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Tournaments  | Story  | 10/9/2020

Brewers ST out to enjoy the ride

Jeff Dahn     
Photo: Roc Riggio (Perfect Game)

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Craig Counsell seemed quite at ease at the Lee County Player Development 5-Plex Friday afternoon, surrounded by old friends,  like former D’backs teammate Luis Gonzalez, while making a whole lot of new friends as well.

It was also notable that the current manager of the Milwaukee Brewers happened to be in the same former MLB spring training complex as his son, Brady Counsell, who is playing with the Milwaukee Brewers Scout Team at this week’s Perfect Game WWBA World Championship, the most prestigious and heavily scouted amateur tournament for high school-age prospects in the world.

“This is pure enjoyment,” Craig Counsell, who played all or parts of 16 seasons in the major leagues before getting into managing, told PG during an early afternoon break in the action. “I don’t get to see a lot of (amateur) games and I definitely don’t get to see this caliber of competition very often so it’s a thrill for me. The old me is amazed at how good these kids are at this age when I was thinking back to when I was this age.

“It’s really impressive the quality of talent that’s assembled here and that our (Brewers) scouts have put together; it’s fun to watch,” he added. “I was really blown away (Thursday) at the level of competition.”

There are a whole lot of people who are impressed with the high level of play the Milwaukee Brewers Scout Team showed in itheir first two games of the WWBA World on Thursday and Friday, games that ended with a win and a tie. Those results left this Brew Crew Scout Team in position to secure a spot in the playoffs if they can win their pool-play finale on Saturday.

And they boast a young roster to boot, with 18 of the 25 spots filled by underclassmen from the classes of 2022 and 2023. That’s not been totally unheard of at the event known as Jupiter over the years, but the majority of the powerhouse programs are trotting draft-eligible 2021s out on the field.

“This is a good first experience for these guys to kind of get their feet wet,” Brewers Central Florida area scout and MBST head coach Mike Burns told PG on Friday. “ We want to try to get them down here a little bit earlier so their first experience with it isn’t going into their senior year when they’re draft eligible. It’s a good experience for them to see the atmosphere of what’s down here.”

It’s a national roster with players from coast-to-coast and it was built through a complete team effort that involved the Brewers entire amateur scouting department. And, it has to be mentioned, the endeavor has received the unquestioned support from Brewers executives including President-Baseball Operations & General Manager David Sterns, Senior Vice President & Assistant GM Matt Arnold and Vice President-Amateur Scouting Director Tod Johnson.

The area scouts recommend players who they feel will be a good fit on this ballclub and who will be receptive to the messages being relayed from the staff. The goal is to make sure everybody gets enough playing time while also making sure no one is overworked. The players obviously want to come here and compete and play every game to win but it’s not going to be done to the detriment of anyone’s health.

“That’s one of our biggest points when we get guys on the team here is that we’re going to take care of them and make sure they get a good experience out of it,” Burns said. “They’re not going to be just a number on the roster.

“They’re going to get enough playing time, they’re going to spend time out on the field and it’s going to be a worthwhile experience for them to come down here for a couple of days.”

The atmosphere is slightly altered this year with the event being moved from its 20-year home at the Roger Dean Chevrolet Sports Complex in Jupiter, Fla., to multiple venues here in Southwest Florida. Gone are the hundreds of golf carts scurrying from field-to-field at Roger Dean and the almost carnival-like – but also businesslike – atmosphere the event became known for.

But make no mistake, no one is disappointed here this weekend. Fort Myers and Lee County have proven to be, as always, perfect hosts and a young squad like the Brewers Scout Team couldn’t be more appreciative of the opportunity it’s been given.

“It’s been a great experience; everybody’s been very happy once they got the invitation,” Burns said. “We try to pull from all over the country and bring guys down here that haven’t played together necessarily all the time and that way they get to make new friends and meet new people and we get to spend time with them, which is good.”

Charlie Saum is a 2021 catcher/first baseman from Thousand Oaks, Calif., who has committed to Stanford and is ranked No. 107 nationally. This is his first Jupiter experience – seven of these rostered players were with the Brewers Scout Team at last year’s tournament – and he’s settling in nicely.

“It’s really incredible getting to be around just some awesome players from all over the place,” Saum said on Friday. “We’ve got guys from all over the country and it’s a really talented group. There’s a lot of different personalities and it’s fun to be around, for sure.”

One of the more distinct personalities on this team belongs to Roc Riggio, a 2021 second baseman and catcher who has committed to Oklahoma State and is ranked No. 87 nationally; he also hails from Thousand Oaks.

Riggio is an alumnus of the 2017 PG 14u Select Baseball Festival that was held at jetBlue Park in Fort Myers and was with the Brewers Scout Team at the 2019 Jupiter event. The kid is as high-energy as it gets and he doesn’t necessarily feel like having experienced Jupiter once before gives him any advantage because nerves or high expectations have never been a problem.

“For me personally, it’s never really an issue coming in,” Riggio said. “I play to have fun and I play to win and that’s part of my game. I feel like when you have that mentality and you go out there and play your hardest and play to win there’s really no pressure on you at all.”

Maxwell Muncy, is a talented infielder and an Arkansas recruit ranked No. 58 nationally in the class of 2021. He also happens to be a classmate/teammate of Riggio’s at Thousand Oaks High School and is another player who was with the Milwaukee Brewers ST in Jupiter a year ago.

