Book excerpt: 'The Chicken Runs at Midnight'

Editor's note: This excerpt is taken from "The Chicken Runs at Midnight" by Tom Friend. Copyright © 2018 by Tom Friend. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.

With all the Marlins' weapons, they just wanted reliability, a role player. "We didn't need another all-star,'' (Dave) Dombrowski says. So, on July 27th, 1997, when the Rockies asked for just journeyman pitcher Mark Hutton in return, (Craig) Counsell became a Marlin.

It was an unorthodox trade. Usually at the trade deadline, contending teams use minor leaguers to acquire veterans, but this was the polar opposite -- Florida had traded a veteran for a no-name. (Jim) Leyland thought he was done with low-budget rookies. Rich (Donnelly) remembers Leyland telling (Bruce) Kimm, "If this guy can't play, you're fired.''

Counsell walked into the Florida clubhouse on July 28th, looking all of 18 years old. Tim (Donnelly) and Mike (Donnelly) thought he might be the newest clubhouse attendant, certainly not a prized second baseman. Leyland, who can be gruff at first sight, waved Counsell over to his office and said, "Tell me about yourself.'' Counsell, unable to tell a lie, was blunt:

"It's not always going to look pretty,'' Counsell told him. "But I'll get the job done for you.''

A wary Leyland told Counsell to meet him at the batting cage. On his way there, Leyland -- unimpressed with Counsell's physique -- stuck his head in the coach's room and grumbled, "I ain't gonna put him in the lineup today. This guy might just be a utility guy. But let's check him out.''

The cage only exacerbated matters. Counsell's batting stance was an anomaly. With his front foot planted open, he would hold the bat completely vertical, his back elbow up even with his eyebrows. As he'd await the pitch, he'd flap his arms as if he was about to take off in flight. It was Counsell's timing mechanism, his over-exaggerated strategy of staying on top of the baseball. But Leyland's eyes bugged out. Now he knew what Counsell meant when he mentioned it wouldn't look pretty. "What the heck is this?'' Rich remembers Leyland asking. The results weren't any spicier. Counsell swung at 10 pitches and, according to Rich, popped up 8 or 9 of them. "We traded for this guy?'' Leyland ranted.

The manager then asked Rich to hit Counsell some ground balls at second. "Move him around a little bit,'' Leyland requested. So Rich hammered grounders 10 feet to Counsell's left and then 10 feet to Counsell's right. The kid was late to most of them. "What the heck did we do?'' Rich remembers Leyland griping. "This kid can't play a lick. I wouldn't sign this guy out of a tryout camp.''

Leyland glared over at Kimm, who drawled, "He'll be all right.'' But Leyland wouldn't let Counsell sniff the field that night, using the veteran Kurt Abbott instead. The next day, Counsell showed up early for extra hitting. Leyland moseyed on out to watch and again witnessed Counsell mostly pop up or roll-over ground balls.

"So after two rounds,'' Counsell remembers, "Leyland says to me, 'Hey, don't ever come out here again. If I have to watch you hit, you're never going to play.'"

But just to spite Kimm and everyone else, Leyland wrote Counsell into the lineup that night. "You wanted him, you got him. He's starting today,'' Leyland told Kimm.

"Well, you don't have to start him,'' Kimm answered.

"Well, he's startin'," Leyland snapped. "But I'm batting him eighth. I don't want to see too much of him, so I'm battin' him down at the end.''

Counsell trotted out there and did what he'd always done at every level -- performed. He had his first major league hit and turned a double play into a Marlins victory over the Reds. Two games later, Leyland reinserted him against the rival Braves to see if it was a fluke. But Counsell had another hit and turned a key 9th inning double play into a 1-0 victory.

"I told ya,'' Kimm gloated to Leyland. "I told ya he can play.''

"We'll see how good he is,'' Leyland shot back. "We get Maddux tomorrow.''

Twenty-four hours later, Leyland started him against the future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux. Counsell flailed at Maddux's pitches, went 0-for-2 with an error. Leyland scolded Kimm again. The manager was going to give the kid one more shot in the series finale against the Braves on August 3rd. All Counsell did was go 1-for-3 again in an 8-4 victory. "Jim started scratchin' his head,'' Rich says.

The whole clubhouse was picking up on Counsell's vibe. The team won eight of its first nine games after the trade -- and the one they lost was Counsell's day off. Nothing fazed the kid. He wasn't intimidated by the Sheffield's, the Brown's and the Bonilla's. He acted like he'd been there before. And in a poignant sort of way, he had been.

He was the son of former Twins minor leaguer John Counsell, who had gone on to work as video coordinator and community relations director for Craig's hometown Milwaukee Brewers. John would bring his young son to the clubhouse, where Craig learned how to blend in, how to be seen and not heard. "He was a classic, one-word, two-word, three-word answer guy,'' John says of Craig. "But huge at soaking up the information.''

Craig was in the clubhouse during the 1982 Brewers' World Series run and studied how the players conducted themselves. He would tag along on community service appearances, where he'd get to spend quality time at the houses of the Brewers' two star players, Paul Molitor and Robin Yount.

"So we're coming home from an event one day, and we drop a player off,'' John Counsell remembers. "Craig's 12 years old. I said, 'I've never asked you, who are your favorite players?' He goes, 'You'll be mad at me.' I say, 'What do you mean I'll be mad at you?' He said, 'My favorite are Paul and Robin -- you probably think I like 'em because they're the most popular players.'" I said, 'Well, why do you like 'em?' And Craig goes, 'Because they're the same at home as they are at the ballpark.'"

