Long before he was the Milwaukee Brewers manager, Craig Counsell was a Milwaukee Brewers fan.
Counsell grew up in the Milwaukee area and spent much of his youth around County Stadium, where his father was the Brewers’ director of community relations. So just like any kid from the area, Counsell idolized Brewers stars like Cecil Cooper, Robin Yount and Paul Molitor.
He also got to know the man who brought Brewers’ baseball to the community every night, radio announcer Bob Uecker.
When the Brewers punched their ticket to the postseason earlier this week in St. Louis, knowing that Uecker would get another chance to call playoff baseball brought a smile to Counsell’s face.
“That’s a thrill for me,” Counsell said.
Uecker, 83, doesn’t travel on too many road trips anymore but he was on hand Wednesday night as the Brewers secured a playoff berth with a 2-1 victory over the Cardinals in St. Louis. About an hour later, Uecker made his way down to the clubhouse where he was feted with a beer and champagne shower by Brewers players.
“They told me before the game started that if I didn’t come downstairs, they were going to come up and get me,” Uecker said. “I figured I better go down and do my thing. I had a good time, I did.
Videos of Uecker being doused in champagne while dancing amidst the chaos quickly went viral.
“That’s probably my favorite video from the night, watching him celebrate,” Counsell said. “They treat him like he’s one of them. That’s the most important thing to him so I kind of expected that.”
Having that relationship with the players young enough to be his grandchildren means the world to Uecker.
It’s been that way for years in Milwaukee. Hall of Famer Robin Yount, who led the Brewers to their only World Series appearance in 1982, remembers meeting Uecker as a fresh-faced 18-year-old rookie and considers him one of his best friends today.
“From seeing that (video), nothing has changed in his relationship with us and his relationship today with those guys,” Yount said. “It’s exactly the same.
“He’s one of the guys. We always felt like he was one of us.”
Ryan Braun, the longest-tenured player on Milwaukee’s roster, considers it an honor to call Uecker a friend — one he doesn’t take for granted.
“He brings joy into everyone’s lives,” Braun said. “He finds a way to make everybody’s day a little better when he interacts with them. Obviously, I’m super close with him and have been for a long time. For all of us here, we’re fortunate to have him here and part of our group. “
Uecker is still impressed when new players walk up and introduce themselves at the start of spring training or after coming over following an in-season transaction. They know all his catchphrases, and all of his roles but it doesn’t take them long to find out that the man they know from Mr. Belvedere, the “Major League” movies or even the 1980s Miller Lite commercials, is as smart and knowledgeable as he is funny.
“He’s noticed certain things I’m doing and how I’m pitching,” Brewers pitcher Brent Suter said. “We get really in-depth sometimes. It’s impressive. He was a catcher, so he knows a lot about that part of the game. He’s quite an incredible mind and an incredible person.”
Uecker’s major league career has long been a central theme of his routine. He played six seasons — beginning with his hometown Milwaukee Braves — and finished with a career average of .200 with 14 home runs and 74 RBIs, winning a World Series championship with the Cardinals in 1964.
“My kids always ask “dad, why do you say the things you say. You were a good catcher’,” Uecker said. “I couldn’t hit all that well — I did in the minor leagues — but I could throw, and I knew in the big leagues that I was going to be a backup catcher to a couple of guys who were pretty good in Joe Torre and Del Crandall and Tim McCarver.
“It wasn’t that I couldn’t play, I just like making people laugh.”
That talent is what led his good friend, the late jazz musician Al Hirt, to put Uecker on a stage at his club in Atlanta. Serving as opening act for comedian Don Rickles jumpstarted the second phase of his career, which led to nearly 100 appearances on the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, the “Mr. Belvedere” series, “Major League” as well as countless other projects like “Bob Uecker’s Wacky World of Sports,” and appearances on network telecasts and even at Wrestlemania.
He managed to do all that while still maintaining his role as the Voice of the Brewers, a position he held since Bud Selig hired him in 1971. Uecker remains grateful to Selig, who he considers a close friend, for allowing him the freedom to pursue those projects even if it meant missing parts of the season.
“I had a lot of chances to leave here,” Uecker said. “Bud Selig always made me available to anybody. Even with Mr. Belvedere, I had to leave two weeks early to get a couple of shows in the can for the season, but he always gave me that opportunity. On the weekends, I would take a flight to wherever the team was. I’d do the games then fly back to LA to do the show.”
He admits now that all that travel, the year-round workload including 162-game baseball seasons probably played a role in the heart problems that kept him away for the team in 2010. He underwent two operations on his aortic valve that season.
But Uecker is still going strong. He’s cut back his workload over the last few seasons, handing off most of the Brewers’ road trips to Jeff Levering and Lane Grindle, but will be behind the mic as the team tries to get back to the World Series for the first time since ’82.
When that run ultimately comes to an end, Uecker has no plans of leaving any time soon.
“I’m going to do this as long as I can without embarrassing myself or the team by hanging around too long,” Uecker said. “But I feel like I’m still capable of doing a good broadcast, making it exciting and having fun doing it, too.”