Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
How baseball drives Brewers manager
In high school, Craig Counsell would walk from his home on N. Berkeley Blvd. in Whitefish Bay to Bayshore Mall, where he would catch a Milwaukee County bus and ride west to Brookfield. This tedious commute, before smartphones and text messages, was well worth it, and not for his first minimum-wage salary at Mike Hegan’s batting cages, where he worked as an attendant. The payoff was in the late hour of the day when the last of the dreamers straggled out of the building.
“I would get to hit after it closed,” Counsell said. “I loved it.”
To appreciate Counsell’s passion and purpose for most of his life is to understand that they have been greatly defined and dictated by the game of baseball. At Whitefish Bay High School. Notre Dame. In 16 years in the majors. Three years in the Milwaukee Brewers’ front office.
So to ask the 44-year-old Counsell what he would be doing without baseball is like asking how he might breathe without lungs.
“Take away my life — and what would be my life?” muses Counsell. “It’s really an unfair question, when, ever since you can remember, it has been your life.”
And so the first steps toward this job Counsell now holds as manager of the Brewers, a responsibility he wanted — not despite the challenges but actually because of them — began with bus rides to Brookfield. And a
Story starts at home
Counsell’s family moved to Whitefish Bay from South Bend, Ind., after his father, John, became director of the speakers bureau for the Brewers in 1979. The family lived in a two-story house on a postage stamp lot, with welcoming sidewalks, towering trees and tight streets. Counsell’s mom, Jan, was a teacher. His dad worked for the Brewers from 1979-’87.
In this secure world, Counsell could build upon all parts of his game to make himself the complete player. His earliest and fondest memories are of his father bringing him to work and having the simple communion of sharing the same building with Robin Yount and the Bud Selig family. John Counsell did many things. He arranged for player appearances and handled the team magazine. Craig Counsell was behind the scenes enough to appreciate the day-to-day life.
He took his passion to the schoolyard, where Richards School was so close to his house that he could hear his mom’s call from the screen door at dinnertime. A strikezone box was spray painted on the wall, and he would play a friend, one-on-one, pitcher vs. hitter. Everything was settled right there, usually with that sword-wielding, log-splitting batting stance of Counsell’s getting the last word.
“You played all day,” Counsell said. No video games. No parents with snack schedules. Just the breeze off Lake Michigan to rustle the leaves.
He graduated from Whitefish Bay High School in 1988 and baseball took him away to Notre Dame, but he already had left an impression on his hometown of what he was becoming.
“I distinctly remember in the 1990s, he was in the minors, and the MLB strike (happened),” said Mike Bortolotti, a Whitefish Bay lifer who is three years younger than Counsell and played with him in their youth. “We were playing catch and I asked him, ‘Would you cross the line?’ And he was like, ‘Absolutely not.’ Even as a minor-leaguer, he was a dedicated, team guy.
“Everyone kind of followed him and was rooting for Craig because he always did it the right way. He’s prepared for every opportunity. That’s why he’s always successful.”
Always. He played for Notre Dame, he had a successful 1,624-game major-league career and he played until a little after his 41st birthday. He usually gets credited for being a scrappy, smart player, but now, with perspective, who can deny he had real talent?
Maybe if he had more of an outward ego, we’d hear that. But we never will. Not from Craig Counsell.
Whitefish Bay 2015
Not much has changed in Whitefish Bay since those days. Winkie’s and Sendiks are still there. The high school baseball diamond, with Counsell’s name on the left-field fence, is a thing of beauty, and so is Craig Counsell Park, home for the village’s Little League.
People walk there, grab a burger and a hot dog from the grill and take in a ball game.
“It’s a magical little place right there,” said Dave Markson, a resident of 30 years. His son, Charlie, also played here.
“Whitefish Bay has had their numbers just explode in Little League and kids that are joining travel teams. It’s healthy through three varsity levels. That’s because a lot of kids said, ‘Craig Counsell plays for the Brewers and he lives in Whitefish Bay.’ It’s been a sort of an unintended consequence of having a Brewer living in the community.”
That kind of following isn’t just in the Bay. It has spread to diamonds throughout Wisconsin.
Dean Rennicke succeeded John Counsell as the Brewers’ public relations director in the late 1980s, but he is now the general manager of the Lakeshore Chinooks, a collegiate summer league team. He’s also father to Ben Rennicke, who plays baseball at Concordia University in Mequon.
“When Ben was growing up, we would talk about Craig Counsell and Robin Yount,” Dean Rennicke said. “Everything Craig did, to last as long as he did, was with maximum effort. Craig Counsell was always a hardworking guy. He’s the type of guy you emulate if you’re a young ballplayer.”
When Counsell came home in 2004 to play for the Brewers, and then again for good in 2007, he and his wife, Michelle, did live in Mequon for a time but eventually returned to Whitefish Bay, where they wanted to raise their four kids. Michelle was born and raised there.
“So many of us, after school, have come back,” Bortolotti said. “Growing up in Whitefish Bay was awesome. You ride your bike everywhere. There are a lot of other great communities, but a lot of times those are intersected by businesses and major roads, and you have to drive. In Whitefish Bay, you don’t have to drive anywhere.
“We have a block party every year that is frequented by people who don’t live on our block. In a community that has one middle school, one high school, two grade schools that are public — there’s a ton of overlap. You kind of just know everyone.
“They take pride in their community and their front lawns and their driveways. Everything they do, they take pride in it. It’s a really good place to raise a family.”