“I’m thankful for the opportunity to be out here,” Muncy said Friday. “I’m glad they selected us and I’m happy to be with these two guys, Roc and Charlie. Just meeting all these guys has been so much fun, learning about where they’re from and how things are different.

“It’s been fun just to talk to them before the game, after the game, in the dugout and just see what’s baseball’s like all over.”

And then there’s Brady Counsell, a 2021 top-500 middle-infielder and Minnesota recruit from Whitefish Bay, Wis., and the son of the Brewers’ skipper. Counsell has played almost exclusively with the Wisconsin-based Hitters Baseball program the last couple of years but is really enjoying being with this team here this weekend.

“Obviously, this tournament is the best competition you’re going to face all year long,” he said. “We’ve seen that so far with some of the top arms we’ve faced and that’s going to help us get a lot better. That’s kind of the best part of the tournament is seeing that good pitching and helping you get better.”

Another top 2021 rostered with the club is righthander/third baseman Luke Holman from Sinking Spring, Pa., an Alabama commit ranked No. 203 nationally.

So now seems like a good time to be introduced to the underclassmen, a group that adds the sizzle to the steak provided by the talented 2021s.

First baseman/right-hander Yoel Tejeda Jr. (No. 69, Florida), right-hander/first baseman Aiden Moffett (No. 132, LSU), right-hander/third baseman Luke Holman (No. 203, Alabama), left-hander/first baseman Michael Kennedy (No. 247, LSU) lead the way from the class of 2022.

The top 2023s include lefties Ervis Solis (No. 92, FIU), Frank Menendez (No. 132, LSU) and David Davila (No. 278, Florida State), who got the start in Friday’s 3-3 tie with MVP United for Change and threw a one-hitter in four innings of work.

“I think it’s important to have a couple of those upperclass guys that (the underclassmen) can kind of lean on and see how things are done and how they’re supposed to act and go about their business,” Burns said. “But also to put those younger guys in more of a ‘pro’ environment with how we run our workouts and everything pregame, as well, so they can kind of see what to expect as they move up and become prospects themselves.”

Having been there himself a year ago, Riggio understands that many of the newcomers are coming into this highly competitive environment where they don’t know any of their new teammates and may have a tendency to tighten-up and maybe even withdraw to an extent.

That’s when it’s time for some senior leadership to take charge and the veterans are more than prepared to take that bull by the horns.

“That’s hard for those guys coming in and being the leader that I am and with Max and Charlie being the leaders they are, we tend to loosen up those guys a little bit,” Riggio said. “They start to see, you know what, we’re here to have fun, we’re here to play some games. Right now we’re just playing games but pretty soon it’s going to be a career. So we can loosen up a little bit.”

Muncy sees it much the same way. Even though the faces of the underclassmen were unfamiliar on Thursday the page is turning into Saturday and games have already been played. The strangers, well they’re teammates now and the only thing these guys know how to do is be good teammates.

“Even though you don’t know a lot of these guys your mindset is just to pull one out for them,” Muncy said. “We’ll do anything to get the win so we can keep moving on. … You learn what it’s like to face the best for four days straight. It’s like a small glimpse of what the MLB season will be like.

“It’s nice to experience it, it’s nice to be out here in Florida where spring training takes place and kind of get a vibe of what it’s really like out here.”

The main point of emphasis with the coaching staff – the thing they stress the most to their players – is that they’re here to compete. As long as they’re running hard 90s down the line and not making mental errors on the base paths or while fielding their position, a lot can be forgiven.

“If we take care of the little things we think that will lead to positive results out on the field,” Burns said. “At the end of the day do we want to win a championship? Absolutely. I think every team down here definitely wants to do that but we have the longer term future in mind, too.”

Saum told PG the coaching staff has been outstanding and very clear with their message:

“They’ve done a great job of explaining to us how this is kind of a job interview; we’re trying to showcase ourselves in the best way we possibly can,” he said. “At the end of the day you write it as a learning experience and we’re all trying to do the best we can to showcase ourselves and our abilities while also winning a tournament.”

The Milwaukee Brewers Scout Team played its opener Thursday at historic Terry Park near downtown Fort Myers, a four-field complex that Hall of Fame manager Connie Mack first started bringing his Philadelphia Athletics teams to for spring training nearly 100 years ago; others followed. Craig Counsell thought it was a perfect time for a little history lesson when he spoke with these teenagers.

“I told them, you guys are about to step on a field that Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth played on,” he said. “To me, it just tells them what a great thing you guys are being allowed to do. And the kids that are playing in this they’re out in front of the race right now among the baseball kids but there are a lot of kids trying to catch them.

“The game will teach you a lot of lessons about that but it’s a long race that you guys all want to run. Just being here and watching all these kids chase their dreams is a thrill.”

With the WWBA World Championship kicking off on Thursday and with the possibility still alive that the Brewers Scout Team could play into Monday, there’s a chance that Brady Counsell could be slipping on a Milwaukee Brewers jersey and wearing a Brewers cap for five straight days; it’s kind of surreal.

“It’s definitely something that I never thought I’d do,” Brady said. “Putting on a Brewers jersey and being able to play, especially in this kind of event, is definitely a dream.”