Sunday, January 22, 2012
Craig Counsell definitely a champion
By Doug Glanville ESPN.com
We tend to think that it is the superstar who gets to ride off into the sunset on his own terms. The one who called his own shots for a career, the one who was so talented that he is retiring because he is bored and broke every record known to the game. Everyone else goes out kicking a screaming. But actually, Craig Counsell showed us that is not the case at all.
Don't get me wrong, you have to be some kind of superstar to play 16 seasons in the big leagues. So when Craig Counsell retired from baseball the other day, I too, went online to look up that number. Sixteen? Kids were born and then halfway through high school, and Counsell was still playing in the big leagues. And he pulled this off by just being a force of nature.
Craig Counsell won two World Series titles during his 16-year career in the big leagues.
Counsell was truly the underdog. Not the self-proclaiming obnoxious player who is holding a championship trophy over his head and saying, "No one believed in us. Blah. Blah." But truly a player whose ability to believe in himself trumped every label that usually gives others more opportunity than him.
I first heard about Counsell in the minor leagues. I don't know why the conversation about him stood out above all others, but so many players talked about how he was a "stone-cold hitter" and that he was buried in the minors unfairly. It was the first time I learned that baseball didn't always reward the ones who looked the best and the brightest or the ones with the best numbers. Since this was before the Internet, information like that took a long time to get around, so it said a lot about Counsell that Cubs minor league players were so concerned about someone from an entirely different organization.
Then I finally played against him and his image did not fit the aura. He could run, he could pick it, but it was not sexy. It wasn't an "all eyes on me" kind of moment. His batting stances reminded you of someone trying out for Cirque du Soleil, not trying to turn around a 95-plus mph fastball.
But he got it done. He was always in the mix, doing something to put his team in a winning position. He dove to stop a ball from driving in two runs, holding the opposition to just one. He got the bunt down, he backed up a base, or he got the big hit. He did everything you needed to win that would not put you on the home page of a website. And trust me, coaches knew it and wanted him on their team.
I remember when the Cubs decided one season to create a chart that rewarded minor league players for executing winning baseball. You had to move runners over, hit the cutoff man, hit behind the runner. Small ball. It did not show up in your batting average, but it put your team in positions to win. Even after I won a few rounds, evaluators from afar would go back to spitting out my batting average as the end-all, be-all stat, but coaches knew that to win, you had to be selfless and want to win. They needed a Counsell on their team.
Counsell did this every day at every level, before it was fashionable. He had a knack for knowing what needed to be done. Sort of like a field general without a need for directions from leadership. He was programmed to play to win, as a team.
But his execution style did not grab you at first. You were almost nervous for him because you thought this guy was a breath away from being out of the big leagues. You kept saying, "Eventually someone will figure him out and neutralize what he can do." He somehow reminded you that everyone's days are numbered. But then he just kept adding days and became an inspiration.
It is a testament to Counsell that he had so much going against him on a superficial level to still become such a fixture in the game. He wasn't silky smooth or endowed with a bodybuilder's stature. People had to look deeper to see what he brought to the table, and he was so good at it that he made you look deeper. And those who did were rewarded for it.
A ridiculously long 16 years -- and two World Series titles -- later, he was the one who decided when to pack it up, not the other way around. Counsell just quietly slipped baseball the pink slip so that he could move into the corner office on his own terms.
That isn't what happens to guys who look like Craig Counsell -- the underdog who has to prove himself every minute, playing through injuries that require surgery just so he could show up and get a look. But now, who is the one evaluating talent? It's Counsell, in his new position as a special assistant to Brewers general manager Doug Melvin.
Many players had more than him -- in talent and marketability -- yet he was the one who came out a champion and a respected player from all across the game. He worked hard for players' rights, he taught an entire school of players how to play the game with your heart and your mind. And when you look back to 1995, he is the one who outlasted just about everyone. And in the end, that is what counts.
Doug Glanville, who earned a degree in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, played nine major league seasons with the Cubs, Phillies and Rangers. He serves on the board of Athletes Against Drugs and on the board of the MLB Players Alumni Association. His book, "The Game from Where I Stand," was released in May 2010. Click here to buy it in paperback on Amazon.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dougglanville