Feb. 22, 2016
By John Heisler
The bright Arizona sun beams pleasantly warm these days on the Milwaukee Brewers’ baseball complex west of downtown Phoenix.
These qualify as days of fundamental preparation and heightened anticipation for players and coaches at Maryville Baseball Park, near the intersection of 51st Avenue and Indian School Road.
In a half-dozen weeks they’ll head north for the Brewers’ 2016 season and home opener April 4 against the San Francisco Giants.
That’s when the baseball begins in earnest for Milwaukee’s manager, Craig Counsell, and his first-year bench coach, Pat Murphy–both with meaningful connections to the University of Notre Dame.
Though they’ll officially be working side by side for the first time, the coming season represents yet another chapter in the “baseball conversation,” as Counsell calls it, between two men now assigned to help restore a proud sports tradition in Milwaukee.
On one hand, there’s Counsell, the baby-faced hometown kid (he grew up in nearby Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin) whose father John used to work in the Brewers’ front office. Craig qualifies as the anti-celebrity, with his low-key, yet intense, approach mirroring the way he played the game. He’s the 45-year-old baseball lifer now charged with making the Milwaukee baseball club harken back to the days of Counsell’s youthful Brewer idols, stars like Paul Molitor and Robin Yount.
On the other hand, there’s the 57-year-old Murphy, another baseball lifer of sorts who was Counsell’s coach at Notre Dame when the two of them patrolled old Jake Kline Field on the southeast edge of campus from 1989-92. Murphy qualified as the outspoken, hard-charging head coach who scrapped mightily to turn the Irish program into a consistent NCAA Championship qualifier. Murphy did it, in part, with a roster full of Craig Counsells–guys who weren’t necessarily five-star recruits but who loved to compete.
They went about their business in different ways–though Counsell suggests that Murphy logically has mellowed and that the two are more alike now than they might appear.
But, boy, do those two ever compete.
And that’s what gives Brewer fans hope that these two old friends can help rekindle a little magic in Milwaukee. They’ll do it by continuing that decades-old conversation, this time in the Miller Park dugout.
“I’m excited as heck about it,” says Murphy.
Here’s the backstory on nearly 30 years worth of the Counsell/Murphy relationship:
A month after Irish baseball coach Larry Gallo resigned in May 1987 to become an assistant athletics director at Wake Forest, Notre Dame issued a nine-paragraph press release announcing 28-year-old Murphy as its new coach. He came from two seasons as head man at Claremont-Mudd-Scripps College, a Division III school in Claremont, California. The newest Irish head coach went on to admit that he likely would have paid athletics director Gene Corrigan for the privilege of coming to South Bend–that’s how much he already loved Notre Dame.
“I heard the job was open, and the next morning I called Gene at 5:30 in the morning,” as Murphy later told the story. “I said, `I’m going to be your next baseball coach.’ He asked me, `Do I know you?’ and I said, `Not yet, but you’re going to.’ I told him I’d rather coach Notre Dame than the Los Angeles Dodgers, and he thought it was a joke.”
So Murphy (he once snuck into the Athletic and Convocation Center and hid overnight in a restroom so he could watch the 1974 Notre Dame-UCLA basketball game), with four scholarships in his pocket (one per year), set about trying to build an Irish program that hadn’t received an NCAA Championship invitation since 1970.
Not long after he began the job, Murphy received a phone call from Roger Valdiserri, Notre Dame’s longtime associate athletics director and sports information director. Valdiserri told Murphy he ought to make a trip to Milwaukee to check out a prospect named Craig Counsell. Valdiserri knew of him through his father John, the 1964 Irish baseball captain who helped Kline coach for a few years and then became director of the Brewers’ speaker’s bureau in 1979.
As Murphy remembers it, he headed to Milwaukee to check out both Counsell and Sal Bando Jr., the son of the former Oakland A’s and Milwaukee third baseman. As Counsell remembers it, college recruiters were not necessarily beating a path to his door.
“I wanted to go to Notre Dame, but mostly I just knew I was going to play baseball somewhere,” says Counsell now.
Murphy kids now that he out-recruited the University of Wisconsin for Counsell–a reference to the fact the Badgers dropped the sport after the 1991 season.
“He was my first recruit. We didn’t have much scholarship money, but I knew I wanted him,” says Murphy. “He was a kid who loved it, and you knew he wanted to be there. That was the beauty of the whole thing. You take over the program and there weren’t marching orders to build a dynasty–but with kids like Counsell and Cory Mee (now head coach at Toledo) I got really lucky with guys who really loved Notre Dame.”
So Counsell came to South Bend and became a four-year starter for the Irish beginning in Murphy’s second season. Listed at 6-0 and 177 by his senior year, Counsell never knocked anyone’s socks off with his physical prowess (though he did smash a dozen home runs in 1992 and nearly doubled his best previous RBI total with 63).
