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There's no place like home

By MARK CONCANNON
Photos by Scott Paulus 

August 2015

In his iconic novel "You Canít Go Home Again," Thomas Wolfe penned the following declaration: "You canít go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young manís dreams of glory."

Thomas Wolfe never met Craig Counsell, who has disproved every claim in that hypothesis ó going back home not once, but three times after leaving his native Milwaukee. Twice during his 16-year Major League Baseball playing career as a Brewer and most recently as assistant to the clubís general manager and now the teamís manager, all realizations of the childhood dreams he had growing up in Whitefish Bay. Counsell still lives there today with his high school sweetheart, who is now his wife and the mother of his four children.

Counsell has lived as a Brewer for nearly his entire life. As a kid, he frequently hung around County Stadium accompanying his father, John, the teamís director of community relations.

"I spent as much time as I could at the ballpark," Counsell says when he was introduced as Brewers manager in May. "I loved being here. I loved being able to come down to the clubhouse. It was a real treat for me when my dad had to talk to the players or had business down here. I would follow him and soak up everything I could."

Watching future Hall of Famers Robin Yount and Paul Molitor go about their business every day gave Counsell an idea of the amount of work required to reach the sportís highest level. He would spend days on end playing baseball, at practices and games in organized leagues, and countless other hours improvising games when fewer players were available.

"We played a lot of Ďstrikeout,í" recalls childhood friend Jeff Sohns, who now lives in Wauwatosa. "We painted a square on the wall at Richards Elementary School. That was the strike zone." The games were often one-on-one or two-on-two contests where balls hit in certain areas were hits or outs.

"The neighbors hated us," Sohns says. "We hit the ball over the fence, into their yards and off of their houses." Sohns says "strikeout" was a great way to fine-tune fundamentals.

"In some way, shape or form, our Ďstrikeoutí really helped him get there (to the Major Leagues)."

"We played like 10 games a day, and youíd get 40 at bats," Counsell recalls in a local broadcast interview with WUWM. "Thatís how I caught up with the kids in Texas, Florida and Arizona, who could play year round."

While Counsell has become a southeast Wisconsin institution, he is also considered royalty in two other cities. A picture of him, arms raised as he crosses home plate with the winning run in the 1997 World Series has adorned the outfield wall at the Miami Marlins ballpark, and he achieved permanent legend status after his MVP performance in the 2001 playoffs during Arizonaís run to the championship.

But thereís no place like home. He and his wife support several local charities. The fields on which Counsell played little league baseball have been renamed Craig Counsell Park. Counsell regularly hangs out with boyhood buddies at reunions at Whitefish Bay High School. Heís come a long way since those games of "strikeout," but he doesnít want himself or his family to be considered celebrities.

"If thereís any town you can do that in, itís Milwaukee," Counsell says. "This is the easiest city Iíve lived in to do that. People here are not celebrity crazy. People say hi, but they just say hi."

Counsell just signed a three-year contract to manage the Brewers but hopes his run here extends well into the future. He has come home and wants to stay home.

"I certainly donít have any aspirations to go anywhere else and do this, but at the same time, in this business itís hard to look that far out so you have a short-term view, especially in a job where win today is the message. So you donít take that long a view, but I know Iím in the place where I want to be and certainly donít have any visions of going anywhere else."

 


This story ran in the August 2015  issue of: