11th and Washington

11th and Washington: August 2011

Saturday, August 27, 2011

From ND to MLB: John Axford

John Axford gets after it

Have you ever watched pitchers in the outfield during batting practice? Probably not, right? Why would you? Maybe there's one you're keeping tabs on hoping to get a ball tossed your way, or one of the guys is a target for an autograph on a card you've got in your binder. But generally, they stand around chatting with one another until a ball comes their way, when one of them breaks from the pack into a jog to catch it or toss his glove into the air in an attempt to knock it down.

And then there's John Axford. Before the first game of a three-game set at Yankee Stadium during the last week of June, he took his spot out in right field for batting practice. Like a lot of pitchers, he spent some time with his arms crossed, turning his head and watching as moon shots from the likes of Prince Fielder and Mat Gamel soared into the second deck and beyond. But as the Brewers worked through their groups, as the hitters changed, so did Axford's focus.

With fewer balls hit far over the short right-field fence came more opportunities to make a play, and that's what Axford did. He sprinted to his right into the gap and loped back and to his left onto the warning track to make catches. And for those balls that traveled only 319 or 320 feet? Axford positioned his 6-foot-5 frame at the base of the wall and jumped, reaching his glove over the top of the eight-foot fence and pulling back a batting practice home run off the bat of fellow Notre Dame alumnus Craig Counsell.

"I just jumped and put up my glove and somehow it went in it," Axford said the next day in the clubhouse. "And I just remember my arm going back and I was like, 'YES!' You gotta wait until Craig Counsell hits them, because he's putting them kind of close right over [the top of the wall], so that I can get close to robbing them. If it's Prince and Gamel, pffft, they're putting them everywhere I can't reach.

"It was Counsell's ball that I robbed. I told him about it after. 'Hey, did you catch me? I robbed your home run.' He still hit like eight home runs, though, so he was pretty excited about that."

John Axford is a visual guy. He's a self-described "mustache afficionado" who has carefully groomed his facial hair into a Rollie Fingers handlebar, a full soup-strainer with a soul patch and a devilish Fu Manchu (and used it all for a good cause). In college, he majored in film, television and theatre (that's how the major is spelled in South Bend), so it seems appropriate that one of the first things that drew him to Notre Dame was the mail.

"That bright gold 'ND' on the top of the envelope that I got with the recruiting letter. In all honesty, that thing just stood out more than anything," Axford said when asked about his college choice. "All the others came in letter size and I'm getting this big envelope with this huge 'ND' on there. I was like, 'Wow, this is amazing. This is one of the few schools I've ever heard of.' Being Canadian, you don't hear of many stateside schools, especially if you're not focused on going to school, which I wasn't at the time. I was thinking more pro."

But Notre Dame's interest changed that line of thought. Axford then attended a fall baseball camp on campus to get a look at the school and have the coaches get another look at him.

"I figured throwing in front of the staff would be the best way to do it," he said. "They saw me at the Chicago Area Code Games, which is where I think they initially saw me. But seeing me on their field up close and personal, I figured, would be the best way. Apparently they loved me immediately and offered me a scholarship on that day that I was throwing. I kept holding out, because it was expensive. My family, it wasn't something we were really able to afford, and luckily held out to get a little bit more of a scholarship."

The visual stimulation also played a part among the trees and tan (gold?) brick buildings beside St. Joseph's and St. Mary's lakes.

"But I knew right away, once I went there [for a visit], I wanted to go there," he said. "That was the school for me. The campus was absolutely beautiful, the ballpark was fantastic, beautiful ballpark. And the coaching staff was fantastic. I'm glad I did. Four straight years of Big East championships and the College World Series. Last a lifetime, that's for sure."

Axford arrived on campus in the fall of 2001 and, after considering majors in sociology ("I wanted to be a teacher ... but you had to take a lot of the teaching classes over at Saint Mary's, which I just wasn't going to be able to do with practice.") and psychology ("Took one class -- I was out pretty quick."), he looked into a course of study that drew on his past experiences.

"I did a lot of A.V. in high school," he said. "I did a lot of editing, actually, a lot of film editing, because all our announcements that we had were on TVs in class, so I would actually run promos, film promos, and edit those and run those and do some of the graphics for TV for the announcements in the morning. And I loved that, so I wanted to see what their film program was about, so I checked it out and I loved it. Just kept going with it. And then they built the beautiful Regis Philbin theater center there -- it was perfect for my senior year to hang out in and enjoy."

On the field, Axford endured an up-and-down career at Notre Dame. The Irish reached the College World Series in 2002, his freshman year, when he went 5-2 with a 3.95 ERA, striking out 64 in 70 2/3 innings. He pitched once in Omaha, 1 1/3 innings (no hits, two walks, one strikeout) in Notre Dame's season finale, a 5-3 loss to Stanford.

His sophomore year, in 2003, saw some improvements -- a 9-3 record, 69 strikeouts in 71 innings and a drop in walks from 59 to 50 -- but also an increase in wild pitches (from seven to 14) and a rise in ERA, to 4.13, the result of three more earned runs (34) despite allowing eight fewer overall (37). But 2004 was a lost year, literally, as he recovered from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. He pitched just three innings in '05.

