvel at how easy professionals make the game look. We reach for the bag of potato chips and think back to our glory years in high school and say; “I could still do that.” As we too often forget, pride comes before the fall.

But every so often, a player comes about who even at the age of a high school student makes the game look that easy. They have that swing that you will always remember and they play the game with an unbridled passion that cannot be contained, bottled up, sold, or duplicated. It is no different than watching a master artist begin to paint, listen to a composer write a symphony, or marvel at the brilliance of the world’s greatest minds. And when it is all done it comes back to one thing, the swing. The way it drives through the hitting zone, the smooth approach to the ball, the fluid nature as the hands and wrists roll through, and how natural the hitter looks when they make contact. The result is too often what is measured, but the swing itself is literally poetry in motion.

“The one thing I’ll never forget was how loud it was…”

As coaches we try to be perfect at all times. We try to constantly prove to our players the right way to approach the game. From little nuisances like never stepping on the foul line, to hustling in and out of every drill, to running out an infield single that is a for sure out. Some young players simply get “it” long before others, and their passion for success and love of the game drives them to carry themselves in a manner well beyond their years. That mentality leads to the beauty of the swing, the beauty of the ball being driven throughout the field, the beauty of hard work coming to fruition. As coaches we are not perfect. We screw up, make mistakes, pull the pitcher late, make the wrong substitution, steal when we shouldn’t, swing away when we should bunt,  pinch hit when our starter should stay in and then don’t pinch hit when we should. It is a game of learning from our mistakes and in turn trying to teach that to our players, so they don’t make the same mistakes.

But, our greatest goal as coaches is not to win. Not to be carried off the field by our players, or hold a state, national, or World Series trophy high over our heads. No, in the simplest of ways it is to help young men to become men and to be leaders in our society. To help them grow, mature, develop, and remember how much fun it is to play baseball. And when something happens that we cannot explain as a coach, we feel hollow, lost, confused, and wonder where things went wrong and why we could not fix the problem we did not know existed.

“The one thing I’ll never forget was how loud it was…”

On October 15th of 2014 the Chicago Scouts Association Jupiter Fall team scheduled an exhibition game against Longshots Baseball. It was a tune up of sorts to get ready for the WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Florida. On Les Miller field, at Curtis Granderson Stadium, that day was some of the elite high school talent in the country.  Many of the young ballplayers on the field that day that were already committed to college powerhouses like Kentucky, Indiana, Arkansas, and Vanderbilt. And one specific young man who committed to the University of Michigan as a sophomore in high school. At shortstop he was fluid, natural, and almost effortless, at least that is how he made it look. In all actuality he was working extremely hard, turning double plays with a fluid precision, and delivering strike after strike from across the diamond to first base, hustling to every part of the field no matter the score or inning, he hustled out of the dugout to short, in to the dugout after the third out, anywhere on the field he simply hustled. But, the true beauty of watching this young man play was one thing, his swing. Left handed, but level, short and quick, the hands stayed in the hitting zone long enough to hit to all fields, but are quick enough to pull an inside pitch. And on that day in Chicago this young man went 3 for 4 with a homerun, a triple, and a double. It was only an exhibition game, but if you knew the young man, you knew that he played every game with a hustle that was unparalleled.

Charlie at the 2014 New Balance Area Code Games in Long Beach, CAHis name was Charlie Donovan.

If you talk to those around him that knew him well you got the same response over and over again. “He was a leader, a great guy, a kid with a good head on his shoulders, he had his priorities in order, he loved the game, he had a plan, he was a special talent, but a special kid.”

Speak to a college coach scouting him, an opposing teammate, or one of his own teammates and the message is unanimous. Charlie was a great kid who loved the game of baseball.

“He was a mentor to me right from the start, just the way he carried himself, he walked around like he was a professional ballplayer when he was sixteen years old. No one else I knew was that focused, prepared, or mature on the ball field. I’m just lucky I got him to ground out that night,” said Casey Kemper a pitcher for the Longshots Baseball. “I was warming up in the bullpen when he leadoff his 2nd at bat with that homerun, and the one thing I will never forget was how loud it was. I looked up from the bullpen and once I finally saw it there was no doubt it was way beyond gone.”

“That was Charlie though, he loved a first pitch fastball and once he got ahold of it he could take it anywhere on the field,” said John Sarna, the head coach for the Jupiter Fall team. “Charlie was the kind of kid who despite his abilities on the field you knew he was just a mature, focused young man. He never let baseball get in the way of school, spending time with family, or his friends. Charlie worked as hard at life as he did at baseball and he was good at all of it. It is one of the many reasons I enjoyed working with him.”

