Celebrate Counsell's 50th with 5 moments

August 21st, 2020

Craig Counsell turned 50 somewhere in the air between Minneapolis and Pittsburgh on Friday, heading into the final leg of the Brewers’ longest road trip of this unprecedented season.

They celebrated the skipper’s birthday with in-flight cupcakes, a gesture of which Counsell learned when he was stirred from a slumber by a cockpit announcement.

“It was actually how I knew I was 50, because I was really tired and felt old and half asleep by midnight,” Counsell said. “I wasn’t really sure what was going on because I was half-asleep, but I celebrated with a cupcake, yeah.”

The day was filled with well-wishes from friends and family, and a 25-minute video aired during batting practice at PNC Park with messages from all over the baseball world. It was compiled as a team effort by equipment manager Jason Shawger, director of team travel Dan Larrea and senior director of media relations Mike Vassallo.

Among the many participants were MLB Commissioner Emeritus Bud Selig; Hall of Famers Robin Yount and Trevor Hoffman; Pete Rose; Counsell’s former Marlins manager Jim Leyland; former D-backs teammate Luis Gonzalez; A’s manager Bob Melvin (a former D-backs coach who is Counsell’s mentor); former Brewers teammates Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy, Mike Cameron and Mark Kotsay; Milwaukee Bucks players; University of Wisconsin football coach Paul Chryst and Marquette University basketball coach Steve Wojciechowski; Brewers executives Doug Melvin and Rick Schlesinger; and owner Mark Attanasio and family. Even Geddy Lee, the lead singer of Rush, recorded a message.

Current Brewers players Ryan Braun and Christian Yelich took part, with Yelich continuing his running feud with Braun by way of congratulating Counsell on his many accomplishments.

“None bigger,” Yelich said, “than actually being younger than one of your current players. That’s a little-known fact, but it shouldn’t be overlooked.”

Braun actually is 36, Counsell’s age when he signed for a second stint with his hometown team in 2007. In all he’s been with the Brewers for 15 years, and that’s not counting all the time he spent with his dad at County Stadium when John Counsell worked in the front office during the late 1970s and early '80s.

Here are five of Counsell’s best moments with the Brewers, one for each of his first five decades:

1) 1982 ALCS Game 5
Counsell was born in South Bend, Ind., but grew up in the Milwaukee suburb of Whitefish Bay and was there for many of the Brewers’ best County Stadium moments. If he has to pick a favorite, it was Game 5 of the 1982 American League Championship Series, the day Cecil Cooper got a big hit and sent the Brewers to the World Series.

“The thing I remember the most is my routine during the games,” said Counsell, who was 12 at the time. “I would walk County Stadium and in right field there was a back-and-forth ramp. And I would stand on one of those ramps in like the sixth or seventh inning -- that was my lucky spot -- to try to get some runs. And I think that's when Cooper got the hit.

“I thought I was very lucky at that time. That was the spot. I'd found the spot. Didn't work in the World Series, but I found the spot in the ALCS. That's probably my fondest memory of that time. It's October baseball and you kind of unite a community around something that everybody is enjoying and talking about.”

2) The 2008 clincher
“I wanted to make the playoffs so bad,” Counsell said, thinking back to 2008 when a 26-year postseason absence hung over the Brewers. “I thought it was so important for the franchise. I wanted to be on the team that made it back. That was really important to me. That last week of the ‘08 season was incredible.”

With Ned Yost out and Dale Sveum in as interim manager, CC Sabathia carrying the team with a series of starts on short rest, and Braun and Fielder trading dramatic home runs in the final homestand, the Brewers did just enough to win the NL Wild Card for Milwaukee’s first playoff berth since 1982. In the final game of the regular season, with Sabathia and the Brewers in a 1-0 deficit against the Cubs at Miller Park, Counsell worked a two-out walk with the bases loaded to force home the tying run. When Braun homered an inning later and Sabathia completed the win in the ninth, the Brewers waited to see the Marlins beat the Mets on the scoreboard.

With that, the Brewers were in.

“Counsell was the guy who didn’t say a lot, but every time he talked, everybody listened,” said Hardy. “It doesn’t surprise me one bit that he’s a manager.”

3) Hoffman’s 600th save
Counsell was at shortstop on Sept. 7, 2010, and converted the groundout that made Hoffman the first man in history to reach 600 career saves.

But it was the postgame celebration that Counsell most cherishes. Hoffman had been inching toward that milestone for months after losing the closer’s job to a young John Axford, but instead of sulking, he worked with Axford to help him become one of the league’s best the following year, when the Brewers won the NL Central and reached the NL Championship Series.

Counsell still thinks of Hoffman every time he mows the lawn. During Hoffman’s tenure, he won a Brewers-logoed riding mower at a charity auction hosted by longtime Brewers catcher Marcus Hanel. Instead of shipping it home to California, Hoffman decided “Mr. Milwaukee” -- Counsell -- should have it. Sometime thereafter, Counsell took a photo of himself in the saddle, in full uniform complete with a batting helmet, to prove to Hoffman that he made good use of the gift.

Once a year to this day, Counsell sends Hoffman that photo and they share a laugh.

“Nobody better,” Hoffman said. “I guarantee you, he still uses it today.”

4) Opening win
When Counsell took over as manager on May 5, 2015, the Brewers were at a low point. They’d spent 150 days in first place in the NL Central under Ron Roenicke in '14, only to collapse at the end and miss the postseason entirely. When the team got off to a 7-18 start in ’15, it was time for a change. Enter Counsell, who’d spent the past three-plus years as a special assistant to Melvin, learning everything he could about the aspects of the game he never got to witness while in uniform.

Counsell’s first game as skipper was against the Dodgers and Clayton Kershaw, who held Milwaukee to one run on three hits while cruising through the first seven innings on 76 pitches. But the Brewers scored three runs in the eighth off Kershaw and reliever Chris Hatcher, including a home run from unlikely hero Hector Gomez. Counsell, who had been formally named to the post less than 12 hours earlier, got the game ball.

“I was nervous [the night before],” Counsell said. “But when you get here, you're at the ballpark and you feel like you're where you're supposed to be."

The scorecard from that game and a bottle of champagne from the postgame celebration are on display in Counsell’s office today. Counsell is now the longest-tenured manager in the NL.

5) Game 163
Counsell has proven a master at managing with an expanded roster, leading the Brewers to identical 20-7 records from Sept. 1 through the end of the regular season in both 2018 and ’19. He became the first man ever to manage the Brewers in multiple postseasons.

In 2018, the Brewers had to go to overtime to clinch the NL Central. In the first Game 163 in franchise history, with electric right-hander Jeremy Jeffress unavailable because he’d been experiencing symptoms that often precede a seizure, Counsell managed a 3-1 win that included three more hits from Yelich to clinch the first league battle title in Brewers history, RBI singles from Lorenzo Cain and Braun in a tiebreaking eighth inning, and two scoreless innings from Josh Hader to slam the door.

The Brewers then swept the Rockies in the NL Division Series and played all the way to an NLCS Game 7 against the Dodgers, falling one game shy of the World Series.

In 2019, the Brewers made it to the NL Wild Card Game but fell to the Nationals. In this strange '20, they are trying to make it three straight trips to the postseason for the first time in team history.

“Congratulations on your first 50 years on the planet,” Braun said in his birthday message. “Here’s to the next 50 being just as exciting.”