From ND to MLB: Craig Counsell

Craig Counsell at Yankee Stadium.

Craig Counsell at Yankee Stadium.

The hit came just in time. Forty-five at-bats is a long time to go 0-fer — especially when you’re coming off the bench. For a starter, it’s a bad week, maybe 10 days. For a backup, it can be a rough couple of months.

For Craig Counsell, it was 57 days, stretching from a three-hit game on June 10 until he singled in the ninth inning on Friday, an 0-for-45 slump. With that hit on Friday, Counsell was spared immortality by an at-bat — or two.

The record for a single-season 0-fer is either 45 at-bats — according to the Brewers, citing the Elias Sports Bureau — or 46, according to research conducted by the Society for American Baseball Research and cited in an article in last Thursday’s New York Times (also mentioned on The Colbert Report). Counsell’s streak included one walk, a hit-by-pitch, two sacrifice bunts and a sacrifice fly, meaning he went hitless in 49 plate appearances, though he did reach base twice, drove in a run and twice gave away his at-bat in order to move the runners up on the bases. He also scored twice, and in seven of those 32 games in between, he did not come to the plate, serving instead as a defensive replacement or pinch-runner.

When I saw the Brewers play at Yankee Stadium on June 28, Counsell was hitless in his lone at-bat, extending the streak to 0-for-13. I didn’t take notice of the 0-for-12 coming into the game, and wouldn’t have thought anything of it if I did. And I certainly wouldn’t have asked him about it. But I did ask about his role with the Brewers now, how he sees himself as a 40-year-old utility infielder on what was then a team in contention in the NL Central and now is the division leader and the club best poised to lock down the division over these final two months.

“I think your age makes people look at you because you’ve done this for a while,” he said. “But of course, that’s part of my job, to — especially I think when you’re not playing — you try to help everybody and what everybody’s doing and help if you can. I’ve always thought that the leadership thing is that everybody helps each other, so that’s everybody’s job.”

Counsell debuted nearly 16 years ago, on Sept. 17, 1995, when his youngest current teammates — Yovani Gallardo and Jonathan Lucroy — were just 9 years old. He’s one of 11 players 40 or older who have appeared in a game this season but one of only five hitters, and one of them — Matt Stairs — has since retired. The others are Omar Vizquel, Jason Giambi and Jim Thome, but only Thome sees regular starts these days. Vizquel, at 44, occassionally sets accomplishments for his age, and with 2,835 hits would probably need to play until he’s 47 to have a shot at 3,000. Giambi hit three home runs for the first time in his career back in May and was mentioned in trade rumors leading up to last month’s deadline, but is currently on the DL with a left quad strain. And Thome, of course, is two home runs away from 600 — a feat that hasn’t been celebrated as much as it perhaps should be.

Counsell, though, has more World Series rings than those other four combined. Stairs came to the Phillies for the final 16 games of the 2008 season and helped them win it all, but the other three are 0-for-3 in the Fall Classic. Thome and Vizquel were teammates on the 1997 Indians squad that lost when Counsell came home on Edgar Renteria‘s hit in the 11th inning of Game 7 in Miami and Giambi played for the 2003 Yankees team that fell to the Marlins.

Counsell’s journey actually includes several overlapping routes, from South Bend to Wisconsin and back, from Phoenix to Milwaukee and back, and then back to the Cream City once again.

“I was actually born in South Bend,” said Counsell, who played for Whitefish Bay High School in Wisconsin. “My dad coached there for a little while [1969-72] and used to play there, and I always kind of wanted to go to school there. I was just happy to get in. Playing baseball, Pat Murphy had just gotten there. He had been there one year. From what I understood, they’d come pretty close to dropping baseball the year before. We were kind of like starting over.”

When Counsell arrived on campus in the fall of 1989, the Irish were coming off their first winning season since ’82. Murphy guided them to a 39-22 record in his first year and quickly built a solid program. In Counsell’s four years, beginning in 1989, Notre Dame went 48-19-1, 46-12, 45-16 and 48-15, reaching the NCAA Tournament in ’89 and ’92 — the first time the Irish had played in the tournament since 1970.

Craig not only followed his father, John (’64), to South Bend, but they are the only father-son pair to captain the baseball team. For his career, Craig batted. 306 with 18 home runs and 166 RBIs as a four-year starter, earning second-team all-MCC honors in ’90 and ’91 and first team in ’92, when he was the Irish team MVP. The Rockies drafted him in the 11th round and he began his career in Bend, Ore., in the Northwest League.