Thirteen players who appeared in Notre Dame's three games at Rosenblatt Stadium in '02 were eventually drafted, including Steve Stanley (second round) and Brian Stavisky (sixth round) by the A's that month. But Axford is the only one to reach the Majors -- yet, he didn't get there with any of the teams that drafted him, nor the one that signed him to his first professional contract. The Mariners selected Axford in the seventh round in 2001, when he was coming out of high school. He chose to go to college instead. In 2005, following his senior season at Notre Dame, the Reds drafted Axford in the 42nd round, but concerns about his control problems turned them off.

"The first one was the more difficult one, obviously, coming out of high school," he said. "Being in the seventh round, I was offered a little bit better than seventh-round money. But I knew education was important and that's what I wanted to do."

But the decision did not come easily.

"It wasn't my dream to play college baseball," Axford said. "It was my dream to play pro ball and play in the Major Leagues. And I remember that's what I was thinking: If I don't get this opportunity, am I going to regret it? But the more I thought about it, the more I thought it's not a guarantee I'm going to be playing in the Major Leagues. But this is a guanratee that I can go to a school with a pretty much 100 percent graduation rate. I can go here for four years, even three years, and maybe get drafted again. Eventually, I kind of came to my senses, with my parents' help, and realized that education is the important thing right now. It was something I was focused on, something I was passionate about too. I wouldn't be able to beat that education."

With a year of college eligibility remaining in 2006, Axford enrolled at Canisius College in Buffalo, not far from his home in Ontario, and continued to work his way back from the surgery. That August -- following a stint in the Western Major Baseball League in Canada -- Axford signed with the Yankees following a tryout on Staten Island and a "callback" in Tampa. He made his professional debut the next spring, pitching a combined 26 games at three levels of Class A ball (Staten Island, Charleston and Tampa) and getting a cameo at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. His combined statistics showed a 1-4 record, 3.29 ERA, 67 strikeouts, 45 walks and 14 wild pitches in 63 innings. He started five of the 27 games in which he appeared.

"When I was with the Yankees, they just had me bouncing around quite a bit," Axford said. "I played at four different levels. They had me spot-start a few games. I was doing the old piggy-back thing, backing up one of their younger high draft picks down in Staten Island. So I was throwing five innings at a time, so basically like a starter."

That younger high draft pick -- at least at times -- was Zach McAllister, who was the player to be named when the Yankees acquired Austin Kearns last August.

But that December, the Yankees cut Axford loose. Another tryout followed, leading to a contract with the Brewers in March 2008. This arrangement stuck, but it took some adjustments. Axford spent that entire summer pitching for Milwaukee's advanced Class A affiliate in Brevard County, Florida. He started 14 of his 26 games, walking 73 in 95 innings and throwing 12 wild pitches. He compiled a 5-10 record and 4.55 ERA, with 89 strikeouts. Those strikeouts -- and the high-90s radar-gun readings -- still tempted the Brewers, despite the wildness.

The first solution was to consider another role for Axford.

Axford in the corner"My first year with the Brewers in '08, they were grooming me as a starter, but I started piggy-backing one of our prospects early," he said. "He was coming back from surgery, so he'd throw two or three [innings], then I'd pick up the rest of the game if I could. Then after he was moved up, I was starting myself. I think I ended up getting 14 starts that year, some good, some definitely not good. Walks were just the thing that were catching up with me. I remember some games where I would just cut it loose for the first three innings, and I had nothing left after that, so I would only last maybe another two or like one and a third or something, so I wouldn't get five innings in. And I think maybe they slowly realized that maybe we'll just try him in relief."

That transition happened in 2009, beginning in spring training. But there was still the issue of control. A high walk rate from a reliever is not something Major League teams will tolerate.

"In spring training [2009], I was playing with the Double-A squad," Axford said. "I don't know if they were making me a reliever or starter. I was just throwing some innings, and thing were not going well. I didn't even know if I was going to make a team. They sent me back down to A-ball. I was supposed to throw four innings on the A-ball side. I pitched one, and then I went out for the next, didn't get an out. ... I gave up like nine runs and walked like a ton of people and kept giving up home runs and doubles off the wall. I don't think I was throwing that hard because I was just trying to throw strikes. I was just laying the ball in there all the time. I was just so frustrated.

"So I didn't even know if I was going to make a team. Luckily, they held on with me long enough. They sent me back down to Brevard, to A-ball, try to get things together."

One day early in the 2009 season in Dunedin, where the Blue Jays train and their Florida State League team plays -- and where a certain Cy Young stud was once teetering on the edge of flameout as a struggling prospect -- Axford was pulled aside for a bullpen session by Brewers minor league pitching coordinator Lee Tunnell and Brevard pitching coach Fred Dabney.

"They said, 'We're going to try to do a couple things, hope you're open to it,'" Axford recalled. "'I'm open to anything,' is what I said. 'Whatever's happening right now isn't the way I want to pitch, because this isn't working.' I was doing OK down there, maybe a 3.00 ERA or two-something. But I knew there was still more in there, so that's what they tried to work with.

