Craig Counsell (THE TOPPS COMPANY)

Craig Counsell

This article was written by Hunter Seidler


Craig Counsell (TRADING CARD DB)When Craig John Counsell first reached the majors in 1995, a Rockies security guard wouldn’t let the 25-year-old in the clubhouse, mistaking him for a bat boy.1 Just two years later, the 6-foot 179-pound infielder scored the walk-off run in Game Seven of the 1997 World Series for the Florida Marlins. Remarkably, in 2001 he found himself on base to witness a walk-off Luis Gonzalez single to win another World Series, this time with the Arizona Diamondbacks. One series earlier, Counsell earned NLCS Most Valuable Player honors after going 8-for-21 against the Braves. Not bad for a “bat boy.”

“The Chicken” boasted an impressive 16-year major-league career, but casual baseball fans likely overlook his accomplishments. Counsell’s unique batting stance may garner more recognition than his pivotal role on two championship teams or his versatility as an infielder, playing second base, shortstop, and third base. However, to fans of the Milwaukee Brewers, Counsell is a local hero and a household name.

The only child of John and Jan Counsell, Craig was born August 21, 1970. in South Bend, Indiana. Though Craig was born in South Bend, he grew up in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, a suburb on the northeast side of Milwaukee. John Counsell, Craig’s father, served as director of community relations for the Brewers from 1979-87. The father-son duo bonded over baseball and always looked forward to the annual Father-Son-Daughter Baseball Game each July at Milwaukee’s County Stadium.2 “It was kind of like Christmas morning for Craig,” his mother, Jan, recalled. “One of the Brewers would pitch to the kids, and just the idea of being 8 years old and getting out there and running the bases was great for Craig. Believe me, he took it very seriously.”3

As a child, Craig would run errands for his dad. Whether he was delivering baseballs to the Brewers’ clubhouse for autographs or handling the team magazine, Craig found a way to associate with his favorite ballclub. When he became a teenager, the Brewers hired Craig to work concessions. Around the seventh inning, he would conclude his shift and watch the games from the field-level seats. Pete Vuckovich, a Brewers pitcher from 1981-86, recalled his experience with young Counsell: “He’s always been a hard-working, fine young man. . . . Growing up around the game at the highest level, you get comfortable around it. You’re not enamored with celebrity. Plus, he was picking up tips and secrets that most other kids aren’t privy to.”4

Craig put his baseball knowledge to work as a star player at Whitefish Bay High School, where he wore Robin Yount’s #19 as a nod to one of his favorite Brewers. In high school, he also met Michelle McClone, whom he later married.

Counsell was not recruited coming out of high school, but he and his dad–a captain on the University of Notre Dame’s 1964 baseball team–contacted Notre Dame’s head coach, Pat Murphy.5 They organized a tryout for Craig prior to an exhibition game between the Yankees and Brewers at County Stadium. “I think Pat Murphy was a little more interested in seeing the Brewers and Yankees play, but he saw me work out anyway,” Counsell jests. “He saw me play and thought that I was good enough and offered me a small scholarship.”6

Counsell turned out to be an excellent investment for Coach Murphy and the Fighting Irish. Over four yearst Notre Dame, Counsell recorded a .306 batting average, an impressive 204 runs scored, 166 RBIs, and 50 doubles. He also still holds the record for most walks in Notre Dame history with 166 while only striking out 82 times.7 In his senior season, Counsell was named MVP of a 1992 squad that featured 14 future professional draft picks.8 As captain, he led the Irish to national baseball prominence and within a game of the College World Series.

