Is Craig Counsell the best manager in baseball?

MILWAUKEE – The last time the Milwaukee Brewers reached a World Series, Craig Counsell was 12. His father worked for the team, so Counsell followed often, including during that 1982 playoff race.

Usually, Counsell would sit in the bleachers of County Stadium, the former home of the Brewers, to watch his favorite team and player, Hall of Famer Robin Yount. But when the tension built during a game, Counsell would go to a special place that had been proven right in his mind: the place where he watched Cecil Cooper drive in the green light races to win the American League pennant for Milwaukee. .

“My lucky place was at the end of the stadium,” Counsell said recently, indicating where it would be at American Family Field, the team’s home since 2001. “They had a ramp that sat along the line. right ground. It was a catwalk to access the upper deck and I was watching the game from my location. You have to find a lucky place.

His point of view is very different nowadays. After playing 16 seasons in the majors, Counsell – a Milwaukeean through and through – has been watching his favorite team from the dugout since 2015. During that time, he has established himself as one of baseball’s top managers. This season, he’s guided the Brewers to several milestones the team hadn’t hit since 1982, when Counsell was there to watch them fall to the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 7 of the World Series.

Until Tuesday, the Brewers, who play in Major League Baseball’s smallest market, were on track to win a franchise record 99 games. They played 13 and a half games ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals for first place in the Central National League, holding the largest divisional lead in MLB. 1982 record. And if the Brewers reached the playoffs as planned, they would have done so in four consecutive seasons, extending a franchise record for a club that made its first season in 1969.

A common thread in a team that has seen its front office and roster evolve: Counsell.

“The players have to play the game, but it starts from the top down and the players feed off the manager,” said Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich, who won the National League’s Most Valuable Player award in 2018.

“I don’t think he gets enough credit,” Yelich continued later. “I really don’t. It’s almost a crime that he hasn’t been named Manager of the Year in recent years. He really deserved it and he’s a huge 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. Prior to that, his training was limited to youth leagues with his children. But his experiences as a player have prepared him to guide a team, build relationships with his players and earn their respect.

He went from a walk-on in Notre-Dame to becoming the team captain. An 11th-round draft pick, he was a lean infielder known more for his glove (and eccentric hitting position) than his bat. In 1997, when he was 26, he overcame a history of minor injuries to earn a regular place in the majors. He was appointed for an assignment, released and traded during his career. He won the World Series rings with the Florida Marlins in 1997 (scoring the winning point in Game 7 against Cleveland) and the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001 (when he was the Championship Series MVP of the league and was part of the team’s rally winning in World Series Game 7 against the Yankees).

“He’s got a really good feel for the ball club,” said Brent Suter, a left-hander for the Brewers. “When we come back from road trips, it cuts down on work. Or he adds work when needed. He has very good pulsed energy, like when he needs to talk – speeches to the team – or when he needs to leave the club alone. It’s a bit instinctive, but it also comes from playing for 15 years, regardless of the years, in the big leagues.

Although Counsell said he doesn’t think much of it while playing, former Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said others often viewed Counsell as a potential manager because of his background, his personality. and his intelligence.

“You can put it all on a list, but the only thing that stood out was the respect he had from all of his teammates,” said Melvin. “Whenever I spoke to people in the game he was always one of the most respected teammates who accepted nothing less than trying to win every day.”

The idea of ​​managing crossed Counsell’s mind more in 2011, his last season on the pitch when he was 41, hitting 0.178 for the Brewers and, in his opinion, “a very bad player.” He remained on Milwaukee’s roster in part because Melvin appreciated Counsell’s impact in the clubhouse.

Counsell did not know how long it would take him to become a manager or if it would happen. His goal was to take a leadership position for an organization, but his loyalty was to the team in his hometown.

“I felt it would be my part to help baseball in Milwaukee move forward after I finished playing,” he said. “I didn’t know it was going to be that necessarily. I feel really lucky. I have always felt a responsibility for this and I appreciate this responsibility.