"The first thing they said to me was, 'Do you know Roy Halladay?' Yeah, yeah, of course. 'Just try to pitch like him right now,' that's all they said. I'm like, 'Alright, what do you mean?' They said, 'Just do, whatever you think he looks like, try and do that right now.' And I think that their intention -- obviously, because I don't look like him by any means -- their intention was to try to get me to load a little bit better, get my hip back, get my [arm] angle down. And I started doing that, started leaning back, getting a little more angle forward, my arm slot lowered just a little bit -- I'm still very high, but my arm slot lowered enough -- that I started keeping the ball down better and I started actually picking up velocity because I was becoming more athletic through my delivery.

"It was just night and day, it was unbelievable. In the matter of one bullpen session, I could tell that I was throwing harder."

And the results could be seen on the field. Now pitching exclusively in relief, Axford went 4-1 over 19 games with a 1.63 ERA and 1.08 WHIP, walking 16 and striking out 43 in 27 2/3 innings for the Manatees. Impressed with his progress, the Brewers promoted Axford to Double-A Huntsville. After four games -- essentially a quality start: three runs, seven hits, three walks and nine strikeouts in 7 2/3 innings -- and a save, he was on the move again, to Triple-A Nashville.

"That year, when they just kept me in relief, I think it was kind of like a light switch," Axford said. "'Alright, this is it!' I did have a couple three-inning outings here or there, but mostly it was one or two innings. They put me in some pressure situations pretty quick, setting up games, closing out games, coming in with the bases loaded, and I thrived in it. I really loved those situations and I loved being in those moments. I think that was it, that's what I needed. My mindset before, in the years when I was in college, was toward starting, and I think it was just a completely different atmosphere when it came to pro ball and my mentality kind of just changed, and I think this role is definitely suited and fitting for me right now."

In 22 games with the sounds, Axford was 5-0, finishing 11 contests and allowing 13 runs, 23 hits and 19 walks in 33 innings. He struck out 37 and posted a 1.27 WHIP. Then the next call came: to Milwaukee. In the course of one season, Axford went from a struggling reliever in spring training to advanced Class A to Double-A to Triple-A to the Majors.

"I only spent a couple of weeks in Double-A and then I was in Triple-A," he said. "Before I knew it, it was time for the All-Star break, and before I knew it after that, I was in the big leagues in September."

The Brewers brought Axford to the big leagues on Sept. 7, 2009, which was Labor Day and the start of a three-game series at Miller Park against the Cardinals (who would sweep the set). After an off-day, the Brewers flew to Arizona and swept the D-backs, but Axford watched from the bullpen each night. From Phoenix, it was back to the Midwest and Wrigley Field, where the Cubs won the series opener, 2-0, on Monday, Sept. 14. And still Axford, a uniform on his back, a Major League per diem in his wallet every day, had yet to pitch in a game.

His debut came the next night at Wrigley. In the bottom of the eighth, with the Cubs holding a 12-5 lead, manager Ken Macha called on Axford to pitch the last inning. The first batter, Bobby Scales, flied out to left on an 0-1 pitch. Then Jeff Baker singled to right (on a 1-2 count) and Ryan Theriot drew a walk.

2010 Topps Update John Axford Kosuke Fukudome came up next, and on a 1-0 count, Axford threw a wild pitch, allowing Baker and Theriot to move up to third and second, respectively. But Axford worked his way back to even the count at 2-2, then got Fukudome swinging for his first Major League strikeout. The wildness returned, with Derrek Lee and Micah Hoffpauir drawing walks -- Hoffpauir's scoring Baker -- before Geovany Soto flied out to left-center.

That account is easy to find in the game's play-by-play, but Axford remembers only select parts.

"I literally remember like three pitches -- no four," he said. "I remember my first pitch, because it was a strike. I remember my strikeout of Fukudome, it was a curveball in the dirt; I remember knocking Derrek Lee on his back on a fastball up and in, obviously unintentional, and I remember my very last out, because I thought it was a home run. Bases were loaded and the guy crushed the ball, it was kind of into the wind, maybe just got it off the end and it ended up being a flyout. Those were literally the only four pitches I remember out of probably almost 25 or 30 I threw on that day."

From a Notre Dame standpoint, there are two other key points to note from that game: Aaron Heilman earned the win in relief for Chicago, and Cubs manager Lou Piniella used Jeff Samardzija to mop up for the home team, meaning three Domers took the mound that night, with one throwing the final pitch for each side.

"It was awesome to have it at Wrigley Field," Axford said. "I had to wait around a little bit, wait about eight or nine days before I got my debut. ... It was a little tough waiting, but it was definitely worth it. It was nice to be able to sit there kind of take it all in, too, for just over a week and enjoy it."

Axford pitched in six more games that September, finishing five others and even saving one. After walking three, allowing a hit and striking out one in one inning in his debut, Axford walked two allowed four hits and two runs and struck out eight in his other 6 2/3 innings. In fact, if you remove a two-inning outing in Colorado on Oct. 1, when he allowed two runs on four hits and two walks, he allowed only one baserunner (on a walk) in five of his last six outings, covering 4 2/3 innings. And on Oct. 4, in the season finale in St. Louis, Macha brought Axford on to close out a 9-7 win in the 10th inning. He struck out two in a perfect frame, locking down the win for Trevor Hoffman, who had allowed a run in the ninth to blow the save.

