DENVER – Craig Counsell has noticed a lot of smiles on the faces of Milwaukee Brewers fans lately, and that in turn has put a big grin on his face.
Everybody loves a winner, and Counsell has derived particular satisfaction from guiding the Brewers to a division championship and playoff berth sooner than most folks dreamed possible after a large-scale rebuilding process began in 2015.
“I’m looking at it like we’re at the start of this for the state and the Brewers fans,” said Counsell, whose club has a commanding 2-0 lead over Colorado in their National League Division Series entering Game 3 on Sunday afternoon at Coors Field. “It’s picking up steam, and I’m happy about that.
“The biggest satisfaction that you get out of it – I think because I’m from here and grew up (in Milwaukee) – is to see all these happy people around the organization, because I’ve had this perspective of time with the organization, not just as a player but kind of as a kid. There’s a lot of happy people around here that have been here for a very long time.
“And that’s rewarding. It’s very satisfying.”
No one ever has been better suited to manage the Brewers than Counsell, who practically was born for the job. His father, John, was a front office employee for the club in the 1980s, and Craig spent a lot of his youth roaming around County Stadium before playing at Whitefish Bay High School and University of Notre Dame.
It was while playing for the Fighting Irish that the wiry infielder caught the eye of Paul Egins, then an amateur scout with the Colorado Rockies. Egins was sent to an Arizona State-Notre Dame game to monitor players on a loaded Sun Devils squad, but it was Counsell who caught his eye with his energy, hustle and production.
“Over all those impressive ASU players, Counsell was the first one I wrote up and really followed,” said Egins, now director of major-league operations for the Rockies “He was the one who impressed me.”
With Egins’ recommendation, the Rockies selected Counsell in the 11th round of the 1992 draft. With the versatility to play shortstop, second base and third base with fundamental soundness, and enough energy, hustle and smarts to make a career .255 batting average good enough, Counsell would go on to play 15 years in the majors for five teams, finishing with his hometown Brewers.
Counsell retired after the 2011 season – the year the Brewers won their first NL Central crown – and accepted an offer to work in the team’s front office as an adviser to general manager Doug Melvin. He left that role for the opportunity of a lifetime one month into the 2015 season when Melvin tabbed him to replace manager Ron Roenicke, fired after the team stumbled to a 5-17 mark in April.
Shortly after that move, principal owner Mark Attanasio and Melvin decided it was time to strip the club’s roster and begin a large-scale rebuild. It was later decided that Melvin would step aside after the season and be replaced with a younger, highly educated baseball executive willing to adopt the analytics-driven approach that had become all the rage in the game.
Once the Brewers put together their short list of candidates, Attanasio and Melvin were in agreement about one thing in particular: Counsell should remain the manager. That went contrary to the baseball norm of putting a GM in place and then letting him select his manager, but that’s how strongly they felt about Counsell’s leadership skills.
“We interviewed seven or eight candidates, and I told all of them that Craig was going to be the manager,” Attanasio recalled. “So, that would have disqualified a candidate if they had a problem with that. I’m pretty attuned to watching body language, and nobody had a problem with that. That was a precondition to the job.”
As it turned out, Counsell and new general manager David Stearns were like peas and carrots, as Forrest Gump would say, despite a 15-year gap in age. The Harvard-educated Stearns, already a card-carrying member of the analytics revolution, found his manager was on board with the way the game was changing, which did not surprise Attanasio.
“I remember one spring training, we were really on the edge of looking at analytics, and we brought in a group that did advance video scouting instead of human eyes to scout,” Attanasio said. “To my surprise, the absolute first guy into that meeting from the baseball ops group was Craig Counsell. He stayed for the entire meeting, and it was, like, 2 1/2 hours. So, I knew he was open to new ideas.
“This is a man who (was part of the winning rallies) in two World Series. He felt like all he had to do in baseball, which was a big task, was to win a World Series for the Milwaukee Brewers. So that meant a lot to me. He’s just been a real force.”
Running a baseball team involves more than crunching numbers, however. If that’s all it took, a team could put a CPA in the manager’s office. A manager has to know how to supervise players, motivate them, communicate with them, and most importantly, use them in the best manner to achieve success for both player and team.
This, as it turned out, is where Counsell has excelled. His natural leadership skills were immediately evident, he showed great aptitude in keeping lines of communication open with players and constantly preached “staying connected.” He understood that a roster with more grunts than lieutenants needed players who would have each other’s backs, and he stressed the importance of staying together.
“I remember in spring training, the first meeting that we had as a team, all the position players and pitchers, Counsell said that he wants us to be connected,” said right-hander Jhoulys Chacín, playing in his first season with the Brewers.
“We really trusted each other, and we never cared what people said outside the clubhouse. We always believed in what we had, and I think that’s why we started playing better. And now we’re here.”
No manager ever complains about having too much talent, but Stearns gave Counsell a stiff challenge in terms of keeping players engaged and happy by acquiring outfielders Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich on the same day in January. Counsell was asked all spring how he would be able to use all those outfielders and kept telling folks not to worry, that it would work out, and it did.
The challenge of finding playing time for everyone became greater in July and August, when Stearns augmented the talent level with the likes of Mike Moustakas, Jonathan Schoop and Curtis Granderson in a push for the postseason. Counsell reiterated the all-for-one approach it would take to succeed, and his players bought into it, in large part because of the trust they had in him.
“The thing that Craig does really well is he’s very cognizant about putting players in position to succeed,” Stearns said. “He understands every single player that gets to the major-league level, there’s a reason he’s there. He finds a way for that person to be successful.
“He has demonstrated during his time managing here that he’s very skilled at putting major-league players in positions to succeed. It’s one of the keys to being a good major-league manager – recognizing the strengths of your players. Then doing everything you can to put them in positions to succeed. At the end of the day, that’s all you can do. It has been fun to watch.”
As with most managers, Counsell gets his share of criticism, mostly for bullpen management, which actually is the area in which he has succeeded most, realizing his relief corps was the strength of the team. But, in general, he has seen great support from citizens of Cheeser Nation, who love having one of their own running the club.
“I think it means a lot,” said Brewers chief operating officer Rick Schlesinger, who also grew up in the area. “Fans in Milwaukee and Wisconsin love ‘local.’ They appreciate when somebody is from here and understands the fabric of our community, the team history, and all of the passion our fans have. It’s a huge advantage for us.
“Our players don’t live here in the offseason. Craig is sort of the face of the franchise year-round, especially in the offseason. And he doesn’t hide. He shops, goes out to eat, goes to the movie theater. He’s part of the community. He gets it. And I think the fans respect it.”
That feeling is mutual. Counsell knows what it means to Brewers fans for the team to be good again and in the postseason for only the fifth time in franchise history. With two World Series rings earned as a player locked away for safe keeping, he’d love nothing more than to add another piece of finger jewelry with “Milwaukee Brewers” inscribed on it.
“I’m having fun, man,” Counsell said after the Brewers topped the defending division champion Cubs in a one-game showdown last Monday at Wrigley Field. “I’m managing the baseball team in the town I grew up in and the one I played for.
“It’s a responsibility. You want to make something special happen for the baseball fans in Wisconsin. If I can play a part in doing that, it makes me happy.”
Todd Rosiak of the Journal Sentinel sports staff contributed to this story.