Williams, Counsell share fond memories of D-backs squad
The two former teammates face off as managers
MILWAUKEE -- Fourteen years ago, Matt Williams and Craig Counsell were teammates on an Arizona Diamondbacks team that won the World Series.
This weekend they are managing against each other, as Williams' Nationals take on Counsell's Brewers in a four-game series at Miller Park. Williams established his managerial credentials in 2014, winning the National League Manager of the Year award in his first season as a big league manager. Counsell is just 38 games into his managerial career.
But both of these managers maintain vivid, and positive, memories of each other from their time with the D-backs. The 2001 Arizona club played some truly compelling baseball that was worth remembering for anybody who witnessed it. The D-backs defeated the Cardinals in a Division Series, then defeated the Braves in the NL Championship Series, a series in which Counsell was named Most Valuable Player. The D-backs defeated the defending champion Yankees in an absolutely thrilling seven-game World Series. Williams drove in seven runs in that World Series.
What Williams remembers about Counsell and what Counsell remembers about Williams is expressed differently, but comes down to essentially a common theme: Each man recalled the other man as a winner.
"Matt has a presence," Counsell said. "Matt's always had a presence. He could just look at you and you would straighten up, that kind of thing."
On the other side of the discussion, Williams says of Counsell:
"He was prepared in every way. He was a multiple-position guy who could play anywhere that [then-D-backs manager] Bob Brenly needed him to play. He was the MVP of a League Championship Series, a vital part of the team's success.
"He could do everything on a baseball field that you would want. He could hit a homer, he could lay down a perfect sacrifice bunt, he could hit-and-run, he could play anywhere in the infield, in the outfield, he'd put the [catching] gear on if you asked him to," Williams added with a smile. "He was just one of those guys on your team that just have the knack for anything.
"And he's always had that flair for the big moment. I saw that with Cleveland in 1997, when we played the Marlins in the World Series. He had it and he was a young player then. Then being a teammate of his, he's just a pro. He understands every aspect of the game.
"Not the biggest, not the strongest, but the guy you want at the plate with the game on the line."
Williams had a truly impressive playing career by the numbers alone. But in Counsell's recollection, his intangible contributions were also essential to the D-backs' success.
"Matt was a very intense player," Counsell said. "I thought the Diamondbacks changed when he retired [after the 2003 season]. I thought our team really changed when he retired. Our team lost an edge."
Williams' managerial worth requires no defense. He is still a presence, he is still intense, his preparation is thorough, his attention to detail is precise, and the Nationals had the best regular-season record in the National League in 2014.
Counsell is new to the job, and the Brewers had the Majors' worst record (7-18) when he was named manager. The club is 17-21 under Counsell. After winning the first two games of the series, the Brewers lost, 7-2, to the Nationals Saturday.
Clearly, this would still be an uphill situation for any manager. But Williams is not at all hesitant in his estimation of what kind of job Counsell will do.
"Craig's going to be a fantastic manager," Williams said. "He's been in every situation. He's been the bench guy. He's been the guy who has to step in and take over where somebody's hurt. He's been the MVP of a League Championship Series. He's hit a home run in the World Series. He's scored the winning run in the World Series [in 1997]. So he's done it all. He's seen every aspect of every part of the game. And he understands how to work.
"He works his fanny off. He appreciates the opportunity that's in front of him. He'll do really well."
What you have here are two baseball men, on opposing teams, but united by championship memories and in the fact that they are well-suited to manage Major League Baseball teams.