From Irish to Brew Crew That experience helped in 2010. Axford began the season back at Triple-A, then was recalled on May 15, appearing in that night's game against the Phillies and allowing a run. By the end of the month, he was closing games while Hoffman, who had struggled early in the season, worked out his issues in middle relief. Hoffman, stuck on 596 career saves, wouldn't record another one until August. He then became the first closer in history to net 600 saves when he held off the Cardinals on Sept. 7, 2010 -- one year to the day Axford first got the call to the Major Leagues. And Axford was right there in the middle of the celebration after Craig Counsell threw to Prince Fielder at first base for the final out.

"I couldn't have asked for a better teacher, and Trevor Hoffman, his work ethic is unbelievable," Axford said of his former mentor. "It's unparalled from what I saw day-in, day-out. And for him to be there, to help me at the same time, while he was going through some of his hardships that he went through a little bit last year at the beginning of the year, but still working as hard as he could to get to his goal and working to get back to what he was capable of. Along the way, he was still a friend and mentor. Really helped me a lot. I couldn't ask for anybody better, that's for sure."

Hoffman earned one more save last year, finishing with 601, and retired. Axford entered this year as the Brewers' closer, with no question marks or uncertainty in spring training. He's tied for second in the Majors -- alone in second in the NL -- in saves as of this posting, and his status at the head of Milwaukee's bullpen makes him one of the two most prominent Notre Dame alums active in the game today, along with the Phillies' Brad Lidge.

All of which makes it a sight to see -- and a somewhat surprising one -- when the 6-foot-5 closer is exerting himself in right field at Yankee Stadium, chasing after fly balls with vigor. But then, after this season's over, he'll pack up his truck in Milwaukee and head south down I-94, around Chicago, then turn east below Lake Michigan on his way home to Ontario. But like many Domers, he'll make a quick detour on the way.

"I go back [to campus] every year when I drive back home," he said. "It's just a short little stop off the highway. Milwaukee back home is only about an eight-hour drive, so I just drive it. I always stop off at campus, see what's being built, what's new. There's always something new there, every single year. The law school looks absolutely amazing. Haven't been back to a game, I think, since 2007, but I just like going back to campus and walking around and checking it out."

Just like any other Irish alum, except this one throws 97 mph.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, August 26, 2011


And here's the kick-ass Willie Stargell stamp that will be part of next summer's release. I love that they used both the yellow jersey and that intimidating stance (even if his face isn't so intimidating as depicted).

Labels: , , ,

Larry Doby gets a stamp!

This came out a week ago, but I've been quite busy and never got around to writing anything. And now that a hurricane is bearing down on us and I don't know when I'll have power and internet again after Sunday, I figured I don't have the luxury of composing a more elaborate post.

So here it is, the Larry Doby stamp that will be put into circulation next summer, along with three or four other prominent ballplayers (Joe DiMaggio and Willie Stargell have also been announced). I'm definitely getting these, and keeping one sheet for myself. They're quite sharp, I must say.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, August 11, 2011

From ND to MLB: Craig Counsell

Craig Counsell

The hit came just in time. Forty-five at-bats is a long time to go 0-fer -- especially when you're coming off the bench. For a starter, it's a bad week, maybe 10 days. For a backup, it can be a rough couple of months.

For Craig Counsell, it was 57 days, stretching from a three-hit game on June 10 until he singled in the ninth inning on Friday, an 0-for-45 slump. With that hit on Friday, Counsell was spared immortality by an at-bat -- or two.

The record for a single-season 0-fer is either 45 at-bats -- according to the Brewers, citing the Elias Sports Bureau -- or 46, according to research conducted by the Society for American Baseball Research and cited in an article in last Thursday's New York Times (also mentioned on The Colbert Report). Counsell's streak included one walk, a hit-by-pitch, two sacrifice bunts and a sacrifice fly, meaning he went hitless in 49 plate appearances, though he did reach base twice, drove in a run and twice gave away his at-bat in order to move the runners up on the bases. He also scored twice, and in seven of those 32 games in between, he did not come to the plate, serving instead as a defensive replacement or pinch-runner.

When I saw the Brewers play at Yankee Stadium on June 28, Counsell was hitless in his lone at-bat, extending the streak to 0-for-13. I didn't take notice of the 0-for-12 coming into the game, and wouldn't have thought anything of it if I did. And I certainly wouldn't have asked him about it. But I did ask about his role with the Brewers now, how he sees himself as a 40-year-old utility infielder on what was then a team in contention in the NL Central and now is the division leader and the club best poised to lock down the division over these final two months.

"I think your age makes people look at you because you've done this for a while," he said. "But of course, that's part of my job, to -- especially I think when you're not playing -- you try to help everybody and what everybody's doing and help if you can. I've always thought that the leadership thing is that everybody helps each other, so that's everybody's job."