Counsell excelled both on the field and in the classroom, maintaining a 3.0 GPA and graduating from Notre Dame with a degree in accounting. Pat Murphy praised Counsell for his character: “He is as good of an example of a student-athlete as there is. . . . He led our teams with his passion and obvious desire to play winning baseball. He didn’t say much, but his style of play made you take notice. He did all of the little things that championship players do.”9

The Colorado Rockies drafted Counsell in the 11th round of the 1992 MLB June Amateur Draft. He made his professional debut later that year with the Bend, Oregon Rockies of the Class-A (short season) Northwest League. In 1993, Colorado promoted Counsell to the Central Valley Rockies (California League), a Class A-Advanced level affiliate. He appeared in 131 games, starting at shortstop in 124 outings. Counsell moved up to the Double-A New Haven Ravens (Eastern League) in 1994, appearing in 83 games. A majority of these appearances were at shortstop, but he saw time at second base in five contests.

After spending most of the 1995 season with the Triple-A Colorado Springs Sky Sox (PCL), Counsell received his first promotion to the majors on September 17, a game in which the Rockies fell to the Florida Marlins, 17-0. With Colorado down 14-0, Counsell entered the game on defense in the top of the seventh inning before grounding out to third base against Pat Rapp in the bottom of the frame. After making his debut, Counsell concluded his three-game major-league stint with the Rockies in 1995 with a pinch-hit walk in another loss and as a ninth-inning defensive replacement in a win against the San Diego Padres. He returned to the Sky Sox for the 1996 season and a large portion of the 1997 season before being promoted for a single game against the Chicago Cubs on July 26.

On July 27, 1997, the day after he made his season debut, the Rockies traded Counsell to the Marlins–the team against which he made his major-league debut–in exchange for Mark Hutton. Batting eighth and playing second base, Counsell recorded his first major-league hit in his first at-bat for the Marlins with a single off veteran pitcher Mike Morgan. Counsell immediately seized the second base job for the Marlins, playing in 51 games to close out the regular season. With a record of 90-72, the Marlins finished the regular season in second place in the NL East behind a 101-win Braves team.

As a wild card, the Marlins faced the San Francisco Giants in the NLDS. In a three-game sweep of the Giants, Counsell recorded two hits and one RBI in five at-bats. The Marlins then faced the Braves in the NLCS. The Atlanta roster featured numerous stars, including Chipper Jones, Kenny Lofton, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, and Tom Glavine; all of these players, with the exception of Lofton, were members of the 1995 World Series Champion Braves. Although the Braves won the NL East, the Marlins had the edge in the regular season head-to-head meetings 8-4. The Marlins stole the first game at Atlanta, and returned to Miami with the series tied 1-1. After splitting Games Three and Four, the series sat at 2-2 going into Game Five. The game proved to be a pitching battle between Liván Hernández and Greg Maddux, with the Marlins prevailing 2-1. Then, in Game Six, Counsell recorded two RBIs in a series-clinching win, sending the Marlins to the World Series to play the Cleveland Indians.

In Game One, Counsell scored his first run of the postseason en route to a Marlins win. After a Game Two loss, Counsell scored two runs and recorded one RBI in a Game Three win, a contest decided by three runs. The teams continued to trade momentum and the series climaxed with a dramatic 11-inning Game Seven in Miami.

A sacrifice fly by Counsell in the ninth sent the game to extra innings, but the bottom of the 11th inning was truly his time to shine. With one out, Counsell hit a ground ball off of a 1-2 Charles Nagy pitch which appeared as if it would result in an inning-ending double play. However, the ball slipped under Indians second baseman Tony Fernández’sglove and into right field, keeping the inning alive and resulting in the biggest hit of Counsell’s young career. After the Marlins loaded the bases and Bobby Bonilla was tagged out at home, Counsell was now at third base with two outs–90 feet between him and baseball immortality. Just moments later, Edgar Renteria hit Nagy’s 0-1 slider up the middle into center field; the 67,000 fans in attendance erupted as an electrified Counsell jumped onto home plate waving his arms. Craig Counsell had just helped the Marlins win their first World Series, and he was only a rookie. Counsell’s cleats from that game now reside in Cooperstown at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

During the 1997 season, the sons of Marlins third base coach Rich Donnelly gave Counsell the nickname “The Chicken Man” or “the Chicken” for his unique batting stance: he held his bat high with a bend in his back leg, flapping his arms like a chicken as he prepared for the next pitch.

