Brewers name hometown hero Craig Counsell as new manager
Published: May 5, 2015 / Author: Todd Rosiak
From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
It doesn’t get much more hometown than the Milwaukee Brewers’ new manager, Craig Counsell.
He graduated from Whitefish Bay High School in 1988. His father, John, worked in the Brewers’ front office from 1979-’87. He played six seasons for the Brewers. He worked in the front office himself the past three-plus years.
Counsell even has a park named after him — the same park where he played Little League in Whitefish Bay, only a few miles from where he and his wife, Michelle, and their four children reside.
Those local ties came shining through from the outset of his introductory news conference at Miller Park on Monday morning, just 13 hours after the Brewers announced the firing of Ron Roenicke as manager.
“I’ve worked here as a player and in the front office. I’ve watched Brewer games for 35 years. I’m a Milwaukee Brewer,” Counsell said. “I’ve always felt that way. Baseball in this city is important to me. It’s part of me. I feel a responsibility for it. I always have. And I’m proud to have that responsibility.
“It’s a great honor to move forward and try to give our fans what they deserve.”
While Counsell, 44, becomes the 19th manager in franchise history after signing a three-year deal that runs through 2017, he is just the second with local ties to take the reins. The late Harvey Kuenn — the only manager to lead the Brewers to the World Series — was a West Allis native who went 160-118-1 in just over two seasons at the helm.
Kuenn was the more accomplished player if personal statistics are the measure, but Counsell’s résumé stacks up favorably.
Drafted in the 11th round out of the University of Notre Dame in 1992, Counsell was a scrappy infielder who went on to hit .255 over a 16-year career with the Colorado Rockies, Florida Marlins, Los Angeles Dodgers, Arizona Diamondbacks and Brewers.
Four times he was a member of teams that made the postseason, winning World Series titles with the Marlins in 1997 and the Diamondbacks in 2001. Counsell scored the winning run in the 11th inning of Game 7 against the Cleveland Indians in that 1997 Series, with his sprint home from third base on Edgar Renteria’s single and subsequent celebration as he crossed the plate still a memorable highlight.
Those moments still seem to amaze Counsell, but not the challenge that lies ahead as he took over a Brewers team with the worst record in the major leagues at 7-18 without any coaching or managerial experience.
“It’s not surreal. It’s a place where I feel like I’ve prepared myself to be,” he said. “Surreal was playing. This is probably more where I thought I would end up, in a position of leadership like this. It’s an honor and it’s humbling, but I feel like this is what I was meant to do.
“I think I’ll be better at this than I was at playing.”
The Brewers are hardly alone in hiring a neophyte to fill the role of manager. In the last few seasons, Mike Matheny (St. Louis Cardinals), Robin Ventura (Chicago White Sox), Brad Ausmus (Detroit Tigers) and Walt Weiss (Colorado Rockies) were hired after distinguished playing careers but without having managed at any level.
Throw in the comprehensive top-down view he has had of the Milwaukee organization as special assistant to general manager Doug Melvin since 2012, and Counsell was uniquely qualified for the opportunity.
The fit with the Brewers is such that in November Counsell removed his name from consideration for Tampa Bay’s managerial search.
“He’s not far from being in the clubhouse with the players wearing that uniform,” Melvin said. “He knows today’s players more than somebody from the outside who doesn’t know our organization or maybe somebody from the outside that maybe hasn’t managed in a few years. There are too many things familiar with him here.
“He knows our minor-league system. He knows our coaches in the minor leagues. He knows how we operate. He has been involved in the scouting aspect. He has been in all those meetings, so he has that familiarity. I do think it is a little bit in how he played the game, too. He played the game with a chip on his shoulder. He played the game to win. I’d say he has a real edge for preparation.
“It’s all about preparation and getting the players prepared. If they’re prepared properly, they’ll play the game at a high level. I think that he’s ready for that because he was the type of player that prepared himself to be ready on the days he didn’t play. He was still prepared to play. I think there’s just too many familiarities to what he has here and the way he played the game.
“I believe that will resonate in our clubhouse.”
Rightfielder Ryan Braun is one of eight players on the Brewers’ roster who counted Counsell as a teammate at some point. Braun’s rookie year coincided with the start of Counsell’s second and final stint with the Brewers, and he echoed Melvin’s sentiments.
“I couldn’t imagine them bringing in somebody that would be a better fit than Craig Counsell is,” he said. “If there’s anybody that is Milwaukee Brewers baseball, aside from probably Bob Uecker, it’s him. He grew up here, lives here, played here for a long time and had a ton of success as a player. Was widely respected. Probably the best leader that I ever played with.
“So I don’t think they could have possibly brought anybody in that was any better than Craig Counsell is as far as being able to relate to us. I’m sure he’ll be incredibly supportive. He’s obviously very intelligent.
“Inexperienced, but I don’t think that’s something that would prevent him from being great at what he does.”
Counsell played for 11 managers and listed Jim Leyland and Bob Melvin as his biggest influences, with Melvin letting him in on some of the daily decisions a manager has to make during Counsell’s second stint in Arizona in 2005-’06.
“I told him he was going to do this one day,” Bob Melvin, now manager of the Oakland A’s, said in a phone interview. “I actually used him as a resource for a lot of things, and I just knew he was going to do this. It was just a matter of time.
“I’ve given him an open invite to my staff, but he wanted to be a Brewer. He loves Milwaukee. He’s very passionate about the Brewers. It’s the perfect place for him, and I think he hoped at some point an opportunity would come up for him.
“I can’t say enough good things about Craig Counsell. He’s one of my favorite guys ever.”
Bob Melvin, who twice interviewed for managerial openings with the Brewers, knows full well what Counsell is experiencing as he is afforded such a rare opportunity.
“I felt that same way when I came back to Oakland,” he said. “I grew up in that area and when I had a chance to manage there, it’s a pride factor involved. It makes it extra special.”
Added Counsell: “The logo means something to me. My dad worked here. I was at County Stadium since I was 10. It means something to me. It’s a part of me. I think that just gets you more excited about it. It makes you work harder for it and at it because there is something more.”
Counsell’s primary goal with the on-field product is to get what is a talented roster on paper to begin playing up to its capabilities. In his first full-team meeting Monday afternoon, he stressed the importance of a strong and unified clubhouse.
“I just want them to be open about what we’re going to do going forward. That’s what I asked of them,” he said. “Just open yourselves up to new things and to be better and trust each other. We’re going to push a little bit and try to be better teammates.
“That’s always been a big thing for me. Ever since I’ve sat in locker rooms, the importance of being a quality teammate has been at the top of your job as a major-league baseball player.”
Counsell conceded the Brewers, who have lost 40 of their last 56 games dating to last season, are anything but contenders right now. But Bob Melvin believes his former charge has all the tools necessary to get the team he both grew up rooting for and played for back on track as its new manager.
“He’s a winner and always has been,” Bob Melvin said. “He’s got all it takes to be a successful manager.”