Counsell proved a jack of all trades, playing left field as a freshman, third base as a sophomore, then second base his final two years. He finished a career .306 hitter, still ranks in the top 10 in a batch of Irish season and career offensive and fielding categories–and drew more walks than any player in Notre Dame history.
The 1992 Notre Dame baseball media guide called Counsell “a quiet leader, maybe the most consistent overall player on the squad.” Said Murphy of his senior season captain (Craig and John are the only Notre Dame father-son combination to both captain Irish teams in the same sport), “I’ve never been associated with a player that has improved as much in four years. He’s going to be very valuable to some pro team–he’s invaluable to us.”
Counsell helped the Irish to the NCAA Championship as a freshman (Notre Dame lost twice to host Fresno State) and a senior (Notre Dame advanced to the regional title game before losing to the host Miami Hurricanes). Murphy’s teams barely missed the NCAA bracket when Counsell was a sophomore (46-12) and junior (45-16)–and Counsell’s freshman campaign marked, not coincidentally, the first of 10 straight 40-win seasons in South Bend.
“Lefty (Smith, former Irish hockey coach and later director of the Loftus Center) was ready to kick us out of Loftus and there was always one guy still there and it was Craig,” says Murphy.
“I’d hit him ground balls on old Jake Kline Field, and one time it took a bad hop and broke his nose. Two hours later he came back and said, `I’m ready, Coach, let’s do it again.’
“The kid made plays. Some major league manager was going to say, `I trust him.'”
His game way more about approach than statistics, Counsell ended up an 11th-round pick by the Colorado Rockies.
“You play baseball, you love it, you keep doing it and nobody ever tells you no,” summarizes Counsell. “I loved baseball–that’s it more than anything. Your energy goes where your passion is. Baseball was always the number-one thing for me. It trumped everything–school, social life, relationships. It was baseball. It never felt like a tough decision or a choice. It’s what my passion was.”
Counsell played briefly for Class A Bend in 1992, Advanced-A Central Valley in ’93, AA New Haven in ’94 and AAA Colorado Springs in ’95 and ’96.
Then came the magical 1997 season in which Counsell began by playing 96 games for Colorado Springs–and ended as a World Series hero. The Rockies traded him to the Florida Marlins at midseason, and Counsell hit .293 in the postseason–highlighted by game seven of the World Series against Cleveland when he hit the game-tying sacrifice fly in the ninth and then scored the winning run in the 11th on a walk-off Edgar Renteria two-out hit.
Murphy’s Irish teams went on to two more NCAA appearances after Counsell graduated, then he became head coach of the ultra-successful Arizona State program in 1995. He ended up staying 15 seasons in Tempe, taking a dozen teams to the NCAA Championship (four College World Series appearances), winning 585 games and a national coach-of-the-year plaque in 1998 (the Sun Devils were the CWS runner-up that year).
Meanwhile, Counsell was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers midway through the 1999 season, then signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks to begin the 2000 campaign, reuniting him with his former college coach.
“I had stayed with Murph for a few days of spring training when he first took the Arizona State job,” says Counsell. “Then when I was traded to the Diamondbacks we’re in the same town.”
“We’d get together a couple of times a week, and he came to a bunch of ASU games,” notes Murphy. “He’d come out and watch us practice and tell us what he thought. He brought his oldest son Brady to games when he was a baby. His pitching coach that year was (1990 Cy Young winner and three-time World Series champion) Bob Welch who was my best friend in the world. So we had a lot of things in common–we talked all the time.”
Counsell made more headlines–and won another World Series ring–in 2001. He hit eight for 21 to win the National League Championship Series MVP award. Late-game drama followed Counsell once again, as New York Yankee great Mariano Rivera hit him with a pitch in the bottom of the ninth of game seven, loading the bases. Luis Gonzalez followed with the Series-winning hit–and Counsell was a magazine cover boy one more time.
“It was a beautiful thing to watch his career go where it did,” says Murphy. “Just to be known as a winning player. Man, I was proud. He’s pretty special.”
In 2004 Counsell first played a single season with the Brewers, returned to the Diamondbacks for the next two years, then went back to Milwaukee to finish out his playing career (2007-11).
“I had some choices after I was done playing,” says Counsell. “I could have coached, I could have done some broadcasting, I could have done nothing. But I liked the evaluation side of things, as I call it, because I thought it would give me a different perspective from what I’d seen. That was the biggest draw. It makes you better when you go back to the world you know.”
After serving for three-plus years as a special assistant to Brewer general manager Doug Melvin (and filling in part time as a radio analyst), Counsell on May 4, 2015, was named the Milwaukee manager, replacing the fired Ron Roenicke and receiving a three-year contract.