A couple of years ago, Counsell was at the Fourth of July parade in the village. It’s kind of a big deal in the Bay. But after a lifetime of playing baseball all summer, Counsell remarked to Bortolotti, “this is my first Fourth of July parade ever.”
The best part? He can just be a husband and father.
“Fame, it’s not as important to people here. I like that,” Counsell said. “It’s always made me more comfortable here. There were other cities that I lived in where I didn’t feel as comfortable.”
Family keeps him grounded
Part of that comfort is because of his home life, and that starts with his wife. Michelle and Craig briefly dated in high school, but she saw him get on that bus to the batting cages.
“He was crazy, that’s why we never dated too long in high school. I was like, ‘what’s wrong with you,’” she said, laughing.
But they always kept in touch. And when they got married, Michelle became a baseball wife, so it’s all she’s ever really known. He missed her birthday this year. She’s used to it. Same for the kids.
The five of them — Michelle, sons Brady and Jack and daughters Finley and Rowan — with their homework projects and field trips, their dentist appointments
and sports practices, keep Counsell grounded in a non-baseball world. Michelle keeps everything going, but Counsell is involved as much as his job allows.
“Any guy that is worth anything, nine times out of 10, has an unbelievable wife behind him and an unbelievable family,” Bortolotti said. “Craig has that.”
Craig and Michelle are both fit, which might explain why they’re so youthful looking. He does yoga; so does Michelle. She likes to run and bike around town; Counsell used to bike to Miller Park when he was still playing.
He does still have that Brewer-autographed, riding lawn mower he got from his mates after retirement, however.
“Of course I do,” he said. “It works. Why wouldn’t I? It’s a nice machine. I’ve got a big yard. The leaves are a pain to rake.” In the off-season he likes to grill a lot; steaks are his specialty. He helps with the cleaning; he does his own laundry.
But Counsell does not believe in pushing his kids into any sport. Signing them up for one camp and lesson after another won’t make them players. He tells them this all the time. It has to be their own passion.
And this is his passion, now that he’s managing these last-place Brewers with their myriad of shortcomings. People ask Michelle all the time, isn’t it stressful?
“He is more happy now than he has been the last three years,” Michelle said. “I think he missed being part of the game and being on the field.”
“He is more happy now than he has been the last three years. I think he missed being part of the game and being on the field.”
Michelle Counsell, wife of Brewers manager Craig Counsell
The job at hand
Counsell’s only thought before taking the job was his family. It’s a big year for Brady in Little League. Counsell coached Jack. He threw batting practice and the kids — all of them — miss him. He has to rely on an app on his phone now to try and follow their games.
“But it’s an opportunity you can’t pass up,” Michelle said. “You can’t turn it down.”
So after the epic collapse by this team in 2014, and the firing of Ron Roenicke in early May, Counsell took over.
Because he played for so long, the Counsells know how to handle the smooth and rough sides of the sandpaper that shapes their public life. If people interrupt their dinner out for an autograph or picture, Michelle will ask that they be allowed to finish their meal. Same if Craig is watching his kids playing their games.
“He is quiet and he is shy,” Michelle said. “I am not.”
If the Counsells happen to encounter another celebrity while they’re out, they have taught their kids to hold back and give that person their private time, too.
Michelle also has had to warn their children about the comments they may hear about the Brewers manager.
“I said to the kids, at some point, people might say bad things about your dad,” Michelle said. “You’ve just got to let it roll off your back.”
Hearing this, Brady looks up from his shoes and nods his head yes emphatically. He understands. It’s clear he respects his dad and that will overcome whatever is dumped on his young shoulders going forward.
But that’s about all that they can control. And they know it. How they’re received, the expectations placed upon them — that’s up to the fans. Bart Starr’s heroic stature took a huge hit after he coached the Green Bay Packers and didn’t live up to the standards of others. The Counsells know Milwaukee is hungry for a champion.
“My biggest fear is he’ll be run out of town if he doesn’t do well,” said Michelle, laughing — a little nervously. “And we’ll have to move. He’s had opportunities to go elsewhere and I keep saying I don’t want to move. That’s the part that I guess stresses me out, not him. He’s a good person. And he’s going to do his best.”
Of course, no one wants the Brewers to win more than Counsell.
“World Series’ are incredible and I see what they mean to people,” said Counsell, who was a part of two championship teams, with the Florida Marlins and Arizona Diamondbacks. “There’s no other place I’d rather see it happen than here. This is the next place that it should happen.
“It’s not an overnight job. I actually kind of like that. I like that it is a longer-term project that I can grow with, that I can play a major part in. It’s almost appealing, because of that.
“There’s going to be a lot of doubt along the way.”
And there it is. That flicker in the eyes, the competitor.
“You kind of feel like you’ve dealt with that your whole career,” Counsell said. “And you get to tackle that again, so it feels like the same kind of challenge.
“The journey is not going to always go straight up. I’m fully aware of that — and I enjoy that part. I enjoy the struggle a little bit. That’s the simple reason I’m doing this.”
Now Counsell is ready to go. It’s been 20 minutes of talking about his least favorite subject — himself — and he’s done.
Just one more question. Does he have to be a good guy? A nice guy? Because he’s from here?
“This job is going to bring you out; you can’t fake this,” Counsell said. “There’s too much emotion involved in this job, and you try to push it aside, and push it down, but when winning and losing happens every day, its emotional.
“So you’re yourself, and some days that will be good and some days . . . might be a little prickly.
“I will always understand my role, and my place, in the community and in this organization. But you’re going to get beat if you’re not yourself.”