For an entire generation of baseball fans, the sight of Willie Mays “falling down in the outfield” has become a catchphrase representing the feeling of seeing a sports god once thought invincible succumb to the inexorable forces of time and age. I never truly experienced this feeling in full until I saw Craig Counsell playing at Fenway Park last night.
That, I will grant, sounds completely insane. Willie Mays is in the conversation for greatest player of all time and Craig Counsell…isn’t. But historic greatness isn’t the only path to exaltation in the mind of a sports fan. To me, part of the joy of following baseball or other sports is the way in which the constancy of the leagues and players can bring you back to different times. We all have players who we can’t see without immediately thinking of some other time we saw them play, some other moment that’s going to be imprinted in our minds for the rest of our lives. I’ve written about this before, but Craig Counsell is one of those players for me.
I first became interested in baseball when I was 8 years old, in 1997, the same year that my family moved from Milwaukee to Arizona. We headed out on October 22nd, and spent a little over a week driving down there. This was during the 1997 World Series, and I watched it every night. It was the one constant during the trip; we were sleeping in a different hotel in a different state pretty much every night, but there was always a World Series game to watch. This was the first World Series I ever watched, between the Cleveland Indians and the Florida Marlins. As far as World Series go, it was an exciting one, going to a Game 7 that ended with a walkoff hit in the bottom of the 11th to score Craig Counsell, giving the Marlins a World Championship. I was happy about this, because I had been rooting for the Marlins. They were a recent expansion team, and I knew I was moving to a city that was about to get its very own brand new expansion team. I felt that by winning the World Series, the Marlins proved to me that a new expansion team like the Diamondbacks could win their own championship in short order.
This line of thinking only makes sense in the world of little kid logic, but somehow it’s exactly what happened. Just four years later, Arizona found itself in the 2001 World Series. This one also went seven games, and in the bottom of the 9th in that final game, Craig Counsell was there, drawing a clutch HBP to load the bases for Luis Gonzalez, who promptly drove in the winning run.
My love of baseball began to ebb for a few years after that, but it came back in 2007 when the Milwaukee Brewers began to recapture my attention with an assortment of exciting young players…and Craig Counsell, who was still hanging around as if he had been waiting for me.
And now in 2011, nearly 10 years after that Arizona World Series, I found myself sitting in Fenway Park, seeing .213/.315/.263 in big HD numbers every time 40-year-old Craig Counsell walked to the plate. Worse yet, although defense has always been his calling card, on the other side of the ball, I saw: in the 5th, Counsell nearly fell down trying to change course after a David Ortiz single was deflected by Marco Estrada; in the 6th, he couldn’t make the play on this ball up the middle which led to an RBI for Pedroia; and in the 7th, he let another run score when a potential double play ball clanged off of his glove for an error. The ball up the middle in the 6th was the most agonizing one for me; watching it, there’s just something about it that screams, “I made that play when I was a younger man.” Last night, Counsell just plain looked old in a way that he really hadn’t before, at least not to me.
I know that a baseball fan of my age should really have been more shocked by Ken Griffey sleeping in the clubhouse, or Tom Glavine being unable to earn a call-up from the minors, but for me, Ken Griffey was a face on cereal boxes, and Tom Glavine was a guy who name I heard bandied about in conjunction with greatness. Craig Counsell was the guy who was there for me when my life was changing; Craig Counsell was the guy who was there when I was 8 and again when I was 20, who reminded me that as much as things had changed, they hadn’t changed that much. Craig Counsell was the guy who made sure he could stay in the middle of my baseball world. Last night, I received the unfortunate reminder that someday all-too-soon, he won’t be.