Craig Counsell went on to win two World Series rings after playing Hawaii Winter Baseball for the Maui Stingrays.

Counsell remembers
Hawaii days fondly

The 2-time World Series champ
said the exposure to a higher
level of play made him better

By Nick Abramo

Craig Counsell of the Arizona Diamondbacks is a two-time World Series champion, but he's still humble and down-to-earth.

His memories of playing two seasons as an infielder for the Maui Stingrays of Hawaii Winter Baseball in the mid-1990s haven't been discarded.

"What I remember more than anything about playing in Hawaii was what great people there were," said Counsell, who is on the disabled list with a pinched nerve and two herniated disks in his neck that will require surgery. "They were hospitable and genuine, and it was a memorable experience."

He particularly remembers after-game parties, hanging out with players, staffers and Maui kamaaina until well past midnight.

All of that was before he was called up to the major leagues with Colorado in 1995.

"The two winters I spent in Hawaii helped me," Counsell said. "I was exposed to a higher level of players, and so I got used to playing with the best-of-the-best minor-leaguers from the regular season. There was just more exposure to the stuff that makes you a better player."

Counsell can also brag that he played against Ichiro Suzuki before most people in the U.S. knew anything about the Japanese star.

Arizona's Craig Counsell, regarded as one of the Diamondback's MVPs, played for Maui in 1993 and '94.

Suzuki led HWB in batting while with the Hilo Stars in the inaugural 1993 season.

"He (Ichiro) had a unique style back then, really fast, a great outfielder," Counsell said. "He's obviously one of the best players in the game now, and he does the same things he did in Hawaii."

Florida acquired Counsell during the 1997 season, and he wound up scoring the winning run in the 11th inning of the seventh game of that season's World Series against Cleveland. He also hit a sacrifice fly to tie the game in the ninth to force extra innings.

Counsell played briefly for the Los Angeles Dodgers and moved on to the Diamondbacks in 2000. He was an integral part of the Diamondbacks' 2001 World Series championship.

"Anytime you can play the Yankees and beat the Yankees in a World Series, it's the ultimate thrill," he said of last year's dramatic seven-game affair. "It was a memorable World Series, one that people of our generation will never forget.

"Winning the World Series is unbelievably difficult to do, and I'm proud of it, as proud of the one in Arizona as the one in Florida."

Counsell's surgery may be postponed until the end of the season, which means he could still be a part of the Diamondbacks' pennant chase.

He remembers Stingrays general manager Lane Fujii and HWB owner Duane Kurisu as among those "genuine and hospitable people" he met on Maui.

Kurisu liked Counsell and teammate Quinton McCracken so much, he took them sightseeing.

"They were two boys that any father would love to have as their daughter's boyfriend or husband. They were well-mannered, good young men," Kurisu said.

"And, even though he's not as well known as some others, I bet if you ask the players on his Arizona team who their MVP is, Counsell would be right up there. He's a real feisty player, the kind of guy who gets his uniform dirty."

McCracken is Counsell's teammate with Arizona this year.

One time, when Counsell was at a Thanksgiving luau on Maui, someone jumped out of the pit where the pig was being cooked.

"He scared the crap out of everyone," said the versatile 31-year-old Counsell, who can play all of the infield positions and was batting .282 with a career-high 51 RBIs for the Diamondbacks this year before the injury.

"I also remember some of the guys coming to the park for a game and not being able to play because they stepped on a jellyfish or cut their foot on coral."

And there were other funny moments, harder to translate.

"There was this old guy, a fan on Kauai, always watching from the first-base line, and he was constantly yelling at us with the strangest terms that didn't make much baseball sense," Counsell said.

"He would say 'put-dee-bat-in-front' over and over again when he wanted us to bunt, and he always wanted us to bunt."

And whenever a runner was on first base with one or no outs, that same fan would shout "double out!," encouraging teams to go for a double play.

"I'll never, ever forget him," Counsell said.

Suzuki and another former HWB player, Jason Giambi of the New York Yankees, were picked to play in this year's All-Star Game. Counsell was left off the NL All-Star squad, but many of his teammates thought he should have been chosen.

Suzuki's path from Japan to the U.S. -- with a stop in Hawaii -- demonstrates the developing bond between the nations that may eventually lead to a true "World" Series or at least to a bigger influx of players from all across the globe into MLB.

"One of the biggest compliments anyone can say about a baseball player is 'Hey, that kid can play.' When I heard major-league coaches saying that about the Japanese players we had here, it had huge connotations for things to come," Kurisu said.

"All the people who helped run the league can look back and proudly say they had an important role in helping Asians become part of Major League Baseball. It had to start somewhere and it started here."

Kurisu has said he may start up the league (which ran from 1993-97 before operations were suspended for economic reasons) again in 2003 to continue developing that worldwide baseball atmosphere.

Hawaii Winter Baseball helped develop big-name sluggers like Giambi, make-it-happen leadoff hitters like Suzuki, and steady, hustling types with two World Series rings like Craig Counsell, who continues to think warmly of his time here.

"The nice thing about baseball," Counsell said, "is that you can sleep in the next day (after parties that last past midnight), and, with games at night, I was able to do all the things Hawaii has to offer, like snorkeling and all that stuff."

Arizona Diamondbacks

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