Counsell grew up in Whitefish Bay, a community 15 minutes north of the Brewers Stadium, and still lives there. He is a proud graduate of Whitefish Bay High, where he met his future wife and their four children will eventually date. His high school grounds and the Little League Park where he once played both bear his name. His jersey number n ° 19 has been withdrawn.

He played for the Brewers for six seasons. After his retirement, he returned in 2012 as Melvin’s special assistant at the front office. Three years later, Melvin hired Counsell as a manager.

“He knows how important the Brewers are to Milwaukee,” said Jeff Margolis, who grew up with Counsell and witnessed his marriage. He later added: “As much as it would mean for anyone to be the manager of the Brewers, it means more to Craig.”

Calling Counsell “a kid of the Midwest,” Margolis said Counsell always mows his lawn with a riding mower given to him by Hall of Fame closest, Trevor Hoffman, a former teammate. A few years ago, Counsell stopped by his 30th high school reunion after a game day in Milwaukee.

On the pitch, Counsell has earned praise for both his tactical and interpersonal skills, the latter of which are more important these days as front offices have an increasingly important role in how games are played. play. Highlighting the demanding job turnover, Counsell is the oldest manager in the Netherlands

Josh Hader, one of the Brewers’ star relievers, said Counsell “isn’t trying to come up.” Corbin Burnes, one of the Brewers’ top starters and one of the main contenders for the NL Cy Young Award, said he appreciates Counsell’s direct and open way of communicating. Suter said Counsell has great situational awareness and foresight in how to deploy relievers and pinch hitters throughout a game.

“I’ve coached for 40 years in all different settings and on paper it looks like I’ve had a lot of success,” said Pat Murphy, former Counsell coach at Notre Dame and his bench coach with the Brewers since 2016. “But this guy taught me so much about the big league game and a lot of things. It’s supposed to be the other way around, right?

Without his time at the front office, in which he said Melvin had exposed him to all facets, Counsell said he would not understand the prospects of David Stearns, the current president of baseball operations at the team, or Matt Arnold, the team’s general manager. .

“One of the reasons I enjoyed working with Craig so much is that he has the ability to question everything he does and what we do as an organization,” Stearns said. “And through active questioning and discussion, he naturally grew and changed his views on some aspect of how he goes about it. But the general principles of what he believes and strives to do is to put players in the best position to be successful. It’s been constant since day one.

Case in point: The 2021 Brewers are dominated by a fairly traditional starting rotation, a stark contrast to 2018 when the team, carried by a dominant box and Yelich, lost a win before reaching the World Series.

“In 2018 we had a team and in particular a pitching team that required very active management from pitch one, and Craig understood that and adapted his style to that,” Stearns said. “The team we have now is more of the elite starting pitchers, and Craig has been able to adapt his management style to that and continue to put the pieces on our roster in the right places.”

Counsell, who was a two-time finalist for the NL Manager of the Year Award and faces stiff competition this year from the San Francisco Giants’ Gabe Kapler, said he enjoys managing because it gives him perspective. unique about watching players like Freddy Peralta, Brandon Woodruff, Burnes and Hader reach the major leagues and become stars.

Woodruff, Burnes and Hader were key figures in the 2018 squad that was so close to a pennant. Counsell said that this team is fondly remembered in Milwaukee because of the trip they made to fans – something in which he said baseball excelled in October. This team also provided new memories for a fan base that, from 1983 until Stearns took over in 2015, had only seen their favorite team make the playoffs twice, in 2008 and 2011.

Counsell lamented that the Brewers, one of six franchises never to win a championship, haven’t returned to the World Series since 1982. He still thinks of that team, too. But one day, he hopes to give Brewers fans new memories to cherish for life.

“The fact that you’ve seen those moments and are a small part of it as a fan,” he said, “it really makes you want to provide those moments to other fans because they don’t go away. . “

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