However, the nickname had a deeper story to it.10 While Donnelly was a coach with the Pirates in 1992, his daughter, Amy, wondered what he told his baserunners, suggesting he told them “The chicken runs at midnight.” It became an inside joke and the two would use “the chicken runs at midnight” as a substitute for “I love you,” a tradition they would maintain until Amy lost a battle with a brain tumor in 1993. Four years later, Donnelly accompanied Counsell at third base and sent the Chicken home for the World Series win. In a beautiful coincidence, it was midnight when he crossed home plate.11

To this day, Counsell remains proud of that nickname and its deep sentimental value. The heartfelt story inspired a 2018 book written by Tom Friend, titled The Chicken Runs at Midnight: A Daughter’s Message from Heaven That Changed a Father’s Heart and Won a World Series.12

After a storybook end to the 1997 season, Counsell played the 1998 season and part of the 1999 season with the Marlins before being traded to the Dodgers on June 15, 1999. The Marlins received Ryan Moskau in the exchange. During his time with the Marlins, Counsell compiled a .253 batting average over 662 plate appearances; as a reliable second baseman, Counsell registered a .989 fielding percentage and turned 113 double plays.

Counsell’s time with the Dodgers was short-lived. He appeared in only 50 games and was released on March 15, 2000. The Diamondbacks signed him five days later. He spent some time with the Triple-A Tucson Sidewinders (PCL) to increase his value as a utility player, playing at both shortstop and third base.13 The Diamondbacks called up Counsell on May 31, playing second base and filling in when shortstop Tony Womack and third baseman Matt Williams were injured. Counsell quickly became one of the most dependable players on the team, and skipper Bob Brenly praised him for his baseball acumen: “He’s the smartest player I;ve been around. I put him out there and don’t give a second thought to whether he’ll be where he’s supposed to be.”14 His teammate Curt Schilling remarked, “He’s our shorter version of Cal Ripken. He’s always in the right place at the right time.”15

After a disappointing third-place finish in 2000, Counsell and the Diamondbacks finished the 2001 regular season at first place in the NL West with a 92-70 record. Arizona defeated the Cardinals in the NLDS, 3-2, to reach the franchise’s first NLCS. The Diamondbacks then made short work of the Braves, 4-1. The pitching duo of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling and the offensive prowess of Luis Gonzalez were instrumental–but Counsell stood out as the most important piece in this series win. He registered a .381 batting average, scoring a team-high five runs and four RBIs off of eight hits. He also frustrated the Atlanta offense with his gritty fielding, recording three double plays, 11 assists, and eight putouts while playing both second base and shortstop. His offensive and defensive performances earned him the honor of NLCS Most Valuable Player, but he and the Diamondbacks had their eyes set on a bigger prize. Coming into the postseason, Counsell was the only person in the clubhouse with a World Series ring; he was ready to change that.

In the 2001 World Series, the Diamondbacks faced a 95-win Yankees team that won the AL East by an impressive 13 1/2 games, beat the 102-win Athletics in the ALDS, three games to two, and won their own League Championship Series, four games to one. With the World Series being the first professional sports championship after the September 11 terrorist attacks, patriotism was running high, especially for the New York ball club. Despite the momentum coming into the series for both teams, Game Three shifted back to New York, with President George W. Bush throwing out the first pitch in an emotionally charged Yankee Stadium.16 Mariano Rivera’s late-inning performance sealed a 2-1 win for the home team. In Game Four, Derek Jeter earned his “Mr. November” moniker via a home run at the bottom of the 10th inning to even the series at 2-2. The Yankees won a 12-inning thriller in Game Five before flying back to Arizona with the series at 3-2.

