'Always on my mind': UM's Joe Donovan knows late brother is on this ride, too
It was about 20 or 25 minutes after the last out, and the celebrations finally had died down, at least a little bit, on the field at Jackie Robinson Stadium out in Los Angeles. Michigan had just bounced mighty UCLA and punched its first ticket to the College World Series in 35 years, and the atmosphere was absolutely lit.
But by now, it was a much quieter moment, and Joe Donovan had spotted his parents, Jim and Karen, down the first-base line, near the bullpens.
As he strolled to the family section for some celebratory embraces, Donovan spotted a kid, wearing a Michigan sweatshirt and a Nike hat. He had dark hair. The kid waved at Donovan, like they had known each for years.
"I just figured it was just another kid watching the game," Donovan said. "As I went over to my parents and hugged them, the kid started walking toward me and said, 'Thank you so much, you're my favorite player on the field. Congratulations.' I said, 'What's your name?' And he said, 'Charlie.'"
"Oh my God, you're gonna make me cry."
Donovan's mom did, indeed, lose it.
Joe asked little Charlie what position he played, already knowing the answer.
"He's gonna say shortstop, and I asked him, and he did say shortstop," Joe said. "It sent chills down my spine. He reminded me of Charlie at that age.
"It was an out-of-body experience."
Michigan's amazing run to Omaha, which continued with a 5-3 opening victory over Texas Tech on Saturday, has featured some amazing moments by a whole lot of different Wolverines, but the thoughts of Donovan also are on one Wolverine who isn't here. Or maybe, just maybe, he is here.
Donovan's older brother, Charlie, was supposed to be a senior on this year's team. Charlie was the best high-school player in Illinois, that state's Gatorade player of the year. He was a shortstop. He was a speedster. He swung a dangerous left-handed bat. But Charlie never suited up for Michigan. In November 2015, the semester he was supposed to be starting his journey in Ann Arbor if not for a bout of mono that forced him to defer his enrollment until January, Charlie died unexpectedly. He was just 18.
Joe lost his best friend that day, but certainly has never forgotten him.
"You know, obviously, I'll think about him multiple, multiple times a day, just when I'm at school, or at home, just doing anything, but especially more in the baseball sense," Donovan said before Michigan's first game in the CWS. "Sometimes when I'm working on my swing, I'll think about stuff we would talk about, approaches we had. ... Or here, in the tournament, as it's been going on, it's been a lot of, 'Hey, Charlie, can you let the wind blow out a little more, help me catch one on the barrel, Charlie. In that second UCLA game (a 12-inning, 5-4 loss), I remember asking him, 'Please help us out, please let us win this."
'Almost like a twin'
Joe and Charlie Donovan, and their brother Jack, grew up in Clarendon Hills, Ill., a western suburb of Chicago. They were extremely close, especially when it came to sports. Separated by two years, Joe and Charlie might as well have been twins — fraternal, of course, given Joe's light-colored hair, and Charlie's dark-colored locks.
"We spent so much time together, whether it was playing Wiffle Ball in the front yard, or basketball in the driveway, Frisbee, golf," Joe said. "We had an understanding of each other. I describe to some people, it was almost like a twin. I didn't have to hear him say anything. I could see it, sense what he was going through.
"I could look at him, give him a half-smirk, and he'd know exactly what I was thinking."
They played a lot of sports. They would race in the street, trees marked to measure the 60-yard course. Charlie would win. Always. He was so fast, Joe called him "Flash." If Joe ever caught Charlie, it only was because Charlie was exhausted.
But it was baseball where the bond always was strongest.
"We played catch every single day," Joe said. "Whether we were bored or trying to get better. One time, it was a blizzard outside, and we took scarves and wrapped them around our faces and we had Oakley glasses on, and we played catch wearing gloves in the street. It was all baseball, all the time. We set up an old net, hung on rafters in the garage, and we would hit into the net with each other."
Their mom still has the picture of Joe and Charlie hitting into the net, a foot or more of snow in the background.
Dad always would say Charlie was the better athlete, and Joe was the better baseball player, but Joe respectfully disagrees. Charlie would hit .484 with seven home runs, 33 RBIs and 42 stolen bases as a high-school senior. He was compared to Trea Turner, a stud out of Florida who would go on to become a shortstop with the Washington Nationals.
Despite the age difference, they also played on a lot of teams growing up together, with Joe often playing up. One one travel team, Charlie was the 16-year-old shortstop, future Michigan player Ako Thomas was the 16-year-old second baseman, and Joe, 14 at the time, was the catcher. The Donovans also played on the high-school team together, at Westmont.
How they committed to Michigan is interesting. Their father has family in Ohio, just outside of Columbus, and Charlie grew up a huge Ohio State fan.
"Our Saturdays growing up looked a hell of a lot different than they do now," Joe said, with a laugh.
But the summer after Charlie's freshman year, his travel team played in a tournament in Ann Arbor.
Surprising even himself, Charlie instantly fell in love with Ann Arbor.
"He comes back home and he said, 'Dad, you're not going to like me for saying this, but I could really see myself playing baseball at Michigan," Joe said. "My dad was like, 'Are you kidding me? I would be thrilled to have you go to a place like that."
Charlie followed that tournament up with a trip to a showcase, where a Michigan assistant took a liking to him. Then Charlie made an official visit.
Charlie first was scouted by the previous Michigan coaching staff, but he ended up being new head coach Erik Bakich's first committed recruit at Michigan.