Counsell debuted nearly 16 years ago, on Sept. 17, 1995, when his youngest current teammates -- Yovani Gallardo and Jonathan Lucroy -- were just 9 years old. He's one of 11 players 40 or older who have appeared in a game this season but one of only five hitters, and one of them -- Matt Stairs -- has since retired. The others are Omar Vizquel, Jason Giambi and Jim Thome, but only Thome sees regular starts these days. Vizquel, at 44, occassionally sets accomplishments for his age, and with 2,835 hits would probably need to play until he's 47 to have a shot at 3,000. Giambi hit three home runs for the first time in his career back in May and was mentioned in trade rumors leading up to last month's deadline, but is currently on the DL with a left quad strain. And Thome, of course, is two home runs away from 600 -- a feat that hasn't been celebrated as much as it perhaps should be.

Counsell, though, has more World Series rings than those other four combined. Stairs came to the Phillies for the final 16 games of the 2008 season and helped them win it all, but the other three are 0-for-3 in the Fall Classic. Thome and Vizquel were teammates on the 1997 Indians squad that lost when Counsell came home on Edgar Renteria's hit in the 11th inning of Game 7 in Miami and Giambi played for the 2003 Yankees team that fell to the Marlins.

Counsell's journey actually includes several overlapping routes, from South Bend to Wisconsin and back, from Phoenix to Milwaukee and back, and then back to the Cream City once again.

"I was actually born in South Bend," said Counsell, who played for Whitefish Bay High School in Wisconsin. "My dad coached there for a little while [1969-72] and used to play there, and I always kind of wanted to go to school there. I was just happy to get in. Playing baseball, Pat Murphy had just gotten there. He had been there one year. From what I understood, they'd come pretty close to dropping baseball the year before. We were kind of like starting over."

When Counsell arrived on campus in the fall of 1989, the Irish were coming off their first winning season since '82. Murphy guided them to a 39-22 record in his first year and quickly built a solid program. In Counsell's four years, beginning in 1989, Notre Dame went 48-19-1, 46-12, 45-16 and 48-15, reaching the NCAA Tournament in '89 and '92 -- the first time the Irish had played in the tournament since 1970.

Craig not only followed his father, John ('64), to South Bend, but they are the only father-son pair to captain the baseball team. For his career, Craig batted. 306 with 18 home runs and 166 RBIs as a four-year starter, earning second-team all-MCC honors in '90 and '91 and first team in '92, when he was the Irish team MVP. The Rockies drafted him in the 11th round and he began his career in Bend, Ore., in the Northwest League.

"You're drafted, excited to have a chance to play professional baseball," Counsell said of starting his pro career. "You're not really exactly sure what to expect. It took me four, five years, I had a bunch of injuries, but I finally kind of made it and stuck. It took a while, but I made it."

He progressed each year through the Rockies' system, jumping from short-season Bend in '92 to Advanced Class A Central Valley in the California League in '93 to Double-A New Haven in the Eastern League in '94. In 1995, he reached Triple-A Colorado Springs and, that September, made his Major League debut, playing three games and going 0-for-1 with a walk. In spring training 1996, Counsell was under consideration for the Rockies' starting second base job (because regular starter Eric Young opened the season on the DL with a broken hand) and utility infielder role, but he spent the year at Colorado Springs -- playing just 25 games because of injuries.

In late June 1997, Counsell was hitting .332 with 45 RBIs in 60 games at Triple-A on a strong Colorado Springs club; he would finish with a .335 batting average, .409 on-base percentage, .489 slugging percentage, 77 runs, 31 doubles, six triples, five homers, 63 RBIs and 12 stolen bases in 96 games. Called up to the Rockies, he appeared as a pinch-runner against the Cubs on July 26. The next day, the Marlins acquired him for Australian right-hander Mark Hutton. Two days after the trade, Counsell started at second base, batting eighth, at Pro Player Stadium against the Reds. In his first at-bat, leading off the second inning against right-hander Mike Morgan, he lined a single to right field for his first Major League hit. Since then -- with the exception of 50 games at Triple-A Tuscon in 2000 and some rehab appearances in subsequent summers -- Counsell has been a Major Leaguer.

In 51 games (47 of them starts at second base) for Florida over the final two months of the '97 season, Counsell batted .299/.376/.396 with 20 runs, nine doubles, two triples and 16 RBIs. He struck out 17 times but walked 18. His lone home run -- the first of his career -- was a grand slam off Todd Stottlemyre of the Cardinals on Aug. 24 in a 7-1 Marlins victory.

But it was that October that Counsell really established himself. In seven plate appearances in Florida's three-game sweep of San Francisco in the NLDS, he had two hits (one a double), a walk, a sac bunt and an RBI. Then in the Marlins' 4-2 NLCS victory over the Braves, Counsell started four games at second base, batting .429 (6-for-14) with two RBIs, three walks (all intentional, to get to the pitcher) and three strikeouts. He assisted on the final out of the series when Kevin Brown induced a ground ball from Chipper Jones to second base. Counsell scooped it up and tossed it to Renteria, the shortstop, to clinch the pennant.

