During Games 1 and 2 of the National League Division Series last week at Miller Park, Doug Melvin did something he never considered doing during his 13 years as general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers.
Melvin sat in the stands and played the role of a fan. And he enjoyed every minute.
“It was a lot of fun,” said Melvin, 66, who stepped into an advisory role when David Stearns took over as general manager at the end of the 2015 season. “It was nice to see the fans having so much fun and getting into the games.
“I sat about 10 rows behind home plate. When you’re the general manager, you don’t really get to interact with fans like that. I got to talk to a lot of them. I enjoyed it.
“I’m sure there are some fans who are glad I’m sitting in the stands now and not the GM’s office.”
Melvin laughed out loud with that last comment, well aware of the criticism that comes from the outside when you’re running a baseball club. More than anything, the game is a “what have you done for me lately” business.
But, as much as Stearns and his staff deserve credit for accelerating the team’s rebuild to the point of playing in the NL Championship Series against Los Angeles beginning Friday night at Miller Park, it was Melvin who put the process in motion before stepping aside.
It was Melvin who acquired closer Corey Knebel in the Yovani Gallardo trade with Texas. It was Melvin who acquired strikeout sensation Josh Hader as part of a huge deal with Houston. It was Melvin who brought reliever Jeremy Jeffress back after trading him to Kansas City in the blockbuster Zack Greinke deal in December 2010.
With a team built around a deep and dominant bullpen, where would the Brewers be without Knebel, Hader and Jeffress (who was later traded and reacquired)? Certainly not in baseball’s Final Four.
Fans should also remember that it was Melvin who tabbed Craig Counsell to replace Ron Roenicke as manager when the 2015 team stumbled badly out of the gate in April. As it turned out, that decision was a stroke of genius, with Counsell quickly gaining the reputation as one of the best managers in the game while overseeing the rebuilding process on the field.
“It’s all very exciting,” said Melvin, who intentionally stayed in the background as the club steamrolled its way to the NL Central crown with an impressive late-season surge. “They’ve played well at the right time. They have a lot of momentum; the mojo is working.
“Craig made a lot of great decisions. The players know their roles. It starts back with the initial message from the manager and front office about what might take place. Everybody bought into it. Now, we’d like to keep it going.”
Melvin originally acquired Counsell as one of six players from Arizona in the monster Richie Sexson trade on Dec. 1, 2003, then signed him four different times as a free agent to finish his career with the Brewers. Counsell’s last year as a player was in 2011, when the Brewers broke through for their first NL Central crowd after Melvin acquired Greinke and Shaun Marcum.
Melvin then invited Counsell to join his front-office staff in what became a mutually beneficial move.
“I got a chance to know Craig more when he came upstairs,” Melvin said. “As a player, I didn’t have a close relationship with him. But when he came to the front office, I got a chance to visit with him more and see how he studied the game and had insight to the game.
“He’s one of the few field people that absolutely followed the game, not just from his team’s standpoint. He knew players in other organizations, prospects in other organizations, managers, coaches. He’s well-connected in the industry and well-respected by other people. People always said that Trevor Hoffman was one of the great teammates they had seen, and Craig got those same accolades. He was a great teammate.
“He knew how the game was going to be changing. That was important. He knew the game was going to more of an analytical mode and looking for new ways to do things. He was on board with that. That transition from the front office to the manager’s seat was much easier.”
After the 2014 team collapsed in the final six weeks, losing 22 of the final 31 games, Melvin and principal owner Mark Attanasio contemplated making major personnel moves that winter. Instead, they opted to give that group another chance, a decision that backfired badly.
“We were in first place for 150 days (in 2014) and then had a bad stretch of games at the end,” Melvin said. “We talked about changing and having an overhaul but I do believe there were talented players on the roster. We just didn’t get the most out of them, now that you look back on it. It carried over to the next year.
“If you look at Jean Segura, Khris Davis, Scooter Gennett, Will Smith, a lot of the players who were here obviously were talented. They’re doing well with other teams (after being traded or waived). The connection and chemistry between them all, for whatever reason, just wasn’t working with Ron. I didn’t have answers to it.
