Is Craig Counsel 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.

Usually, Counsel 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 mounted during a game, Counsel would head to a special place that had been proven successful in his mind: the place where he watched Cecil Cooper drive in the go-ahead races to win the American League pennant for Milwaukee. .

“My lucky point 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 straight pitch line. It was a walkway to 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 these days. After playing 16 seasons in the majors, Counsel – an end-to-end Milwaukeean – 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 reached since 1982, when Counsel 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: Counsel.

“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 definitely deserved it and he’s a huge reason for all of our success here. “

Counsel, 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 assigned for posting, 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, whatever 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 stands out is the respect he had for 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 Counsel’s mind more in 2011, his last season on the court 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 Counsel’s impact in the clubhouse.

The lawyer 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. “

Counsel 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. Its No. Shirt number 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 Counsel as a manager.

“He knows how important the Brewers are to Milwaukee,” said Jeff Margolis, who grew up with Counsel and witnessed her 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 Counsel “a kid from the Midwest,” Margolis said Counsel always mowed her lawn with a riding mower given to her by Hall of Famer closest, Trevor Hoffman, a former teammate. A few years ago, Counsel stopped by its 30th high school reunion after a game day in Milwaukee.

In the field, Counsel has earned praise for both her 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. Highlighting the demanding job turnover, the lawyer is the longest-serving manager in the Netherlands

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

“I’ve coached for 40 years in different settings and on paper it looks like I’ve had a lot of success,” said Pat Murphy, former Counsel 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 sides, 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 Brewers of 2021 are dominated by a fairly traditional starting rotation, a stark contrast to 2018 when the team, carried by a dominant box and Yelich, missed a win to reach 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 are 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.”

Counsel, 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. The attorney said the team are fondly remembered in Milwaukee due to the trip they made to fans – something 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.

The lawyer 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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