If you see the video of the homerun from that night it is a no doubter from the moment it leaves the bat. It is amazing to see the ball jump so quickly off the bat and see it soar into the night. When you look at Charlie he stood about 5’11” and about 180 pounds, but he hit the ball like he was 6’3” and 225.

“Charlie didn’t showboat, he didn’t show up his opponent, he was respectful in competition and after the game he complimented me when I was able to break his bat and get him to ground out. That is the kind of person Charlie Donovan was, he wasn’t mad because I was pumped up. He was determined to get the better of our matchup the second time around. Luckily, I didn’t have to face him again;” said Kemper.

“I had to play behind him for a while on our CSA team and once I got a chance to play with him all I wanted to do was play just like him. Everything he did I wanted to emulate, to replicate, and perfect it just like him because once you saw him play you knew how good he was.” Jeremy Houston had a unique viewpoint of Charlie as a ballplayer since he was able to play against him and with him. “He was the first guy to help everyone else and then spend hours taking swings in the cage to fix a swing that he thought was off, but everyone else thought was beautiful.”

A coach will always try to be there for every kid who needs help on and off the field. We push and push and push for a kid to work harder than they think they can, and then we push a little more to show a player what they are truly capable of during a game.

“Charlie didn’t need a push, he was zeroed in and focused at all times;” said Sarna. “One day we had a layover in Atlanta on our way home from Jupiter Charlie and I got to sit and talk baseball for about two hours. It’s different when you talk about the game sitting in an airport rather than on the field. But, when I spoke to Charlie that day I was so impressed with how prepared he was for his future. He had a plan in place and was appreciative of all those who came before him that played the game, his teammates who surrounded him, and his coaches that were there for him and pushed him to be better. He was mature and focused beyond his years, and this was when he was sixteen years old.”

As you get to know this young man more and more, you are not surprised at all to hear that he was drafted last year by the Milwaukee Brewers, but chose to hold firm to a commitment he made two years prior and attend The University of Michigan and play for coach Erik Bakich. If you ask coach Sarna, he is not shocked at all; “Charlie held true to his word, his commitment, that was the type of young man he was.”

“Even though we were opponents, whenever we would meet up for a tournament or a game he would always ask how I was doing or become a coach to me or any other player. He never hesitated about helping another player because that was Charlie; he was always there to lead. He was a professional long before he would ever be a professional;” said Kemper.

Charlie at USA Baseball's 2014 Tournament of Stars in Cary, NCSadly, before he ever got to the University of Michigan, or finished out his dream of playing professional baseball, Charlie Donovan was lost to the world. His passing left a void in the hearts of his teammates, his coaches, his opponents, and most importantly his family. The young man who everyone looked up to was no longer there. His shortstop position was empty; his place in the lineup vacant, the hole in the hearts of those that loved him could not be filled by a game.

Out, out, brief candle.

As coaches we try to perfect everything, we try to fix it all, we try to turn young men into men. But, at times we miss what is truly in front of us, and it is not until it is too late that we realize what we have. Too often we forget that baseball is a game, on top of that it is a game made for kids, but so many of us who are kids at heart forget that and try to play the game for as long as humanly possible. We forget too often how much work it takes to reach the highest level, and all too often we forget about the person who put in all that work, and those around them who helped them reach the highest level. We forget about the relationships and we focus too much on the accomplishments on the field. We forget about the teammates who have helped and worry too much about the stats. We forget about the coaches who support and worry more about the web gem. We forget about the family invovled and worry too much about the swing.

In the end it all comes back to that, a swing, one simple yet defining characteristic about a ballplayer, rather a person that only few have had the chance to truly know. A person only a select few can say they understand and can define beyond a simple athletic accomplishment such as hitting a baseball. The swing is the part of a ballplayer that is recognized by those of us still dreaming of glory on the couch, whereas to those closest to Charlie Donovan will tell you that he was more than a baseball player, more than a smooth fielding shortstop, more than the next big thing, he was more than a pretty swing.

“Charlie Donovan was special. Not because of his talent on the field, but because of the young man he was.” If you ask John Sarna what made Charlie so special his words never change. He marveled about the young man who carried himself so well, so maturely, so professionally.

Casey Kemper put it best; “he was a pro before he was ever going to be a pro, he simply carried himself that way all the time. He was someone who everyone looked up to on the field, just simply for the way he carried himself. That is the part of him I will never forget. Not the ballplayer named Charlie Donovan, but the person I got to know named Charlie Donovan.”

“The one thing I’ll never forget was how loud it was…”

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