“When we got off to the bad start, I had to make a change.”
There was no way for Counsell to know he would be the Brewers’ manager only a month into the 2015 season. But, having grown up in Whitefish Bay, he considered it the opportunity of a lifetime. And Counsell said his time working with Melvin better prepared him for the job.
“Doug was such an open book with me,” Counsell said. “For somebody just walking into the office, he included me in everything. That accelerated my learning and my ability to gain perspective. There was tremendous value with what he provided me.
“I saw on a daily basis what the general manager has to do, and much of it is unseen. I learned so much about how an organization is run, and how to make each department feel valued and important and meaningful. Doug was so good at doing that. And he started many of the decision-making tools that we’re still using, so that was forward thinking on his part.
“The other thing I got from Doug is his experience in the game. I mean, he worked for George Steinbrenner (in the front office in New York). Hearing him talk about that experience is so valuable. He did some teaching through story telling and I learned a lot about how this whole thing gets put together.”
Once Counsell was in place as manager, Melvin and Attanasio decided to start trading veterans for prospects. Aramis Ramirez was traded for young pitcher Yhonathan Barrios, who later blew out his shoulder. Outfielder Gerardo Parra was traded to Baltimore for starter Zach Davies, a 17-game winner last year who battled through injuries in 2018.
The big move by Melvin was sending centerfielder Carlos Gomez and right-hander Mike Fiers to the Astros for Hader, pitcher Adrian Houser, and outfielders Domingo Santana and Brett Phillips, who was used to acquire third baseman Mike Moustakas from Kansas City in July.
Attanasio and Melvin then put in place a plan in which Melvin would step aside at the end of the ’15 season. A search began for a new general manager, with Stearns, then assistant GM in Houston, being tabbed to succeed Melvin, who was given a four-year deal to serve as adviser.
Melvin was not convinced that a complete player overhaul was necessary but Stearns embarked on one nevertheless, turning over half of the 40-man roster that season. The moves slowed down a bit after that but one by one, every regular player other than Ryan Braun moved on – and there were attempts to deal him to the Dodgers.
“We didn’t have a lot of bad contracts, which helped,” Melvin said. “We had a year left on Matt Garza (a four-year, $50 million deal that didn’t work). Braun had some years left on his deal but he has still performed. It was easier not to have bad contracts to deal with as far as having success sooner than later.
“I didn’t think there was a need for a complete rebuild. That’s for when teams lose 90 to 100 games for three or four years in a row. But that’s what happened and David has done a great job with rebuilding the team. We’re in the final four, and that’s a real credit to the people there. I think it’s a real credit to the scouting, development and analytical departments.”
Though Melvin stepped into the background, many of his front-office hires have remained on the job, some in different roles. To his credit, Stearns saw they were good baseball people and avoided the urge of some new GMs to turn over the staff. The holdovers include vice president of scouting Ray Montgomery, vice president of player personnel Karl Mueller, farm director Tom Flanagan, director of amateur scouting Tod Johnson and director of baseball operations Matt Kleine.
“They are all talented people,” Melvin said. “David did a good job of recognizing that and putting them in place to where they are today. I think the organization has a lot of good baseball people in it. They were all part of changing the culture and being a contending team. The challenge is sustaining it.”
Melvin always will be recognized as the GM who stopped years of losing by getting the Brewers back to the playoffs in 2008 with the brilliant midseason acquisition of ace CC Sabathia. It was back to the playoffs in 2011, a run that was stopped in the NLCS by the St. Louis Cardinals.
Melvin didn’t think it would take another seven years for October baseball to return to Milwaukee but thinks the Brewers now are well-positioned for years to come.
And he might not be done as a major-league GM. He reportedly is being interviewed for the New York Mets’ opening but wouldn’t comment on the record about that opportunity.
“Every year, the goal is play October baseball and win it all,” Melvin said. “This team has a chance to do that. They’re one step away from the World Series. It has been fun to watch.
“I stay out of the way in my role as adviser. I’m there when they need me. But they’ve got things running real well right now. I want to let them enjoy it.”