In Game Six, the Diamondbacks’ offense exploded in a 15-2 blowout. The Fall Classic went to a Game Seven for the first time since 1997, a situation that Counsell knew better than anyone else in the series. Heading into the top of the ninth inning, the Yankees had a narrow 2-1 advantage. However, Randy Johnson–pitching in relief after starting the day before–mustered a clutch 1-2-3 inning to keep the deficit at one going into the bottom of the inning. Rivera struggled early in the inning and gave up a game-tying double to Womack before Counsell stepped to the plate. On the 0-1 pitch, Rivera hit Counsell’s hand, loading the bases. Shortly thereafter, Luis Gonzalez hit a little dunker off the fists over second base that sent the winning run home, making the Diamondbacks the youngest franchise to ever win a World Series.17 This distinction previously belonged to Counsell’s 1997 Marlins team. In addition to winning his second World Series, Counsell also earned the reputation of being on base for both of the last two walk-off Game Seven World Series wins.

From 2002 to 2003, Counsell recorded a .263 batting average with 194 hits, 103 runs, 5 home runs, and 72 RBIs; he also registered a .990 fielding percentage, maintaining his dependability as an infielder. On December 1, 2003, the Diamondbacks traded Counsell to the Brewers, sending him back home to play for his hometown team. The rare nine-player trade involved Counsell, Junior Spivey, Lyle Overbay, Chad Moeller, Chris Capuano and Jorge de la Rosa going to the Brewers in exchange for Richie Sexson, Shane Nance, and Noochie Varner. Counsell’s 2004 campaign with the Brewers ended with a 67-94 record, finishing in sixth place in the NL Central. Counsell then went back to the Diamondbacks, signing with the team on December 21, 2004.

At 34 years old, Counsell turned in the best statistical season of his career in 2005. He played 150 games, posting 148 hits, 34 doubles, 26 stolen bases, 85 runs, 42 RBIs, and 9 home runs. All of these, including the number of games played, were career highs. The Diamondbacks finished 77-85 and were out of postseason contention, but Counsell’s career-high 5.5 WAR served as yet another bright spot for the veteran’s season.

After the 2006 season, Counsell returned to the Brewers, where he played the remainder of his career. In 2008, Counsell and the Brewers made it to the postseason, losing to Philadelphia in four games; the Phillies went on to win the World Series.

In 2011, Counsell’s batting struggles nearly made history. From June 10 to August 5, he endured a 0-for-45 slump. If it weren’t for a pinch-hit single in the ninth inning of a game against the Astros, he would have surpassed the 0-for-45 mark for non-pitchers originally set by Bill Bergen (he of the lifetime .170 batting average in more than 3,000 at-bats) in 1909 and tied by Dave Campbell in 1973. Eugenio Velez broke the record a month later with an 0-for-46 streak that extended back to the end of the 2010 season.18That record was then broken by the Orioles’ Chris Davis in 2019.19

Despite this blemish on the season, Counsell helped the Brewers finish 96-66, the highest number of wins in the franchise’s history up to that point. It was good enough for Milwaukee to capture the NL Central title. The last time the franchise had won its division, Counsell was still a 12-year-old running errands for his father and watching Robin Yount and company take home the 1982 AL pennant.20

After beating the Diamondbacks in the NLDS, 3-2, the Brewers took on the Cardinals, who were not only division rivals but also had beaten the famed 1982 Milwaukee club in the World Series. Unfortunately for Counsell and the Brewers, the end result of the 2011 NLCS proved similar, with the Cardinals securing a 4-2 series win and going on to take the World Series.

Following the 2011 season, Counsell announced his retirement at the age of 41. In his 16 seasons, he played in 1,624 games, compiling 1,208 hits and a .255 batting average as well as a .985 fielding percentage and 672 double plays. He also got into 41 postseason games.

Craig Counsell (THE TOPPS COMPANY)One would be hard-pressed to find a person in professional baseball with negative things to say about Craig Counsell. He was respected by players and fans alike as a team player. He played multiple positions and, on several occasions, willingly stepped back from the starting role as younger, better players joined the roster. Both are testaments to his team-first mindset.21 During his lengthy career, he wasn’t booed by opposing fans; in fact, in cities where he had previously played, he’d often get a round of applause from the home crowd.22 He was an all-around likeable player who earned admiration from his peers through an unselfish attitude, remarkable work ethic, and an outstanding knowledge of the game.

