For Craig Counsell, the chance to manage the Cubs was one he couldn't pass up

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Chicago Cubs new baseball team manager Craig Counsell listens to a question during a press conference in Chicago, Monday, Nov. 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

CHICAGO – Craig Counsell didn't answer the phone when the Chicago Cubs called about their manager job. Once he realized the number belonged to President of Baseball Operations Jed Hoyer, he quickly got in touch.

After that, things unfolded in a hurry.

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The Cubs introduced Counsell as their 56th manager on Monday, one week after they lured him away from the Milwaukee Brewers with a record contract and fired David Ross in a pair of surprising moves. He became the majors’ highest paid manager with a five-year deal worth more than $40 million.

“I called him back,” Counsell said. “And he indicated the Cubs had interest, discussed some generalities of what was going on, my schedule. I was interested, but cautious. I suggested we get together that day because I was going to New York the next day. My process was getting very fast, so we got together later that day.”

The interview took place at Hoyer's home. The only other Cubs personnel who knew about it were chairman Tom Ricketts and general manager Carter Hawkins.

“It was a little bit of a shot in the dark and I didn't think it was very likely,” Hoyer said. “And therefore, I wanted to make sure I kept a really small circle.”

Having the interview at his home was a first for Hoyer. But then again, this was a rare opportunity to land one of the top managers, though the circumstances were familiar. The Cubs hired Joe Maddon and fired Rick Renteria following the 2014 season, when they thought they were on the cusp of contending.

Hoyer was the general manager back then, with Theo Epstein running baseball operations. Maddon led the Cubs to four straight playoff appearances, including a World Series championship in 2016 that ended a 108-year drought, and a 471-339 record in five seasons.

Ross was 262-284 in four seasons and led the Cubs to the NL Central title in 2020 — his first year. They were in contention for a wild card this year and finished 83-79 after back-to-back losing seasons. Ross was also a popular member of the 2016 team as a backup catcher.

Now, Counsell takes over.

He led the budget-conscious Brewers to five playoff appearances in the past six years, including three NL Central titles, and a 707-625 record in nine seasons. His contract expired, making him one of the biggest managerial free agents in recent years.

Counsell holds the franchise record for wins and games managed. The one mark against him was Milwaukee's inability to perform as well in the playoffs. The Brewers have lost nine of their last 10 postseason games.

“The 162 games is a marathon and there are ... decisions you make that are rewarded over the marathon and players are rewarded over the marathon,” Counsell said. “In short playoff series, we have luck in our game. And we have misfortune in our game. You control less in really short stints in this game. It forces aggressiveness on managers, I think.”

Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio said last week the team offered a deal that would have made Counsel the highest paid manager per year and in total package. Counsel said he wasn't sure if there was more the team could have done to keep him. He had been thinking of managing elsewhere the past two years.

“I wanted to give myself time to be in that place, to see what was in front of me, to see what was going on with my family and give myself time to make a decision that I felt was best for all of us,” Counsell said.

Counsell grew up a Brewers fan in the Milwaukee suburb of Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, and still lives there. His father, John Counsell, is the Brewers’ former director of community affairs.

An infielder, Counsell's 16-year run as a major league player included two stints with the Brewers — in 2004 and from 2007 to 2011. He played on championship teams with the Florida Marlins in 1997 and Diamondbacks in 2001, and he was part of the 2008 Brewers team that earned Milwaukee its first playoff appearance since its 1982 World Series berth.

As much as Counsell's decision to leave stung fans in Milwaukee, taking the Cubs job was like pouring a packet of salt on the wound. Someone sprayed the word “ass” on the sign at the Little League field bearing his name in Whitefish Bay.

“That's been part of the ride that's been a hard week for me, for sure,” Counsell said. “It has. And I underestimated that. I underestimated that. That was my miscalculation there, a little bit. As time moves forward, I'm very proud of what happened in Milwaukee. ... I think time will look favorably on what was accomplished during those nine years that I was the manager there. It's there and it's real and I understand it. I do. But I think time will help.”



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