Counsell started every game of the seven-game World Series against the Indians, batting .182/.345/.227, going 4-for-22 with a double, four runs, two RBIs and a stolen base and drawing six walks -- none intentional -- against five strikeouts. He went 1-for-3 with a double and a run in Game 1, 2-for-5 with two runs and an RBI in Game 3 and 1-for-4 in Game 6. Though he was 0-for-3 in Game 7, he made perhaps his biggest contributions to the club that season late in the game.

In the bottom of the ninth with the Indians leading, 2-1, Jose Mesa came on to close out the game and the Tribe's first World Series championship since 1948. Moises Alou led off with a single, but then Mesa got Bobby Bonilla swinging. Charles Johnson followed with a single to right field that sent Alou to third. Up stepped Counsell, batting eighth in the order. Mesa just needed to retire Counsell and pinch-hitter Jim Eisenreich, who was on deck; that, or a double play from Counsell would do. On Mesa's third pitch, with the count even at 1-1, Counsell swung and drove a line drive deep down the right-field line. Manny Ramirez glided over to make the catch and Alou broke for home to score the tying run. Mesa then retired Eisenreich on a ground ball to second to end the inning and send Game 7 of the World Series to extra innings.

That fall, Counsell returned to Notre Dame during the final football weekend, Nov. 22, 1997, against West Virginia. He met with the baseball team in the clubhouse of Eck Stadium and I was sent to cover it for the South Bend Tribune, for which I was interning that semester. I dug up that article -- on a 3 1/2-inch floppy disk -- which included this unused comment at the top:

"I didn’t think about it too much," Counsell said of his ninth-inning at-bat. "You just think to get the job done. You know it’s the seventh game of the World Series, but you don’t htink about that. It was a long fly ball, [a home run] would have been a little too much to ask for."

The game, of course, wasn't over. Florida closer Robb Nen, who had come on to get the final two outs in the top of the ninth, pitched the 10th, allowing a one-out single to Tony Fernandez but otherwise struck out the side. In the bottom of the 10th, with Mesa still pitching, Renteria and Gary Sheffield hit one-out singles, but Mesa struck out John Cangelosi and Charles Nagy came out of the bullpen to get Alou to fly out to right.

Jay Powell came on to pitch the top of the 11th and walked Matt Williams to open the frame. Sandy Alomar tried to bunt him over, but Powell pounced on it and threw to second to force out Williams. Thome then grounded into a 4-6-3 double play. On to the bottom of the 11th.

Nagy, who had started and lost Game 3, returned to the mound. (I love elimination games in the postseason, when everyone but the previous night's starter is available to pitch.) Bonilla fell into an 0-2 hole but then singled up the middle. Gregg Zaun tried to lay down a sacrifice bunt, but popped an 0-2 pitch up to Nagy. Counsell then reached on an error by the second baseman, Fernandez, sending Bonilla to third. Eisenreich was intentionally walked to set up a forceout all around, and the plan worked when Devon White grounded to second and Bonilla was forced out at home. Counsell advanced to third base.

Up stepped Renteria, who was 2-for-4 with a walk and had entered the game batting .213/.304/.246 in the Series. He took the first pitch for a strike, but the second was sent back through the box and into center field, driving in Counsell with the winning run.

Counsell's moment
Counsell's cleats on display at the Hall of Fame
"It was pure joy," Counsell told me in 1997. "That's the best way I can describe it. I've been telling people my life is all downhill from here. I don't know if I'll ever feel anything like that again. It's unbelievable."

I asked him what he planned to say to the Irish players he was about to address.

"I'm going to tell them there's no magic formula," he said. "I'm going to tell them my story, that it's not out of the realm of possibility for them. I was in these shoes five years ago, so it can certainly happen to one of them."

One of the players on that Irish team -- and I can't say for sure if he was in the room that morning until I talk to him -- was a junior pitcher who would be drafted in the first round by the Astros the next June: Brad Lidge, who would have his own World Series-clinching moment 11 years later.

Counsell's career, of course, didn't go downhill from there.* He returned to the Marlins in '98 and '99, when the Dodgers acquired him in June for a minor-league left-hander who topped out at Double-A, Ryan Moskau. Counsell finished the season in Los Angeles but was released during spring training the following year. Five days later, he signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks, where the Notre Dame connection played a role. Arizona GM Joe Garagiola Jr. had been coached by Counsell's father on the Notre Dame freshman team. (See the story from the July 3, 2000, issue of The Sporting News at left.)

*The fortunes of the Marlins did, however, when owner Wayne Huizenga put the team up for sale and slashed payroll, trading away most of the stars. "It's unfortunate," Counsell said then. "I think if everybody had the choice, we'd bring back the same team to go for it again. But we still have a solid core, and a lot of good young players. If we don't do it again next year, we will soon in the future." They did, of course, in 2003, though despite just the six-year gap, the only player on both teams was "Original Marlin" Jeff Conine, who had been traded away in December 1997 then reacquired for the '03 pennant drive.