“You’re drafted, excited to have a chance to play professional baseball,” Counsell said of starting his pro career. “You’re not really exactly sure what to expect. It took me four, five years, I had a bunch of injuries, but I finally kind of made it and stuck. It took a while, but I made it.”

He progressed each year through the Rockies’ system, jumping from short-season Bend in ’92 to Advanced Class A Central Valley in the California League in ’93 to Double-A New Haven in the Eastern League in ’94. In 1995, he reached Triple-A Colorado Springs and, that September, made his Major League debut, playing three games and going 0-for-1 with a walk. In spring training 1996, Counsell was under consideration for the Rockies’ starting second base job (because regular starter Eric Young opened the season on the DL with a broken hand) and utility infielder role, but he spent the year at Colorado Springs — playing just 25 games because of injuries.

In late June 1997, Counsell was hitting .332 with 45 RBIs in 60 games at Triple-A on a strong Colorado Springs club; he would finish with a .335 batting average, .409 on-base percentage, .489 slugging percentage, 77 runs, 31 doubles, six triples, five homers, 63 RBIs and 12 stolen bases in 96 games. Called up to the Rockies, he appeared as a pinch-runner against the Cubs on July 26. The next day, the Marlins acquired him for Australian right-hander Mark Hutton. Two days after the trade, Counsell started at second base, batting eighth, at Pro Player Stadium against the Reds. In his first at-bat, leading off the second inning against right-hander Mike Morgan, he lined a single to right field for his first Major League hit. Since then — with the exception of 50 games at Triple-A Tuscon in 2000 and some rehab appearances in subsequent summers — Counsell has been a Major Leaguer.

In 51 games (47 of them starts at second base) for Florida over the final two months of the ’97 season, Counsell batted .299/.376/.396 with 20 runs, nine doubles, two triples and 16 RBIs. He struck out 17 times but walked 18. His lone home run — the first of his career — was a grand slam off Todd Stottlemyre of the Cardinals on Aug. 24 in a 7-1 Marlins victory.

But it was that October that Counsell really established himself. In seven plate appearances in Florida’s three-game sweep of San Francisco in the NLDS, he had two hits (one a double), a walk, a sac bunt and an RBI. Then in the Marlins’ 4-2 NLCS victory over the Braves, Counsell started four games at second base, batting .429 (6-for-14) with two RBIs, three walks (all intentional, to get to the pitcher) and three strikeouts. He assisted on the final out of the series when Kevin Brown induced a ground ball from Chipper Jones to second base. Counsell scooped it up and tossed it to Renteria, the shortstop, to clinch the pennant.

Counsell started every game of the seven-game World Series against the Indians, batting .182/.345/.227, going 4-for-22 with a double, four runs, two RBIs and a stolen base and drawing six walks — none intentional — against five strikeouts. He went 1-for-3 with a double and a run in Game 1, 2-for-5 with two runs and an RBI in Game 3 and 1-for-4 in Game 6. Though he was 0-for-3 in Game 7, he made perhaps his biggest contributions to the club that season late in the game.

In the bottom of the ninth with the Indians leading, 2-1, Jose Mesa came on to close out the game and the Tribe’s first World Series championship since 1948. Moises Alou led off with a single, but then Mesa got Bobby Bonilla swinging. Charles Johnson followed with a single to right field that sent Alou to third. Up stepped Counsell, batting eighth in the order. Mesa just needed to retire Counsell and pinch-hitter Jim Eisenreich, who was on deck; that, or a double play from Counsell would do. On Mesa’s third pitch, with the count even at 1-1, Counsell swung and drove a line drive deep down the right-field line. Manny Ramirez glided over to make the catch and Alou broke for home to score the tying run. Mesa then retired Eisenreich on a ground ball to second to end the inning and send Game 7 of the World Series to extra innings.

That fall, Counsell returned to Notre Dame during the final football weekend, Nov. 22, 1997, against West Virginia. He met with the baseball team in the clubhouse of Eck Stadium and I was sent to cover it for the South Bend Tribune, for which I was interning that semester. I dug up that article — on a 3 1/2-inch floppy disk — which included this unused comment at the top:

“I didn’t think about it too much,” Counsell said of his ninth-inning at-bat. “You just think to get the job done. You know it’s the seventh game of the World Series, but you don’t htink about that. It was a long fly ball, [a home run] would have been a little too much to ask for.”