Once Murphy left Arizona State, he moved to the professional ranks, first as a baseball operations assistant in 2010 for the San Diego Padres. The Syracuse, New York, product managed Class A Eugene in 2011-12, then jumped to AAA El Paso in 2013. He became the Padres’ interim manager in mid-June (after Bud Black was replaced). In Murphy’s first game on the bench, one of his former Arizona State players–Eric Sogard of the Oakland A’s–got the winning hit against San Diego in the top of the ninth.
For the record, Counsell’s Brewers and Murphy’s Padres faced off on seven occasions in 2015–with Milwaukee winning three of four games in August at Miller Park and then taking two of three in San Diego in late September/early October.
The Brewers went 61-76 after Counsell took over and ultimately finished fourth in the National League Central at 68-94. The Padres achieved a 42-55 mark after Murphy’s arrival and ended up fourth in the National League West at 74-88.
Though the Padres did not retain Murphy after the 2015 season, he made the most of the experience he gained–and he loved every minute of it. Both Murphy and Counsell take plenty away from their experiences last season that make them wiser for 2016.
“It’s one learning experience after another,” says Murphy now. “You can’t fake it. You go in with your ears and eyes wide open and try to gain as much information as you can for the future. You look back at some moments you could have done differently, but you also understand that when you have the job on an interim basis, you don’t have as many bullets in your gun.”
Interestingly, there was some thought Murphy might join Counsell’s staff last spring, though ultimately the Padres declined permission for that conversation to officially take place. About six weeks later both of them were leading teams on the big stage. Once the regular season ended and Murphy became available, his San Diego-to-Milwaukee move happened in a matter of hours.
Counsell figures he gained lots from his five months on the bench:
“You step into something like this, and I hadn’t coached before or managed people at all. So you jump into the deep end of the pool. The first part of the learning curve is the steepest, but I was proud of how we performed. We blew a hole in our roster in the middle of the season, and we still responded pretty well. You use all those experiences. Now you’ve got a different team this year with different challenges.”
Murphy admits there were some cool moments that came with his role in San Diego:
“It’s as good as they say in terms of the experience, the people you meet, the stars of the game you rub elbows with. Joe Torre called me on the phone–that was a big thrill for me. I met Bob Costas. I’m sitting in my office some days meeting with the media and talking about the game that night, and I’m thinking, `This is pretty special.’
“You’ve got your foot on the top step of the dugout and you look left and right and you think, `Is this really happening? Am I really doing this?’ I did not exactly have the pedigree to be a major-league manager, but I’m still learning.”
Counsell has never managed a full major-league season from start to finish, and Murphy has never been a bench coach in the majors before 2016–so there’s a palpable level of excitement as they envision what’s ahead in the coming months. They’re both confident their relationship will pay daily dividends on the diamond:
“As the game rolls, the manager has a lot of things he’s responsible for, so you’re kind of the support guy. When he turns to his right I better have answers. They may not be the ones he’s looking for, but I better at least have thought through it,” says Murphy of his bench coach assignment.
“It’s kind of a fascinating job and it touches a lot of things. I’ve never done it before and to do it for someone I respect so much and have had such a long relationship with–that’s the fun part.”
Counsell agrees with Murphy’s assessment:
“It’s another person to give you his view on how things are going. He has strong views on most everything. Our personalities are not the same at all and I think that’s good. That’s what I’m looking for–people that can make me more well-rounded. You’ve got to be willing to put those people around you.
“We are probably more aligned than what people would think. His experience in professional baseball is important. He’s been in it six years now and he’s gained a wealth of experience, managing in triple-A and in the major leagues last year. He’s seen a lot and his foundation in the college end of it is something different, so you’re going to get something a little different from him.”
Murphy apologizes for how much time the two communicate:
“It’s often. We talked this morning. We’ll talk tonight. We talk all the time–almost every day. I feel bad about how much we talk–it takes away from the offseason and his family time.
“We talk about the personnel we have–how to stir it to make it taste good. In this business you just try to keep piling as many good decisions on top of good decisions as you can. You try to get those players to play at the top end of their value–to be their best self.
“It’s like offensive linemen–keep your helmet on and open the hole. That’s our role. You’re not going to be spiking the ball in the end zone and your picture’s not going to be in Sports Illustrated. But you know the job you do–just keep opening holes and be satisfied with that. That’s what we’re looking at.”
Counsell and Murphy both understand and appreciate the ability of analytics to help them succeed. In that regard, they will be joined at the hip with new Brewer general manager David Stearns, a 30-year-old Harvard graduate who is the youngest active general manager in the pro ranks.