That self-aware side of Counsell is why he became one Leyland's favorite players. And it's also why he caught the eyes of young Tim and Mike Donnelly -- because he would've fit in with them at the cul-de-sac. Counsell looked about their age and was about as bony as they were, as well. They figured if he could make it to the big leagues, so could they. "It gave me hope,'' Tim says. "I said, 'Man, I've got a shot to get to the Majors.'" But most of all, Counsell was the nicest, most sincere, most unassuming player they'd come across ... since Sid Bream.

In fact, the day the boys knew Counsell was special was the day he showed up at the Marlins stadium driving a black, faded, dinged up 1991 Nissan Altima -- a four-door family car. It belonged to his sister, Jennifer, who was living abroad in Australia temporarily. The first time Counsell tried pulling it into the team parking lot -- amid all of the BMW's and Mercedes' and Lamborghini's -- he was denied entry.

"Where you going?'' said the parking lot's security guard.

"I'm a player,'' Counsell said.

"Yeah, you wish,'' said the guard.

For 10 minutes, Counsell tried arguing his way in -- although arguing wasn't his forte. Eventually, a clubhouse attendant came out to rescue him, and from then on, Tim and Mike were sold on Counsell. He was everyman; he was Bream. Then, when he let them hang out at his locker, when he hit them fly balls and ground balls before home games, Counsell became their No. 1.

"I might have talked to his boys more than I talked to Rich,'' Counsell says. "They were just good kids hanging out with their dad like I had hung out with my dad. They were baseball kids. I felt I'd lived a similar life, for sure. So I think I respected that. That they were just there because they wanted to share time with their dad more than anything.''

Tim and Mike just admired how "normal'' Counsell was, how unpretentious. Counsell earned a minimum rookie salary and stayed at a local AmeriSuites motel for $40 a night. Tim particularly considered him his role model. One day, Counsell -- who liked the way Tim fielded a baseball -- asked him if he wanted to play for Notre Dame someday. Tim answered, 'Heck, yeah.'' If he could've, Tim would've followed Counsell around all day -- particularly to the batting cage.

There was something fascinating about the way Counsell hit a baseball. The upright stance, the flapping of his forearms and elbows, the toothpick legs. Tim couldn't put his finger on it at first, but Counsell reminded him of something.

Then, one afternoon, Counsell needed someone to throw him batting practice. So Tim went to find Rich.

"Dad, the Chicken wants to take some batting practice,'' Tim said.


"The Chicken -- Counsell,'' Tim said.

At that point, Tim explained that Counsell had the body of a chicken, the biceps of a chicken, the gait of a chicken and the batting stance of a chicken. But the flapping of his arms was the clincher. The boys wouldn't dare say it around Counsell -- "We weren't going to go up to him and say, 'What's up, Chicken?'" Tim says -- but they clearly meant it as a term of endearment. To Tim and Mike, Counsell was the "Chicken Man'' or "The Chicken,'' forever more.

"We were on the turnpike driving home one night in Florida,'' Rich says. "They're in the back seat, and I'm talking to the boys the way I used to talk to Amy. I said, 'Guys, who's your favorite player?' And they go, 'The Chicken -- we love the Chicken.'"

Rich was amused by it all, but his mind was basically elsewhere. He was still semi-tortured inside, still beating himself up over his role in Amy's death. Perhaps he always would. He felt God had punished him for his infidelities and/or his deficiencies as a parent. "God has a way of sending you a message,'' Rich says. "You think you get away with something, think you're free and clear -- but you're not. If you hurt people, you're going to be hurt back. I felt guilty. I felt like Amy's death was my punishment.'' Coaching third base was a convenient three-hour escape every day -- his respite -- but he knew he needed to get to church more, to make peace with himself and with God once and for all.

On a road trip at the end of August, he set his alarm early to attend a Sunday mass. It was 6:30 a.m., and the hotel lobby was deserted as he began his three-block walk to the church -- not a player or fellow coach in sight. He settled into a pew and suddenly recognized the person seated directly in front of him. It was Counsell.

When Counsell saw Rich, they nodded at each other and smiled. After the service, they walked back to the hotel together, never once discussing their faith or Counsell's secret nickname, the Chicken. The truth was, Counsell was somewhat like Rich -- he wasn't constantly in church, but found himself drawn there at times. Counsell considered himself "a little more than an Easter-Christmas Catholic, but not much.'' Like most young boys, he had struggled with the meaning of religion and was in church that Sunday to continue his education.

"I probably questioned it more than I believed in it, to tell you the truth'' Counsell says. "As a kid, I remember going to ask a priest, 'I don't understand this Father-Son-Holy Ghost thing. Explain it to me. I don't understand the Holy Ghost, you've got to explain it to me.' I never got a good answer. It was about faith, that's for sure.''

Rich was 24 years older than Counsell, old enough to be his father, but their conversation on the way back to the hotel was easy, free-flowing. They connected. Counsell began talking about that day's game and asked Rich what he knew about the opposing pitcher. Rich was impressed by the kid's attention to detail. At the time, Counsell was batting a whopping .352. Had he played a full season, he would've been a leading candidate for Rookie-of-the-Year. Rich patted him on the back as they parted ways and remembers thinking, "What a wonderful kid this guy is. Now I know why my kids are attracted to him.'' He also found it intriguing that of all the Marlins on the trip -- staff, trainers, coaches, players -- only two had made it to mass that morning:

Him and the Chicken.

The book, "The Chicken Runs At Midnight,'' by Tom Friend, will be released on Tuesday: https://www.zondervan.com/9780310352068/the-chicken-runs-at-midnight/