MILWAUKEE — It was right around the time current Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell was in a record 0-for-45 streak at the plate that he was approached by general manager Doug Melvin about his post-playing career plans.
Counsell, who was 40 at the time, had seen his numbers plummet, and he realized the end was near. At least, that’s how Melvin remembers it.
“Actually, in 2008, he was hitting about .220, same in 2007, so around then I was thinking about it,” Melvin recalled at Miller Park last week. “Then he slumped in 2011. At that point, he probably started thinking of another career. I would ask him, ‘What do you want to do?'”
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Counsell had seen it all in a 16-year playing career, including two World Series championships and a couple of stints with his hometown Brewers. He was the native son, playing for the team that employed his dad. This was home, and about the only place Counsell wanted to work. When that 0-for-45 led to a .178 batting average, in 2011, Counsell knew it was time. But not to manage. Not yet. Instead, he joined Melvin upstairs.
“The biggest thing that helped me was being in the front office for three years,” Counsell said before his team dispatched the Colorado Rockies in three games in the National League Division Series. “I became more well-rounded as a thinker and someone that was going to be a leader.”
Melvin added: “Coming to the front office and seeing how it works and everything was big for him. Then when we dismissed Ron Roenicke I asked him if he was ready. He said, ‘Yes, I’m ready now.'”
Melvin hired Counsell to manage the Brewers in May 2015. Three seasons later, the Milwaukee product is on the brink of taking a franchise that has never won it all to its first World Series since 1982, the team’s only pennant-winning year.
Standing in the way of a Fall Classic return is the defending NL champs, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Milwaukee has won 11 games in a row heading into Friday’s championship series opener, including Game 163 to dethrone the Chicago Cubs in the NL Central and then three more to sweep the Rockies. They are on an incredible roll under Counsell.
“I get a chance to help build a team in a community that’s really important to me,” Counsell said when asked why he took the job of Brewers manager. “When I took over it was very clear what was going to happen and the path we were going to take. That never deterred me in any way.”
In this era, there isn’t a small-market team that hasn’t attempted a rebuild of sorts. Milwaukee accomplished it about as fast as any of them, with Melvin giving way to current GM David Stearns and with Counsell the mainstay between the two executives.
“We did have talent on the team and knew it was going to get traded,” Counsell said. “We thought we could accumulate talent right away, but you never know how fast it’s going to come together.”
In three seasons under Counsell, the Brewers increased their win total from 73 to 86 to 96 victories. They’re at 99 wins if you include the NLDS sweep. So what’s made him so good at his job?
“He was released, put on waivers, designated for assignment,” Melvin said. “You name it. He kept battling back. What player can’t appreciate that?
“And don’t let his physical presence let you think he’s not a tough guy.”
The picture painted inside the Brewers clubhouse of Counsell is of a man willing to have the tough conversations, and by Melvin’s account, it comes from the fact that he has been on the other end of many of those himself. He knows the feeling of being released.
“He’s not afraid to tell players something they don’t want to hear,” Melvin said. “I don’t think he sugarcoats it. He’ll tell you in a nice, diplomatic way if you’re not doing well or you have to go out. He’ll do it in a professional way because he’s had it happen to him a number of times.”
But sending a player to the minors is one thing, telling infielder Travis Shaw midseason that the team has traded for Mike Moustakas and then Jonathan Schoop is a whole other issue. Telling good players that they’ll be ceding playing time tends to need a light touch — and Counsell pulled it off.
“I went in there and talked to him one-on-one — not pleased at the time — and he did a great job of communicating with me,” Shaw explained. “That’s all you want. You’re not always going to agree with everyone over six months, but as long as there is an open line of communication and you voice your opinion and he can come back and voice his, and no one has to worry about anyone’s feelings getting hurt, that’s all you can ask.”
“He was released, put on waivers, designated for assignment. You name it. He kept battling back. What player can’t appreciate that? And don’t let his physical presence let you think he’s not a tough guy.” Former Brewers GM Doug Melvin on Craig Counsell
It’s just one example of how deftly Counsell has managed the season. Another resides in his bullpen, specifically the use of ultra-talent Josh Hader.
Everyone seemingly has had an opinion on how he should be used this season, but who can argue with the results?
The Brewers had a specific plan for the left-hander and it has worked almost perfectly, with Counsell never wavering from it. Hader was rarely used in back-to-back situations and was given the proper time off when needed. Again, Counsell points to his time in the front office.
“It really helped me gain the perspective of how a lot of people help make this work,” he said. “And then how I can be inclusive. … You see the game from a different place. It rounds you off. I needed those experiences.”
As a newcomer sees it, Counsell has the two qualities that bring respect.
“He communicates real well with the guys,” pitcher Joakim Soria said. Everyone knows what he’s all about. And he has experience and knows what players have been through.”
Perhaps that’s Counsell’s biggest asset: He has been through it all. He won the World Series with the 1997 Florida Marlins then was the 2001 NLCS MVP with the Arizona Diamondbacks on his way to winning a second world championship. Then came those lean years when Counsell fought to keep his OPS from falling below .600. Eventually, the time watching from the dugout, instead of playing, paid off.
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“He’s a baseball rat,” Melvin said. “He knows everyone. He knew players on other teams … he follows the game. Knowing the opposition is just as important as knowing your own team. And he gets the most out of players. You’re seeing it this year.”
After several champagne celebrations already for Milwaukee, the Brewers are seeking two more. After each one, according to players, Counsell has shown a looser side. Why not? He has Milwaukee on the brink of something special. Something built quickly with the Wisconsin native at the helm.
“He has a little edge to him,” Shaw said. “It’s hard to get him riled up [celebrating], but it’s pretty cool when he does.”
The Brewers are banking on seeing it again as the Manager of the Year candidate guides them through uncharted territory against a heavyweight one step from the World Series.
“I wouldn’t bet against him,” Melvin said. “Look what he’s accomplished. Pretty darn good.”