Immediately following his playing career, Counsell put his baseball knowledge back to use by joining the Brewers’ front office as a special assistant to General Manager Doug Melvin. He also filled in for Bob Uecker on the Brewers Radio Network during the 2012 season.

In May 2015, Counsell accepted an offer to become the manager of the Brewers, succeeding Ron Roenicke after the team got off to a slow start. After going 61-76 over the rest of the 2015 campaign, Counsell added his former coach at Notre Dame and longtime friend, Pat Murphy, to the Brewers’ coaching staff.23 The Brewers won 73 games in 2016 and 86 in 2017, just one win short of a NL Wild Card appearance. In 2018 Counsell and company improved further to a 96-win season–tying the franchise high–and beat their NL Central rival Cubs in a one-game playoff. They then swept the Rockies in the NLDS and took the Dodgers to seven games before losing the NLCS. The 2019 Brewers finished 89-73 after going 20-7 in September to claim a wild card berth. They lost to the eventual World Series champs, the Washington Nationals. In 2019 Counsell finished in second place for NL Manager of the Year for the second consecutive year.24

In December 2019, award-winning sports author Rich Wolfe released a biography titled All It Takes Is All Ya Got: Craig Counsell.25 In an interview promoting the book’s release, Wolfe stated, “Craig Counsell might be the best manager in the big leagues. . . . To me, as an outsider, I am a Cardinals fan, [and] what he does with the talent level that he has compared to what the Cubs and the Cardinals have, I mean, he works miracles.”26 The Brewers seem to agree with Wolfe–on January 8, 2020, Counsell signed a contract extension through 2023.

Away from the field, Counsell has made a profound impact on the city of Milwaukee. He and his wife, Michelle, support the Fatherhood Initiative, the Urban Ecology Center, the Boys and Girls Club and the MACC Fund, among other charities.27 He also takes great pride in promoting the game of baseball in the Milwaukee community. “One of the thrills for me about being able to manage the Brewers–the team in the city I grew up in–is that you bear some responsibility for baseball in your community,” Counsell said in an interview.28 “I think that’s one of the best parts about what I get to do: having an influence in it and promoting it the right way while being charitable in other ways.”29

Counsell and his family currently reside in his childhood town of Whitefish Bay. In 2012, his former Little League park was renamed Craig Counsell Park. His four children walk the same streets he did at their age, and his sons Brady and Jack both played at their father’s eponymous park. The Counsell daughters are named Finley and Rowan.

The baseball scene in Milwaukee across all levels is thriving, thanks in no small part to Craig Counsell’s continued commitment to the game. “I think just being a steward for baseball in this community and this state is a really important part of what I do.”30 Counsell remains a role model for young players. He grew up watching his heroes on the Brewers, and after decades of hard work, he has become a hero for the next generation of Brewers fans.

Last revised: October 14, 2020

 

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Craig Counsell for taking the time to participate in a phone interview and to Wabash College for supporting the internship which enabled this research.

This biography was reviewed by Bill Nowlin and Rory Costello and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com, baseballalmanac.com, and the baseball archives on the University of Notre Dame athletics website..

 

Notes

1 Tim Kurkjian, “Tim Kurkjian’s Baseball Fix – A Bat Boy, a Writer and ‘Rudy’ with Talent: The Life of Craig Counsell,” ESPN, May 4, 2020, https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/29082104/tim-kurkjian-baseball-fix-bat-boy-writer-rudy-talent-life-craig-counsell

2 Mike Berardino, “A Familiar Brew,” South Florida Sun-Sentinel, May 29, 1998, https://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/fl-xpm-1998-05-29-9805290032-story.html.