The game, of course, wasn’t over. Florida closer Robb Nen, who had come on to get the final two outs in the top of the ninth, pitched the 10th, allowing a one-out single to Tony Fernandez but otherwise struck out the side. In the bottom of the 10th, with Mesa still pitching, Renteria and Gary Sheffield hit one-out singles, but Mesa struck out John Cangelosi and Charles Nagy came out of the bullpen to get Alou to fly out to right.

Jay Powell came on to pitch the top of the 11th and walked Matt Williams to open the frame. Sandy Alomar tried to bunt him over, but Powell pounced on it and threw to second to force out Williams. Thome then grounded into a 4-6-3 double play. On to the bottom of the 11th.

Nagy, who had started and lost Game 3, returned to the mound. (I love elimination games in the postseason, when everyone but the previous night’s starter is available to pitch.) Bonilla fell into an 0-2 hole but then singled up the middle. Gregg Zaun tried to lay down a sacrifice bunt, but popped an 0-2 pitch up to Nagy. Counsell then reached on an error by the second baseman, Fernandez, sending Bonilla to third. Eisenreich was intentionally walked to set up a forceout all around, and the plan worked when Devon White grounded to second and Bonilla was forced out at home. Counsell advanced to third base.

Up stepped Renteria, who was 2-for-4 with a walk and had entered the game batting .213/.304/.246 in the Series. He took the first pitch for a strike, but the second was sent back through the box and into center field, driving in Counsell with the winning run.

Counsell's moment
Counsell’s cleats on display at the Hall of Fame
“It was pure joy,” Counsell told me in 1997. “That’s the best way I can describe it. I’ve been telling people my life is all downhill from here. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel anything like that again. It’s unbelievable.”

I asked him what he planned to say to the Irish players he was about to address.

“I’m going to tell them there’s no magic formula,” he said. “I’m going to tell them my story, that it’s not out of the realm of possibility for them. I was in these shoes five years ago, so it can certainly happen to one of them.”

One of the players on that Irish team — and I can’t say for sure if he was in the room that morning until I talk to him — was a junior pitcher who would be drafted in the first round by the Astros the next June: Brad Lidge, who would have his own World Series-clinching moment 11 years later.

Counsell’s career, of course, didn’t go downhill from there.* He returned to the Marlins in ’98 and ’99, when the Dodgers acquired him in June for a minor-league left-hander who topped out at Double-A, Ryan Moskau. Counsell finished the season in Los Angeles but was released during spring training the following year. Five days later, he signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks, where the Notre Dame connection played a role. Arizona GM Joe Garagiola Jr. had been coached by Counsell’s father on the Notre Dame freshman team. (See the story from the July 3, 2000, issue of The Sporting News at left.)

*The fortunes of the Marlins did, however, when owner Wayne Huizenga put the team up for sale and slashed payroll, trading away most of the stars. “It’s unfortunate,” Counsell said then. “I think if everybody had the choice, we’d bring back the same team to go for it again. But we still have a solid core, and a lot of good young players. If we don’t do it again next year, we will soon in the future.” They did, of course, in 2003, though despite just the six-year gap, the only player on both teams was “Original Marlin” Jeff Conine, who had been traded away in December 1997 then reacquired for the ’03 pennant drive.

In 2000, Counsell played 67 games for Arizona at second, third and short, starting 33 of them. In ’01, he earned a utility spot on the roster and started 113 of the 141 games in which he appeared. Over the course of the season, Counsell’s stock rose. In May he was praised by manager Bob Brenly for his play while filling in at shortstop for Tony Womack, who missed a week following the death of his father. By late June, Counsell had taken over the leadoff spot from Womack and was starting at second base over Jay Bell because of his range (Bell was moved to third with Matt Williams sidelined). In late July, when Williams returned and speedy young second baseman Junior Spivey was in the mix, Counsell was still getting regular playing time as Brenly chose his matchups based on stats and history against the opposing starter, using the glut of infielders to give Williams, Bell and Womack a day off each week. At the end of August, the Diamondbacks notes in The Sporting News led with an item on Counsell supplanting Womack as the regular shortstop because of his consistency at bat and steadiness in the field.

In the postseason, Counsell’s contributions were highlighted. In a Ken Rosenthal feature in the Oct. 29 edition of The Sporting News, Brenly called Counsell “the smartest player I’ve ever had the fortune to be around.” Jim Leyland, the manager of the ’97 Marlins, described him as “kind of a manager’s dream, not a scout’s dream.” Those qualities would be on display again in the World Series.

