CHICAGO — Declaring a new challenge is “where he had to push himself,” new manager Craig Counsell donned a Chicago Cubs uniform at Wrigley Field for the first time Monday after spending the past nine seasons with the rival Milwaukee Brewers.
Counsell, 53, said he had been contemplating a change for the past couple of years but didn’t know he would end up in Chicago until signing a five-year, $40 million contract last week to replace David Ross, who was fired.
“It’s been an emotional week,” Counsell said. “Much harder than I imagined. Just the speed in which this happened and 17 years [including as a player] of relationships. That hits you hard.
“The Brewers have meant a lot to me. I have great relationships there. The relationships I have there are the relationships I’m going to try with all of me to build in Chicago. They’re what’s important in this game.”
Counsell said he “underestimated” the amount of anger Brewers fans have toward him for leaving for a rival.
“That was my miscalculation,” Counsell said. “As time moves forward, I am very proud of what happened in Milwaukee. I think time will look favorably on what was accomplished during those nine years I was the manager there.”
Counsell traveled to meet in secret with Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer on Nov. 1, after his contract with the Brewers ran out. He was intrigued by Hoyer’s vision and aggressive approach.
“I saw quickly that the organization is in great health,” Counsell said. “Jed presented a compelling vision of that. It’s time to be a Cub. There is momentum happening here. And it feels close. Now it’s my job to be part of taking us to the next level. And that’s the plan.”
The Cubs won 83 games last season, just missing out on the playoffs despite a plus-96 run differential. Hoyer said the idea to approach Counsell grew throughout October as he contemplated the wins “left on the table” in 2023. So when Counsell expressed interest, the two hammered out a deal which made Counsell the highest paid skipper in the game.
“I’m sitting up here a little scared,” Counsell said of his new surroundings. “I’m sitting up here feeling a little uncomfortable. But that’s how you get to a better place. And that’s how you push yourself as a person to a better place.
“You walk into a place that you already know demands your best. That feeling is just a feeling that I need to have, that I love to have. I need that to be part of my daily life.”
Counsell didn’t deny that joining the big-market Cubs had its allure as well. The Brewers’ payroll ranked 19th in MLB last season, while the Cubs ranked ninth. Milwaukee has consistently been in the bottom third in that category while, even in retooling years, the Cubs have been among the highest spenders.
That’s expected to continue this offseason as the team is interested in players such as free agent Shohei Ohtani as well as several starting pitchers from Japan who are expected to become available, sources told ESPN. The farm system is ranked No. 2 by ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel.
“More resources are something Chicago offers,” Counsell said. “There’s no question about that. It’s part of the equation. … More resources mean different types of players. That’s a different challenge for a manager. … It’s part of how you tackle a great baseball team. There are also other things that excite you. This place, you can’t help but get excited about it. It’s more than just payroll.”
Counsell indicated that his first task is to create a connection to Cubs’ players and fans alike.
“That is the challenge I have ahead of me,” Counsell said. “It’s a big one. It takes time but it’s the one I have to get right.”
Counsell recognized the unusual move of being courted while the Cubs still employed a manager. He said it’s the “cut-throat” part of the business.
“David [Ross] is a very good man,” Counsell said. “David texted me probably before the news broke here. I called him back. We had what I think is a very good conversation. I’ve always had great respect for David. That gave me the ultimate respect for David.”
Counsell also acknowledged his years in a smaller market may come in handy in Chicago. It’s not unlike how Andrew Friedman jumped from the Tampa Bay Rays to become president of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Success followed.
“It’s an interesting dynamic for this team to take,” Counsell said.
In the end, there were many aspects that brought the Wisconsin native 90 miles south to Chicago. A hefty raise and a new challenge were among them, but that doesn’t mean it was an easy decision. It’s why he took nearly two years to decide upon his next career step.
“I wanted to give it as much time as possible to see where life had me,” Counsell said.