3 Berardino.

4 Berardino.

5 Author interview with Craig Counsell, June 10, 2020.

6 Counsell interview.

7 “Irish Alum Craig Counsell Retires After 16 Years In MLB,” UND.com, January 17, 2012, https://und.com/irish-alum-craig-counsell-retires-after-16-years-in-mlb/

8 “Irish Alum Craig Counsell Retires After 16 Years In MLB.”

9 Dennis Brown, “Craig Counsell: Major-league veteran made a career of giving back,” Strong of Heart (University of Notre Dame), 2011, https://strongofheart.nd.edu/profiles/craig-counsell-2011/

10 Brooklyn Del Barba, “#Shortstops: The Chicken Runs at Midnight,” National Baseball Hall of Fame, 2018, https://baseballhall.org/discover/shortstops/the-chicken-runs-at-midnight

11 Del Barba.

12 Tom Friend, The Chicken Runs at Midnight: A Daughter’s Message from Heaven That Changed a Father’s Heart and Won a World Series (Zondervan, 2018), https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-chicken-runs-at-midnight-tom-harry-friend/1128137982

13 Stephen Cannella, “Rudy on Duty: When playoff time comes around, the Diamondbacks’ scrappy Craig Counsell gets his Irish up–and his game face on,” Sports Illustrated, October 29, 2001, https://vault.si.com/vault/2001/10/29/rudy-on-duty-when-playoff-time-comes-around-the-diamondbacks-scrappy-craig-counsell-gets-his-irish-upand-his-game-face-on

14 Cannella.

15 Cannella.

16 Chuck Platt, “10 Years Later: Remembering the 2001 World Series,” Bleacher Report, November 4, 2011, https://bleacherreport.com/articles/920844-10-years-later-remembering-the-2001-world-series

17 Platt.

18 “Dodgers’ Velez Sets Hitless Streak Record,” Associated Press (via SI.com), September 29, 2011, https://sabr.org/latest/dodgers-velez-sets-hitless-streak-record/

19 Jay Cannon, “Chris Davis breaks MLB record for longest hitless streak by position player,” USA Today, April 8, 2019, https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/mlb/orioles/2019/04/08/chris-davis-orioles-hitless-record/3394279002/

20 Lee Kluck, “October 3, 1982: Brewers hold off Orioles’ charge in season finale,” SABR, https://sabr.org/gamesproj/game/october-3-1982-brewers-hold-off-orioles-charge-in-season-finale/

21 JP, “Craig Counsell: A Career in Review,” Brew Crew Ball (SB Nation), January 20, 2012, https://www.brewcrewball.com/2012/1/20/2715173/craig-counsell-a-career-in-review

22 JP.

23 Tim Prister, “Craig Counsell/Pat Murphy: The Notre Dame Ties That Bind,” Irish Illustrated (247 Sports), February 15, 2020, https://247sports.com/college/notre-dame/Article/Craig-CounsellPat-Murphy-The-Notre-Dame-Ties-That-Bind-143660108/

24 Adam McCalvy, “Counsell edged out for NL Manager of the Year,” MLB, November 12, 2019, https://www.mlb.com/news/craig-counsell-second-in-nl-manager-of-the-year-voting

25 Tim Van Vooren, “New book covers Brewers skipper Craig Counsell, who ‘might be the best manager in the big leagues’,” Fox 6 Now, December 11, 2019, https://fox6now.com/2019/12/11/new-book-covers-brewers-skipper-craig-counsell-who-might-be-the-best-manager-in-the-big-leagues/

26 Van Vooren.

27 Michael Horne, “Craig Counsell’s Whitefish Bay Winner,” Urban Milwaukee, May 12, 2015, https://urbanmilwaukee.com/2015/05/12/house-confidential-craig-counsells-whitefish-bay-winner/

28 Counsell interview.

29 Counsell interview.

30 Counsell interview.

Full Name

Craig John Counsell

Born

August 21, 1970 at South Bend, IN (USA)

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