Diamondbacks second baseman Craig Counsell awoke on Sunday morning in Atlanta and felt as though he were reliving the past. Arizona led the Braves three games to one in the National League Championship Series and could clinch the pennant by beating lefthander Tom Glavine that night at Turner Field. The situation reminded Counsell of 1997, when he went 2 for 4 and drove in two runs to help the Marlins beat Glavine and the Braves 7-4 in the sixth and deciding game of that year's Championship Series. Same situation. Same city. Same pitcher. Same hotel. "My wife and I ate lunch at the same restaurant I ate at in '97," he said after the Diamondbacks sealed a 3-2 victory and their first trip to the World Series. "I tried to keep everything the same as it was then."
Same indeed. Counsell became a minor cult hero in South Florida in 1997 by scoring the winning run against the Indians in Game 7 of the World Series, and he's on his way to the same status in the Arizona desert. A .275 hitter in the regular season, he was named MVP of last week's series after hitting .381, scoring a team-high five runs, knocking in four more and generally seeming to be everywhere at once. He reached base or sacrificed in nine of the II innings in which Arizona scored, played his usual uniform-dirtying defense and annoyed the Atlanta staff by working deep into the count on nearly every at bat. Counsell's build (he's generously listed at 6 feet and 180 pounds) and youthful face (he's 31, but his peach-fuzzy features might get him carded at an R-rated movie), along with his hustling play, made him look like a Little Leaguer who'd had too much Mountain Dew. "I go to the plate after he hits," says Luis Gonzalez, who batted behind Counsell in the third slot for most of the series, "and the catcher is usually shaking his head."
Counsell's underdog profile and Fighting Irish roots—he was born in South Bend and graduated from Notre Dame in 1992—ensure that he's known as Rudy in the Arizona clubhouse. There are more flattering comparisons as well. "He's our shorter version of Cal Ripken," says Curt Schilling. "He's always in the right place at the right time."
A season ago Counsell was fighting to stay in the big leagues. When the Dodgers released him in March 2000, Diamondbacks general manager Joe Garagiola Jr.—who had played briefly for Craig's father, John, when the elder Counsell, a former outfielder in the Twins organization, coached baseball at Notre Dame—signed Craig to a minor league contract and asked him to spend time with the Triple A Tucson Sidewinders, playing shortstop and third base to enhance his value as a utility player. The move paid off. After joining Arizona on May 31, Counsell played second and filled in when shortstop Tony Womack and third baseman Matt Williams were hurt. He has so impressed manager Bob Brenly with his savvy that Brenly says, "He's the smartest player I've been around. I put him out there and don't give a second thought to whether he'll be where he's supposed to be."
Plus there are his knack for postseason drama—in addition to his Championship Series heroics, Counsell won Game 3 of the Division Series against the Cardinals with a three-run homer—and his World Series experience. Counsell is the only player on Arizona's postseason roster with a Series ring, though he has never flashed the jewelry in the clubhouse. "I see all these veteran guys in here, and I realize how difficult it is to win a World Series," he says. "I want them to experience what I have."