Counsell batted just .188/.278/.375 in the five-game NLDS against the Cardinals, then came alive in the NLCS against the Braves, the team the Marlins beat in the ’97 NLCS. He had two hits and scored twice in a Game 1 win, then after a Game 2 loss he put up back-to-back three-hit games in Atlanta in two Arizona victories. In Game 5, Counsell’s squad was once again victorious on the Turner Field soil, eliminating the Braves and Tom Glavine (who also lost Game 6 in ’97) with a 3-2 victory. Counsell was named NLCS MVP after batting .297/.333/.459 with three doubles, five runs and four RBIs in the five games.

In the World Series against the Yankees, he had just two hits. The first was a home run off Mike Mussina in the first inning of Game 1, a 9-1 Arizona victory. The second was a third-inning single in Game 7 off of Roger Clemens. But Counsell’s bigger contribution came in the ninth, an inning all too familiar to Yankees fans — and joyously recalled by fans of the D-backs, who are celebrating the 10th anniversary of that title this year and making a surprising run at the postseason to boot. With the Yankees leading, 2-1, Mark Grace led off with a single to center off Mariano Rivera. Damian Miller laid down a bunt to sacrifice pinch-runner David Dellucci to second, but Rivera’s throw to second sailed into the outfield. Bell then tried another sacrifice, but Rivera’s throw to third was true, forcing out Dellucci. Womack then doubled down the right-field line to score Midre Cummings (pinch-running for Miller) and send Bell to third. Counsell was up next with one out and runners on second and third; Rivera hit him with an 0-1 pitch, loading the bases for Luis Gonzalez. And then, well …

When I asked Counsell, standing in the visitors clubhouse at Yankee Stadium in June, if any one moment stands out in his career, it was that championship that he recalled.

“I think the 2001 season, for sure,” he said. “We were playing the World Series in New York six or eight weeks after 9/11. Actually, I haven’t been here [the Bronx] for 10 years. Clubhouse guys here were saying, ‘Hey, I haven’t seen you in 10 years.’ We spent a week in New York, lost three games basically in our last at-bat. Three incredible baseball games, with everything that was going on in the city. I’d say that week, even though we lost the baseball games, but it was pretty memorable that we came here for that. And then we came back to win it.”

The Diamondbacks won the NL West again in 2002, but were swept in the NLDS by the Cardinals. They finished third (84-78) in ’03, and after the season, Counsell was traded (along with Chris Capuano and Lyle Overbay, among others) to the Brewers in a nine-player blockbuster that sent Richie Sexson to Arizona. Counsell came home to Wisconsin — for one season. In December 2004, he re-signed with Arizona and stayed for two more seasons.

A free agent again in the 2006-07 offseason, Counsell then made the decision to head home, signing a two-year deal with the Brewers. In ’08, and each winter since, he’s re-upped with his hometown club.

2010 Topps Craig Counsell “I wanted to come back to Milwaukee because … the franchise had struggled for quite a while and it was 2007 when I came back here,” he said. “It was just kind of the right time. The young players were coming and I wanted to be part of the teams that kind of turned around baseball in Milwaukee again and made it important. It’s a baseball town. We’re going to draw 3 million people this year, and that’s saying something. I think that was the reason why I really wanted to play here — I wanted to be part of those teams that made baseball important in Milwaukee.”

So far, so good. That 2007 team ended what had been a run of 14 non-winning seasons in Milwaukee, then the ’08 club was the first to reach the playoffs since the 1982 AL championship squad. The Brewers slipped to third — and under .500 — in ’09 and ’10, but as of this posting, they are 17 games over .500 and five games up on the second-place Cardinals in the NL Central. Perhaps at least one more postseason is in store for Counsell, who will turn 41 on Aug. 21, a week from Sunday, when the Brewers will be in New York finishing a three-game series against the Mets. Back in June, he understandably wasn’t yet ready to predict what may come following this year.

“We’re a little too soon [to think about the next step],” he said. “We have a good team. Obviously, when you’re 40 years old, it’s not going to last forever. One of these years will be the last year. I’ll stay in the game for sure, I don’t know — I couldn’t tell you exactly what, but it will be in baseball for sure.”

After spending half his life playing at a high level — four years at Notre Dame followed by 20 in the professional ranks — Counsell won’t be able to walk away from the game so easily, even after an 0-for-45 slide.

“Everybody looks back on their life and maybe thinks there are some things they could do differently,” he said. “But it goes how it goes. Two World Series is — there’s not many people out there who have done that. Still playing in the big leagues at age 40 … I’d be kind of nitpicking if I was looking to change things.”

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