Not longer after, Michigan then started taking an interest in Joe, a right-handed slugging catcher, when he was a freshman.
He committed Dec. 11, 2014. It was the day before Charlie's birthday, and they were in the driveway playing basketball.
"And he said, 'I know you're going, why don't you commit already," Joe said. "And so I told him right then."
Less than a year later, Nov. 5, 2015, Charlie died. The close-knit community was absolutely stunned, not to mention the entire state, at the loss of one of the greatest prep players ever to come out of Illinois.
Neighbors hung ribbons on the trees lining the Donovans' street. Hundreds attended his funeral, including Bakich and several others Michigan players and coaches.
The gesture was not lost on Joe.
"Coaches want as many days on the field as you can get, especially in the fall, when the team is growing," Joe said. "So to see him and as many teammates and friends from Michigan that came down also, it really meant a lot. Driving eight hours, four there and four back to attend maybe a two- or three-hour ceremony, that's really special.
"It meant a lot to me and my family."
The following February, when Charlie would've been about to start his freshman season on the team and perhaps already be the starting shortstop, Bakich said, "Charlie will always be a Wolverine."
True to his word, this spring, on Senior Night, Bakich also honored Charlie, presenting Joe and his parents a framed No. 0 jersey, with a picture of Charlie from high school.
Remembering Charlie helps
Losing Charlie was a crushing blow, obviously. And, yes, it changed Joe. Baseball practice, whether it was a game of catch or taking swings off a tee, used to be pure joy when it was done alongside Charlie. It now was purely mechanical, just about getting better, not about having fun, like it used to be.
And it was that way for a long time for Joe.
"It got empty for a little bit," said Joe, 20. "I would go into the cage, and it was working on stuff, instead of just hitting for hitting's sake. I was throwing baseballs for baseball, instead of just going outside to play catch. I couldn't play Wiffle Ball."
That mood carried over into his time at Michigan, and he still goes through funks. But he credits several Michigan teammates for lifting him up, especially Jesse Franklin, a sophomore outfielder from Seattle. Then there are times when he just needs a moment to himself, so he'll go play a solo game of Wallyball.
"Every day," said Joe, "I'm kind of more of myself."
Remembering Charlie helps, and Joe remembers Charlie in many different ways. He arrived at Michigan with short hair, because he thought that was the team rule. It wasn't, so he grew it out — because Charlie always liked Joe with longer hair.
He wears No. 0, for Charlie. On his ankle, he has a tattoo of Ben Zander's Rule Number Six: "Don't take yourself so damn seriously." Joe and Charlie always liked that one. He also has a tattoo of a lightning bolt, for "Flash," or Charlie. (They had a turtle named Flash. "We thought it was funny," Joe said.) He wears a number of different head bands under his catching mask, most in the color of those ribbons that hung on the trees following Charlie's death.
Joe's also done Charlie proud on the field this year, with eight home runs and 36 RBIs. Two of the home runs came in the postseason, including one in the regional clincher over Creighton, and one in Game 2 against UCLA, putting Michigan up early. Later in the game, he also hit a ball to the warning track. It almost was gone, for what would have been a walk-off homer. Maybe Charlie didn't get the request for a little wind. He's also thrown out 16 would-be base stealers this season, 4-of-7 in the NCAA Tournament.
It's been a remarkable run for the Wolverines (47-20). Omaha, specifically, has been the experience of a lifetime for these Wolverines, from autograph requests to selfie seekers.
"It's crazy," Joe said. "Coach said we'd feel like celebrities, and it's really true."
Michigan is back on the field Monday night, to play Florida State. A win would be huge, and make the Wolverines, a massive 50-1 long shot entering the NCAA Tournament, a favorite to play for the national championship, all of a sudden.
And every step of the way, as he's always been, Joe knows Charlie will be right there.
"He's always," said Joe, "on my mind."
College World Series schedule
At Omaha, Nebraska; Double Elimination; x-if necessary
Saturday, June 15
Game 1 — Michigan 5, Texas Tech 3
Game 2 — Florida State 1, Arkansas 0
Sunday, June 16
Game 3 —Vanderbilt 3, Louisville 1
Game 4 — Mississippi State 5, Auburn 4
Monday, June 17
Game 5 — Texas Tech (44-19) vs. Arkansas (46-19), 2 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 6 — Michigan (47-20) vs. Florida State (42-21), 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Tuesday, June 18
Game 7 — Louisville (49-17) vs. Auburn (38-27), 2 p.m. (ESPN/ESPN2)
Game 8 — Vanderbilt (55-11) vs. Mississippi State (52-13), 7 p.m. (ESPN/ESPN2)
Wednesday, June 19
Game 9 — Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 loser, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Thursday, June 20
Game 10 — Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 loser, 8 p.m. (ESPNU)
Friday, June 21
Game 11 — Game 6 winner vs. Game 9 winner, 2 p.m. (ESPN/ESPN2)
Game 12 — Game 8 winner vs. Game 10 winner, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Saturday, June 22
x-Game 13 — Game 6 winner vs. Game 9 winner, 2 p.m. (ESPN/ESPN2)
x-Game 14 — Game 8 winner vs. Game 10 winner, 7 p.m. (ESPN/ESPN2)
Monday, June 24: Pairings TBD, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Tuesday, June 25: Pairings TBD, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
x-Wednesday, June 26: Pairings TBD, 7 p.m. (ESPN)