MILWAUKEE – The last time the Milwaukee Brewers hit a World Series was Craig Counsell 12. His father worked for the team, so Counsell did a lot, including during the 1982 playoff run.
Usually, Counsel would sit in the stands at County Stadium, the former home of the Brewers, to watch his favorite team and player, the Hall of Famer Robin Yount. But when tension built up during a game, Counsell went to a special place that had proven successful in his eyes: the place where he watched Cecil Cooper drive in the starting blocks for the American League pennant Win Milwaukee.
“My luck was at the end of the stadium,” Counsell said recently, pointing to American Family Field, which has been home since 2001. “They had a ramp that was on the right field line. There was a walkway to get to the upper deck and I would watch the game from my seat. You have to find a lucky spot. “
His perspective is very different these days. After playing 16 seasons in the majors, Counsell – a thoroughly Milwaukeean – has been watching his favorite team from the dugout since 2015. Meanwhile, he’s established himself as one of the best managers in baseball. That season, he has led the Brewers to several milestones the team had not reached since 1982 when Counsel was there to see them fall in the 7th game of the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.
By Tuesday, the Brewers, who play in the smallest market in major league baseball, were well on their way to winning a franchise record of 99 games. They sat 13 and a half games ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals for first place in the National League Central and held the largest division leadership in the MLB high-water mark of 1982. And should the Brewers make the playoffs as expected, they will in four consecutive seasons, continuing a franchise record for a club that played its first season in 1969.
A common thread in a team that has seen changes in its front office and duty roster: Counsel.
“The players have to play the game, but it starts top down and the players feed on the manager,” said Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich, who won the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award in 2018.
“I don’t think he’s getting enough recognition,” Yelich continued later. “I really don’t. It’s almost a crime that he hasn’t been named Manager of the Year in the past few years. He definitely deserves it and is a big reason for all of our success here. “
Counsell, 51, took over the Brewers after Milwaukee made a 7-18 start under Ron Roenicke in 2015. Previously, his coaching was limited to youth leagues with his children. But his experience as a player prepared him to lead a team, build relationships with their players, and earn their respect.
He went from a walk-on in Notre Dame to captain the team. As a round 11 draft pick, he was a lean infielder known more for his glove (and quirky punching stance) than his bat. In 1997, when he was 26 years old, he overcame a history of minor injuries to secure a regular spot in the majors. He was deployed, released, and traded throughout his career. In 1997, he won the World Series rings with the Florida Marlins (scoring the winning run in Game 7 against Cleveland) and the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks (when he was MVP of the league championship series and part of the team’s winning rally in Game 7 of the World Series against the Yankees).
“He’s got a really good feel for the ball club,” said Brent Suter, a Brewers left-hander. “When we come home from road trips, he reduces the workload. Or he adds work if necessary. He has really good pulse energy, for example when he has to talk – talking to the team – or when he has to leave the club alone. It’s a bit instinctive, but it also comes from playing in the big leagues for 15 years. “
Although Counsell said he didn’t give it much thought while playing, former Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said that other counsels often viewed counsels as a potential manager because of his experience, personality, and intelligence.
“You can put all of that on a list, but the only thing that stood out is the respect he showed all of his team-mates,” said Melvin. “Whenever I talked to people in the game, he was always one of the most respected team-mates who accepted nothing less than trying to win every day.”
The management thought came more to Counsel’s mind in 2011, his last season on the field when he was 41, scored .178 for the Brewers and was “a really bad player” in his opinion. He stayed on the Milwaukee list in part because Melvin appreciated the influence of Counsel in the clubhouse.
Counsel didn’t know how long it would be before he became a manager or if it was going to happen. His goal was to serve in a leadership position for an organization, but his loyalty was to his home team.
“I felt like it would be my job to support baseball in Milwaukee after I finished playing,” he said. “I didn’t know that it would necessarily be. I feel really lucky that it is like that. I have always felt responsible for it and enjoy this responsibility. “
Counsel grew up and still lives in Whitefish Bay, a parish 15 minutes north of Brewers Stadium. He is a proud graduate of Whitefish Bay High, where he met his future wife and all four of their children will end up going to school. His high school field and Little League Park where he once played both bear his name. His number 19 jersey number has been withdrawn.
He played for the Brewers for six seasons. After his retirement, he returned to Melvin’s front office as a special assistant in 2012. Three years later, Melvin hired Counsel as a manager.
“He knows how important the Brewers are to Milwaukee,” said Jeff Margolis, who grew up at Counsel and was the best man at his wedding. He later added, “As much as it would mean to anyone to be the Brewers manager, it means more to Craig.”
Calling Counsell “a Midwestern kid,” Counsell said Counsell still cut his lawn with a ride-on mower given to him by Hall of Fame seamstress Trevor Hoffman, a former teammate. Years ago, after a game day in Milwaukee, Counsell was at his 30th high school meeting.
On the field, Counsell has been recognized for both his tactical and interpersonal skills, the latter of which is more important nowadays as front offices play an increasingly important role in the way games are played. Counsel underlines the change of the demanding position and is the longest-term manager in the NL
Josh Hader, one of the Brewers’ star savers, said Counsel “isn’t trying to manage too much.” Corbin Burnes, one of the Brewers’ top starters and a leading candidate for the NL Cy Young Award, said he appreciated Counsel’s direct and open way of communicating. Suter said Counsel has great situational awareness and foresight when it comes to using relievers and pinch-hitters during a game.
“I’ve trained in all kinds of environments for 40 years and on paper it looks like I’ve had a lot of success,” said Pat Murphy, Counsel’s former coach at Notre Dame and his bank coach at Brewers since 2016. “But this guy taught me so much about the Major League game and a lot of other things. It should be the other way around, right? “
Without his time in the front office, where Melvin gave him all the facets, Counsell said he wouldn’t understand the prospects of David Stearns, the team’s current president of baseball operations, or Matt Arnold, the team’s general manager.
“One of the reasons I love working with Craig is because he has the ability to question everything he does and what we do as a company,” said Stearns. “And through active questioning and discussion, he has of course grown and changed his mind on certain aspects of his approach. But the general tenets of what he believes and aspires to do is to put the players in the best position to be successful. That has been constant since the first day. “
Case in point: The Brewers of 2021 will be dominated by a fairly traditional starting rotation, a sharp contrast to 2018 when the team, carried by a dominant Bullpen and Yelich, missed a win behind reaching the World Series.
“In 2018 we had a team, and more importantly a pitching team, that required very active management from the start, and Craig understood that and tailored his style to that,” said Stearns. “The team we have right now is more built around elite starter mugs and Craig has been able to fine-tune his leadership style and keep putting the pieces of our list in the right places.”
Counsell, who was twice runner-up for the NL Manager of the Year Award and is highly competitive this year by Gabe Kapler of the San Francisco Giants, said he loved running management because it gave him a unique perspective on players how to watch Freddy Peralta, Brandon Woodruff, Burnes and Hader reach the top leagues and become stars.
Woodruff, Burnes and Hader were key figures on the 2018 team that was so close to a pennant. Counsell said the Milwaukee squad fondly remembered for the journey it took fans on – something in which they said in October that baseball is superb. This team brought new memories to a fan base that took over from 1983 to Stearns in 2015 that their favorite team had only made twice in the playoffs, in 2008 and 2011.
Counsel complained that the Brewers, one of six franchises that never won a championship, have not returned to the World Series since 1982. He’s still thinking about this team. But one day he hopes to give Brewers fans new memories to hold on to for a lifetime.
“The fact that you saw these moments and were a small part of them as a fan,” he said, “honestly makes you want to offer these moments for other fans because they don’t go away.”