Says Murphy, “Competitive theory poses questions like this: `What’s a player’s batting average against a starting pitcher after he’s seen him twice (in a game)?’ It’s way higher than when he hasn’t seen him. There are a million numbers like that.
“Craig will do well in this half of his career because he’s bright as all get out and he’s got a good balance between having been a player and his experience in the front office.”
Counsell embraces the analytics because a manager would be crazy not to.
“You have to be able to parse through all the numbers and find the information that provides value and then use it,” says Counsell. “The advantages everyone is looking for are very, very small. You use your heart and your head to make decisions–but if you’re not exposing yourself to the best information you’re a fool.”
And Counsell and Murphy aren’t done learning.
Counsell says he’s not enough of a fan to watch every Green Bay Packer or Milwaukee Buck game from start to finish: “But I watch the coaches and I watch the players’ reactions to adversity. Your eye goes to the leadership skills–that’s how you watch games.”
Murphy recently took his son, just for fun, to see the Golden State Warriors play and came away amazed at how Steph Curry controlled the action: “I’m big on the energy that you create between players and how you prepare players to show their ability. Steph Curry is not Kobe or LeBron–he’s a little dude who understands who he is and what he does well and how other teams react to him. He knows all about time and space. I learned so much from watching him that night because the game revolved around him.”
The sun is out on a 35-degree January day in Milwaukee, and it makes Counsell think baseball season can’t be that far way.
While the Brewer manager hasn’t forgotten his salad days at venerable Milwaukee County Stadium, he now spends his time at 15-year-old Miller Park, just off exit 308B, about three miles west of downtown Milwaukee. Even in the offseason he comes to the ballpark because there are new faces there, there are relationships to build–plus it’s a quiet place to work.
Most of the parking lots remain snow-covered, and snow clings to patches on the stadium roof. The white stuff surrounds the life-size sculptures of longtime Brewer owner (and MLB commissioner) Bud Selig, Hank Aaron, Robin Yount and broadcaster Bob Uecker that are spread not far from the main stadium gates.
Stop in the team store, and there are bins of blue individual player T-shirts with names on the back–with Counsell’s number 30 shirt in a row with outfielder Khris Davis, pitcher Matt Garza and catcher Jonathan Lucroy. The man behind the counter says once his preseason shipments arrive he’s expecting a few more Counsell shirt options and probably a bobble-head.
Down the third-base line on an outside brick surface is the Brewer’s Wall of Honor, with nearly 60 former Milwaukee stars feted with oblong plaques listing their achievements. There’s Don Sutton and Ted Simmons and Rollie Fingers and lots more recognizable names. The most recent addition, right after Jeff Cirillo and Ben Sheets, is Counsell.
The wording on the plaque references his Whitefish Bay roots, mentions the 711 games he played for the Brewers and notes that he was one of only five National League infielders with more than 300 plate appearances every season from 2001 to 2009.
Counsell readily admits there’s a comfort level doing business in a major-league market that’s not all that big a metropolis and where he has spent a good chunk of his life:
“It’s easy to get around here for me. Do you want it to happen because you’re from here? That’s all right–nothing wrong with that. That’s a good thing. That’s why I’m doing it. That’s what makes it not a job. If it was somewhere else it might not be as meaningful.”
Chances are, Counsell hasn’t spent much (if any) time perusing the wording on his Wall of Honor plaque.
But it’s safe to say he’s hoping he and Murphy can make inroads in those National League standings in these next few years.
That might force the Brewers to make some additions to that list of Counsell credentials on the wall.
The unassuming Milwaukee manager (and his bench coach) wouldn’t mind that one bit.
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a 1976 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame.
Heisler produces a weekly football commentary piece for UND.com titled “Sunday Brunch,” along with a Thursday football preview piece. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series. Here is a selection of other features published recently by Heisler:
— DeShone Kizer: North of Confident, South of Cocky
— 2016 Fiesta Bowl: Notre Dame-Ohio State Preview
— Joyce Scholars: Connecting the Irish and Buckeyes
— One Final Version: 20 Questions (and answers) on Notre Dame Football
— Top 10 Things Learned About the Irish So Far in 2015:
— Brey’s Crew Receives Rings, Prepared to Raise Banner–and Moves On
— Jim McLaughlin: New Irish Volleyball Boss Is All About the Numbers:
— Men’s Soccer Establishes Itself with Exclamation:
— Australia Rugby Visit Turns into Great Sharing of Sports Performance Practices:
— Bud Schmitt Doesn’t Need a Map to Find Notre Dame Stadium:
— Remembering Bob Kemp: Notre Dame Lacrosse Family Honors Devoted Father
— Community Service a Record-Setting Event for Irish Athletics in 2014-15: