SAFETY HARBOR — For more than 20 years, Danny Donovan spent six days a week prepping the ball fields and ordering the uniforms and trophies for Safety Harbor Little League.
A volunteer, he spent so much time at the league's ballpark that some people thought he was an employee.
On Monday Donovan, 58, was found dead in the dugout at the park at 940 Seventh St. S. Donovan's family says he died of natural causes, but the exact reason is unclear.
Donovan had no children of his own, but he played a central role in the lives of many children who played ball at the park. He worked there nearly every day for hours, preparing schedules, ordering supplies, dragging and striping the fields before the games, and taking care of other league details.
He apparently died Monday as he was preparing the fields for the evening games. After his body was found by a league board member, police blocked off the area and league officials temporarily closed the ballpark.
Donovan began volunteering when his nephews, now in their 30s, played there as children. His life was entirely dedicated to the 350 children in the league and to taking care of his elderly mother.
"He was very good at helping others. A very hard worker," said his brother Brian Donovan, 56. "He did a lot for this family and a lot at that park."
Games resumed there Wednesday night after the children and parents stood for a moment of silence.
A native New Yorker who shied from the spotlight, Donovan might have been surprised by the community outpouring over his death. He's captured headlines on local news outlets and is memorialized on the Safety Harbor Little League website and on Facebook. Some people cooked dinners for his family.
"He was always so bashful," said former league president Eric Burks. "At events, I would always be like 'Give a big round of applause for Danny Donovan!' and he'd be off hiding behind a tree somewhere."
Some younger kids might not know Donovan. To them, the fields were just ever-ready, magically clean and smooth.
But for the parents, and for the older players, the death was a blow.
In 2011, Burks nominated Donovan as Volunteer of the Year.
In the nomination letter, Burks wrote about Donovan's impact.
Danny Donovan is simply the soul of Safety Harbor Little League, and the day that he no longer does what he does, we will struggle greatly to replace him. Some of us arrive early on Saturday mornings to help prepare for the day's games, but Danny has typically beaten us there and will shrug and say that he couldn't sleep and wanted to make sure everything was ready to go for the games that day. Danny doesn't spend a lot of time directly interacting with the kids and prefers to remain in the background, but I've seen countless times where a child goes to him for help with a broken glove string or catcher's mask, and Danny whisks off to the fieldhouse and returns shortly having fixed whatever problem existed. People rarely see this, and that's just the way Danny prefers it. He has tirelessly served thousands of families in our community for twenty years, and we hope he hangs around a lot longer.
The league held an emergency meeting Tuesday to figure out how to move forward without Donovan. Parents are making time in their schedules to take care of the fields. They'll have to figure out the rest as they go along.
"The guy died doing what he loved to do. He loved preparing the field for those kids," Burks said. "We take some solace in that."
Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 323-0353. To write a letter to the editor, visit tampabay.com/letters.