In 2000, Counsell played 67 games for Arizona at second, third and short, starting 33 of them. In '01, he earned a utility spot on the roster and started 113 of the 141 games in which he appeared. Over the course of the season, Counsell's stock rose. In May he was praised by manager Bob Brenly for his play while filling in at shortstop for Tony Womack, who missed a week following the death of his father. By late June, Counsell had taken over the leadoff spot from Womack and was starting at second base over Jay Bell because of his range (Bell was moved to third with Matt Williams sidelined). In late July, when Williams returned and speedy young second baseman Junior Spivey was in the mix, Counsell was still getting regular playing time as Brenly chose his matchups based on stats and history against the opposing starter, using the glut of infielders to give Williams, Bell and Womack a day off each week. At the end of August, the Diamondbacks notes in The Sporting News led with an item on Counsell supplanting Womack as the regular shortstop because of his consistency at bat and steadiness in the field.

In the postseason, Counsell's contributions were highlighted. In a Ken Rosenthal feature in the Oct. 29 edition of The Sporting News, Brenly called Counsell "the smartest player I've ever had the fortune to be around." Jim Leyland, the manager of the '97 Marlins, described him as "kind of a manager's dream, not a scout's dream." Those qualities would be on display again in the World Series.

Counsell batted just .188/.278/.375 in the five-game NLDS against the Cardinals, then came alive in the NLCS against the Braves, the team the Marlins beat in the '97 NLCS. He had two hits and scored twice in a Game 1 win, then after a Game 2 loss he put up back-to-back three-hit games in Atlanta in two Arizona victories. In Game 5, Counsell's squad was once again victorious on the Turner Field soil, eliminating the Braves and Tom Glavine (who also lost Game 6 in '97) with a 3-2 victory. Counsell was named NLCS MVP after batting .297/.333/.459 with three doubles, five runs and four RBIs in the five games.

In the World Series against the Yankees, he had just two hits. The first was a home run off Mike Mussina in the first inning of Game 1, a 9-1 Arizona victory. The second was a third-inning single in Game 7 off of Roger Clemens. But Counsell's bigger contribution came in the ninth, an inning all too familiar to Yankees fans -- and joyously recalled by fans of the D-backs, who are celebrating the 10th anniversary of that title this year and making a surprising run at the postseason to boot. With the Yankees leading, 2-1, Mark Grace led off with a single to center off Mariano Rivera. Damian Miller laid down a bunt to sacrifice pinch-runner David Dellucci to second, but Rivera's throw to second sailed into the outfield. Bell then tried another sacrifice, but Rivera's throw to third was true, forcing out Dellucci. Womack then doubled down the right-field line to score Midre Cummings (pinch-running for Miller) and send Bell to third. Counsell was up next with one out and runners on second and third; Rivera hit him with an 0-1 pitch, loading the bases for Luis Gonzalez. And then, well ...

When I asked Counsell, standing in the visitors clubhouse at Yankee Stadium in June, if any one moment stands out in his career, it was that championship that he recalled.

"I think the 2001 season, for sure," he said. "We were playing the World Series in New York six or eight weeks after 9/11. Actually, I haven't been here [the Bronx] for 10 years. Clubhouse guys here were saying, 'Hey, I haven't seen you in 10 years.' We spent a week in New York, lost three games basically in our last at-bat. Three incredible baseball games, with everything that was going on in the city. I'd say that week, even though we lost the baseball games, but it was pretty memorable that we came here for that. And then we came back to win it."

The Diamondbacks won the NL West again in 2002, but were swept in the NLDS by the Cardinals. They finished third (84-78) in '03, and after the season, Counsell was traded (along with Chris Capuano and Lyle Overbay, among others) to the Brewers in a nine-player blockbuster that sent Richie Sexson to Arizona. Counsell came home to Wisconsin -- for one season. In December 2004, he re-signed with Arizona and stayed for two more seasons.

A free agent again in the 2006-07 offseason, Counsell then made the decision to head home, signing a two-year deal with the Brewers. In '08, and each winter since, he's re-upped with his hometown club.

2010 Topps Craig Counsell "I wanted to come back to Milwaukee because ... the franchise had struggled for quite a while and it was 2007 when I came back here," he said. "It was just kind of the right time. The young players were coming and I wanted to be part of the teams that kind of turned around baseball in Milwaukee again and made it important. It's a baseball town. We're going to draw 3 million people this year, and that's saying something. I think that was the reason why I really wanted to play here -- I wanted to be part of those teams that made baseball important in Milwaukee."

So far, so good. That 2007 team ended what had been a run of 14 non-winning seasons in Milwaukee, then the '08 club was the first to reach the playoffs since the 1982 AL championship squad. The Brewers slipped to third -- and under .500 -- in '09 and '10, but as of this posting, they are 17 games over .500 and five games up on the second-place Cardinals in the NL Central. Perhaps at least one more postseason is in store for Counsell, who will turn 41 on Aug. 21, a week from Sunday, when the Brewers will be in New York finishing a three-game series against the Mets. Back in June, he understandably wasn't yet ready to predict what may come following this year.

"We're a little too soon [to think about the next step]," he said. "We have a good team. Obviously, when you're 40 years old, it's not going to last forever. One of these years will be the last year. I'll stay in the game for sure, I don't know -- I couldn't tell you exactly what, but it will be in baseball for sure."

