Counsell A Brewer But There Is Room for Rockies in His Heart

Craig Counsell was a part of the original Rockies organization, an 11th-round selection in that first Rockies draft, in June of 1992, and a part of that Bend Rockies Short-Season Class affiliate that played the first game in the history of the organization.

But to be honest, Counsell bleeds Brewers Blue. And it’s not just because he is the manager of the Brewers, who pulled out a 3-2 victory against the Rockies in Game 1 of the NL Division Series on Thursday night.

Counsell grew up hanging around County Stadium. His father, John, was the director of the Brewers Speakers Bureau and Community Relations when Counsell was growing up.

That, however, does not mean he lacks ties to the Rockies.

Over the years, he has spent a lot more time in the visiting clubhouse at Coors Field than the home clubhouse, but the ballpark will always have a special memory. His time in the big leagues with the Rockies was limited, but in September of 1995, the first year of Coors Field, he made his big-league debut. He appeared in three games that year, and then, in July of 1997, he was back with the Rockies for one day, serving as a pinch-runner on July 27.

The next day he was dealt to the Marlins and embarked on a career that saw him play a key role in two World Series championships before eventually retiring at the age of 40 at the end of the 2011 season to initially become a special assistant with the Brewers. And on May 4, 2015, he became the manager of the franchise, earning NL Manager of the Year honors last year.

It all started with the Rockies who selected him out of Notre Dame in the 11th round in June of 1992. He was the starting shortstop for the 1992 Bend Rockies, hitting second, in the first game played by an affiliate of the Rockies organization.

And in the eighth inning of that game, with Bend trailing 4-1 and one out, it was Counsell who reached base, three batters ahead of Will Scalzitti hitting a grand slam that landed on the root of the Albertson's behind the left field fence. The Rockies added another run for a 6-4 win which was televised back to Denver, and had a media overflow seated in the stands of the 3,000-seat Bend ballpark.

The team won the Northwest League South Division that year before losing back-to-back games to Bellingham in the NWL Championship Series.

“If you were part of the Bend group, you got a lot of attention,” Counsell recalled. “We were the first players to put on the (Rockies) uniform, which is the complete opposite of what happens normally when you go to (a short-season minor league). “

Attention like that first game ever?

“It was a huge deal,” he said. “It really made you feel a part of the organization, proud to be a Rockie. You were part of that first group and it ended up a lot of players from the draft played in the big leagues.“

Ten players played in the big leagues, including Counsell, who played more games in the big leagues (1,624) than any of the others.

The Class of `92: Big-League Graduates

Rnd OvPck Name Pos G AB HR BA G W L ERA SV Drafted Out of
1 27 John Burke RHP 28 21 0 0.19 28 4 6 6.75 0 University of Florida
2 65 Mark Thompson RHP 93 104 1 0.154 94 18 24 5.74 0 University of Kentucky
3 95 Roger Bailey RHP 92 97 1 0.206 92 18 19 4.9 1 Florida State University
7 207 Jason Bates SS 319 677 12 0.239 University of Arizona
10 291 Garvin Alston RHP 6 1 0 0 6 1 0 9 0 Florida International University
11 319 Craig Counsell SS 1624 4741 42 0.255 University of Notre Dame
14 403 Juan Acevedo RHP 258 65 0 0.092 367 28 40 4.33 53 Parkland College
17 487 Angel Echevarria OF 328 543 21 0.28 Rutgers
25 711 Quinton McCracken 2B 999 2462 21 0.274 Duke University
28 795 Mark Strittmatter C 4 4 0 0 VCU

“If a team gets 10 players from a draft, it is thrilled,” he said. “Maybe, the fact we were made to feel so much a part of the organization from the beginning, our path was a little easier. It did make you feel you established some loyalty right away because of how big a deal it was.”

Of the 10 players, Counsell may have had the longest career, but he played fewer games with the Rockies than any of the other nine. He appeared in just four games, including that pinch-running appearance the day before he was dealt to the Marlins.

Counsell Big-League Tenure

16 Yrs 1624 5488 4741 647 1208 218 40 42 390 103 49 589 663 0.255
ARI 6 yrs 664 2639 2299 343 611 106 16 24 193 68 35 276 294 0.266
MIL 6 yrs 711 2063 1768 217 426 77 17 13 130 30 13 229 281 0.241
FLA 3 yrs 195 662 565 67 143 29 7 5 58 4 1 74 74 0.253
COL 2 yrs 4 2 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0
LAD 1 yr 50 122 108 20 28 6 0 0 9 1 0 9 14 0.259

The irony is original general manager Bob Gebhard explained trading Counsell for right-handed reliever Mark Hutton with the claim Counsell had always been a shortstop and wouldn’t play second base.

The Marlins must not have known that. They immediately inserted him at second base in the final days of July 1997, and he was a key factor in the Rockies expansion cousins from Florida winning a world championship that year.

He scored the game-winning run against Cleveland in the 11th inning of Game 7 on Edgar Renteria’s single. History also notes that with the Diamondbacks in 2008 it was Counsell, who was hit by a pitch from Yankee closer Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning to load the bases ahead of Luis Gonzalez’s walk-off single, making Counsell the only player on base for the last two World Series ending walk-off games.

He wound up a full-fledged utility infielder in the big leagues, and played more games at second base (574 games, 468 starts) than shortstop (478 games, 393 starts) or third base (385 games, 275 starts).

But it all started with the Rockies, and Counsell ahsn’t forgotten.

“I think seeing something at the start was always a little interesting,” said Counsell. “There are still people there, the trainer (Keith Dugger, now in the big leagues with the Rockies) I had for five years in the minor leagues who took care of too many injuries. …. The man who turned the scouting report in on me, Paul Egins (now the Rockies traveling secretary) is an original.

“I think seeing somethign at the start is always interesting. They create an energy with the fans right away with the great ballpark and a group of sluggers that made their team recognizable in the community. It’s an organization I keep tabs on because I was a part of it for a long time.”

He smiled at mention of the first spring training in Tucson in 1993. The franchise did not have a deep supply of players.

“On the minor league side there around 60 players at spring training, is all,” said Counsell. “There was a Triple-A team, but no Double-A team.”

 Counsell and others from that 1992 draft were brought over to the big-league camp to fill out exhibition game rosters.

That meant they got big-league meal money for a day.

It also meant memories.

“I played in a game against the Brewers, and I got to play against Robin Yount,” said Counsell, thinking back to his youth, and hanging out at County Stadium watching the emergence of Yount from prospect to MVP. “It was at the old (Brewers) complex)in Chandler.”

It was a road trip.

“Yeah, and the other thing I remember is there was beer on the bus after the game,” he said. “I mean, cold beer on the bus. Like, that was the big leagues. When else was I going to play against Robin Yount and have cold beer on the bus after the game?”

It was one of the perks of being a part of the start of an expansion franchise that Counsell will never forget.