OMAHA--Allan J. McDonnell never took an off day in 40 years of working as an insurance salesman for MetLife. He didn’t get sick. No days in bed. No excuses.
He wasn’t a wealthy man, but he took care of his sons, made sure they had the resources to play for the sports teams they wanted to play on--bought them cleats, gloves, bikes. Basketball was his sport. He took his sons to gyms in inner-city New York and taught them the fundamentals of the game. McDonnell had a razor-sharp wit and an appreciation for life. He enjoyed a cocktail every now and then. He was a good Irishman.
McDonnell never got sick--until one day he did. He developed Parkinson’s, and the man once so full of life was devastatingly drained of it.
Louisville head coach Dan McDonnell still carries the card from his father’s 2011 funeral with him wherever he goes. Usually he keeps it in his bag or in the dugout somewhere. On Sunday--on Father’s Day--McDonnell kept it in the back pocket of his uniform pants.
Ten years ago, in Louisville’s first trip to Omaha, McDonnell picked up the Cardinals’ first-ever College World Series win, a victory over Mississippi State. The Cardinals haven’t won a game in Omaha since, in two subsequent trips.
That changed Sunday. With his father’s funeral card in his pocket, McDonnell and his Cardinals came out victorious against Texas A&M, winning 8-4 against the Aggies to advance into the winners’ bracket.
“We’ve got two wins in Omaha, and they have both been on Sunday. They’ve both been on Father’s Day,” McDonnell said. “My dad was here in 2007 with my Uncle Rich. Even though he wasn’t in the best shape, he was here, and I’ve got great memories of that.
“. . . I remember putting that in my back pocket and thinking my dad would love this today. So Father’s Day has been very good to the Cardinals.”
However, Louisville’s first Omaha win in a decade didn’t come easily.
The Cardinals got off to a scorching start, scoring five runs in the second inning on six singles. In the process, they chased Texas A&M righthander Corbin Martin from the game and forced the Aggies to bring fellow starter Brigham Hill out of the bullpen far earlier than intended. With ace, National Player of the Year and No. 4 overall pick Brendan McKay on the mound for the Cardinals, that 5-0 lead would seem insurmountable, but the Aggies kept pressure on McKay, working deep counts, getting leadoff men on and tagging him for four runs.
They finally chased the lefthander in the sixth after an RBI double by right fielder Blake Kopetsky and an RBI single by left fielder Walker Pennington cut the deficit to 5-4.
“Early on it was working well,” McKay said. “I worked out of a lot of jams. It’s hard to pitch effectively when you’re in jams like that. But I think throughout your career you learn how to pitch and how to minimize, which worked today.”
McKay also got a crucial assist from his bullpen. Righthander Sam Bordner worked a perfect three innings in relief and has proven to be a stingy bridge for closer Lincoln Henzman. Bordner has now thrown 8.2 hitless innings in the NCAA tournament. In 41.2 innings this season, he’s allowed just two earned runs--a 0.43 ERA.
Louisville’s offense, which features a dynamic combination of speed and power, answered A&M’s rally with two runs in the bottom of the sixth. Catcher Colby Fitch paced the lineup with his four RBIs, including an RBI double in the eighth that provided extra insurance for Henzman, who threw a perfect ninth to close out the game.
The win pushed Louisville to 2-6 in the CWS all-time and snapped a five-game Omaha losing streak. It also marked the first time Louisville has ever opened the CWS 1-0.
Despite coming to Omaha with that recent history stacked against them, the Cardinals were as loose as could be, as their frequent smiles and dyed blond hair would indicate.
“It was exciting for sure,” shortstop Devin Hairston said. “. . . I’d never been in a stadium that was that loud before.
“This is what we live for. This is what we’ve worked so hard for. And we’ve got to kind of manage that excitement and turn it into focus for nine innings.”
The levity in the dugout stems from the man at the top, especially on a day like Sunday, when McDonnell had his father on his mind.
“I just remind these guys that this is a game and have fun,” McDonnell said. “Thinking of my dad today was a reminder for me to enjoy life, have fun, don't put too much pressure on yourself.”
McDonnell said he’s especially thankful that he ended up as Louisville’s head coach when he did, playing games--at that time--in the Big East. Still living in New York, Allan McDonnell was able to see his son coach whenever the Cardinals played against the many northeast teams in that conference. He came to games as often as he could, despite his physical condition.
On Sunday, memories of Father’s Day 10 years ago came flooding back. McDonnell remembers his father’s relief after the Cardinals won that World Series. He’d always get stressed out--even if he didn’t always show it.
“He was ready to go to a bar and get a cold one,” McDonnell said, laughing, “and let’s celebrate.”
After all, Allan McDonnell was a good Irishman.