After spending half his life playing at a high level -- four years at Notre Dame followed by 20 in the professional ranks -- Counsell won't be able to walk away from the game so easily, even after an 0-for-45 slide.

"Everybody looks back on their life and maybe thinks there are some things they could do differently," he said. "But it goes how it goes. Two World Series is -- there's not many people out there who have done that. Still playing in the big leagues at age 40 ... I'd be kind of nitpicking if I was looking to change things."

Labels: , , , , , ,

Monday, August 01, 2011

Finding Frank Grant

Every week I seem to come across another connection between New Jersey and baseball's past, sometimes a significant part of it or something that should be more well known than it is. The most recent find goes back to a Hall of Famer from the 19th Century -- and the game's segregated practices.

This spring, the Negro Leagues Baseball Grave Marker Project installed a stone on the previously unmarked resting place of Ulysses Franklin Grant, better known as Frank Grant -- perhaps the greatest black player of the 1800s. Born in Massachusetts, Grant died in New York City in 1937, but when pallbearers Sol White, Smokey Joe Williams and Nux James laid him to rest, it was at East Ridgelawn Cemetery in Clifton, N.J. The cemetery is not even 10 minutes from my house, so I took a drive over there.

Why Grant was buried in New Jersey is a mystery. He was poor, and so there was no headstone, but despite the lack of a marker, the location was preserved in cemetery records: Section 14, Block B, Row E, Number 6. And though articles written about Grant in 2006, when he was part of the Hall of Fame's largest induction class to date, said his grave would never be marked, that changed this year when Jeremy Krock and his group delivered the headstone. I don't know if it was a change of heart or a change in policy, but it's a welcome change. A player of Grant's historical signifigance should be honored and remembered with a headstone, at the very least.

From 1886-91, Grant played in integrated professional leagues in the Northeast. From Meriden, Ct., to Buffalo to Trenton to Harrisburg to Ansonia, Ct., Grant played (occassionally with Sol White as a teammate) in the Eastern League, International League (and later International Association), Middle States League, Eastern Interstate League, Atlantic Association and Connecticut State League. He was one of a handful of black players suiting up for white teams before segregation was more strictly practiced. In researching Grant's life, I found it interesting that once the International League forced Buffalo to cut ties with Grant, segregation became the norm, and when Jackie Robinson re-integrated what is referred to as Organized Baseball in 1946, he did so in the International League. In fact there may be a direct connection between Grant and Robinson from 1890, when Grant's Harrisburg Ponies may have come to Newark and Jersey City in Atlantic Association play, to 1946, when Robinson's Montreal Royals opened the season at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City. During the intervening 56 years, it may be that no black player suited up for an otherwise "white" team in a "white" or "Organized Baseball" league in New Jersey. (Grant, for one, did play in New Jersey often over the next two decades on all-black teams, either against other black clubs or in exhibition games against white teams.)

But that's just speculation. The full, detailed, day-by-day history of "outsider baseball," as writer and historian Scott Simkus refers to the players who weren't part of the Organized Baseball structure, may never be known because of the lack of records and contemporary coverage remaining today. But that doesn't mean we can't try, and Simkus and Gary Ashwell are among those doing noble work in digging up newspaper archives and other sources to put the pieces together. For a very detailed look at Grant's life, check out Brian McKenna's profile at SABR's Baseball Biography Project. Official MLB historian John Thorn also has two informative posts about Grant, one from 2006 and another from earlier this year. Each one goes into much more detail than I could hope to, at least not without several weeks of research or citing every sentence with a link back to their posts. (And for more on the Negro Leagues Baseball Grave Marker Project, here is a recent Chicago Tribune story and a New York Times article from last year that take a closer look at what Krock and his colleagues have done.)

Frank Grant's grave Grant now rests in a quiet corner at East Ridgelawn, an 80-acre cemetery bordered by busy roads and divided by lanes allowing visitors to drive through the grounds. A large oak tree towers over the east end of Section 14, not far from a fence running along Fenlon Blvd. I wondered if the neighbors across the street knew of the famous ballplayer here beneath the lawn. Based on the photo accompanying a local story, I set out looking for a flat marker decorated with American flags. It didn't take me long to spot them across the undulating grounds, waving in the breeze. Dried, yellow grass from a recent mowing covered half of the inscription, but otherwise the stone looked new, but not fresh -- like it had been there for a few years, not a few months. I brushed the crusty blades of grass from the surface and took some pictures.

Ulysses Franklin (Frank) GrantOther plots in the vicinity have headstones, but nothing within a few feet of Grant's grave. Though he must have "next-door neighbors" there, they lie in still-unmarked graves. I stood there a while wondering what the area looked like in 1937 and how it came to be Grant's final resting place. What did Sol White -- who died in 1955 and is buried on Staten Island -- and Smokey Joe Williams think of bringing their former teammate (in White's case) and friend to the Garden State?

As I walked back to my car, I figured I'll check in on Grant every so often, just to make sure he's not forgotten anymore and that Krock's efforts to have Grant's gravesite recognized are appreciated.

Labels: , , , , ,