'I needed a new challenge': Counsell talks move to Cubs

November 7th, 2023

MILWAUKEE -- Mostly, Craig Counsell wanted to say thank you to the community in which he’s managed the past nine years, and where he played before that, and once cheered the Brewers as a grade schooler in the stands at County Stadium. He wanted to say that he understands that his departure from Milwaukee has generated raw emotions, especially because he was leaving to manage the rival Cubs.

And at the same time, he wanted to express to his new baseball home how excited he is to begin a new challenge.

“Yesterday was an emotional day,” Counsell said in a telephone conversation on Tuesday. “I was sad first, then happy, then I was crying, then I was laughing -- I went through all of it. It makes for a really full day. There was a lot yesterday, and I understand. It was a decision that affected a lot of people, and I take that very seriously. Of course that went into the equation.”

He was so busy fielding calls and texts on Monday that he didn’t see much of the reaction out in the community.

But he’s aware that the reactions across Milwaukee are strong.

“People’s reaction to this, it’s fair,” Counsell said. “I’m not upset with people’s reaction. I understand people are mad. That’s part of this. That’s part of what makes this hard. But sometimes you just have to try to think above that and do what you think in your heart is right for you and the people around you.”

When Counsell called Brewers owner Mark Attanasio on Monday morning, it was done. He was going to manage the Cubs. His longtime agent, Barry Meister, had quickly negotiated with the Cubs on a contract that will make Counsell the highest-paid manager in Major League history, potentially resetting the market for managers in response to a decade-plus of falling salaries. Counsell’s desire to do so may have been overstated in published reports over recent weeks. More so, he said, “I just wanted the market to decide.”

And above all, he sought a new challenge.

In this case, that challenge is managing one of baseball’s historic franchises in a huge market that happens to be close to home. Counsell grew up just north of Milwaukee in Whitefish Bay, Wis., while his father worked in the Brewers’ community relations department, and young Craig was in the stands when the Brewers played the Cardinals in the 1982 World Series, and when 1987’s Team Streak won 13 in a row to start that tumultuous season. The bottom line is that Counsell’s roots in the community run deep, and he made clear that will not change -- at least for him -- just because he has a new work address.

Counsell will tour his new office on Monday when he’s formally introduced by the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

“I have, in large part, been just humbled by people’s comments, for sure,” Counsell said, after taking a night to collect his thoughts before commenting publicly. “It’s because your connection to people doesn’t change. I’m not planning on any of that changing. And your connection to a community doesn’t have to change because of this. I know it’s because of baseball that maybe people know who I am, but that has nothing to do with my connection to the community.

“I think it’s separate. I know fandom says it’s not, but I think it’s separate.”

Skeptics will say it’s all about the money -- a record $40 million over five years, a source told MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand -- but Counsell talked about the fit. Managing in Chicago makes it easy to scoot the hour or so up to Milwaukee on off-days to see his two high school-aged daughters play sports. His two sons are playing college baseball, Brady at Minnesota and Jack at Michigan. Counsell rarely can attend, but he follows every game on his iPad.

“In looking at my decision, you’re considering a number of things. And the challenging part of this industry and my job is that there’s one job in 30 places, 30 different cities,” Counsell said. “Look, me preserving what I think is a great situation right now, a family situation, I’m able to do that, yet get a professional challenge.”

He came to that conclusion before the end of a regular season in which Counsell’s Brewers and David Ross’ Cubs battled the Reds for the National League Central for much of the season before Milwaukee pulled away for the division crown while Cincinnati, and eventually Chicago, fell short. What made Monday’s move so surprising was that Ross was under contract before he was abruptly let go and Counsell was named Cubs manager.

Counsell said he did not leave Milwaukee because of friction with the front office or ownership, saying he had a strong relationship with the two heads of baseball operations with which he worked, David Stearns and Matt Arnold, and with Attanasio, who was “incredibly graceful” when Counsell called Monday to inform the Brewers of his decision.

“When he first told me,” Attanasio said, “I said, ‘Are you messing with me?’”

But there was always a chance a day like this was coming. In September, according to Attanasio, Counsell informed him that he was intent on managing in 2024, and that it might be in a different market.

They kept the conversation open while the Brewers pushed toward their third division title and fifth postseason appearance in the past six seasons. The Brewers made an offer early in the offseason that would have made Counsell the highest-paid manager in the game, but the Cubs’ offer wound up going much further.

“As I was going through this process, it became clear that I needed and wanted a new professional challenge,” Counsell said. “But at the same time, look, I’m grateful to be a part of this community, and that’s going to continue because it has nothing to do with baseball, that part of it. And I’m looking forward to being a part of a new community, and hopefully impact that community well, too. But my thought here as I went through it, it became clear that I needed a new challenge.”

Of the Cubs, he said, “It’s a challenge with an organization that is very much in a good place and is just primed to do some special things. That part of it certainly is exciting and alluring. You know it’s a challenge. It’s going to be hard. It’s scary, because change is scary. But sometimes you need to push yourself out of that comfort zone and it makes it exciting.”

Now that challenge is right in front of him.

“I’m grateful for my time here,” he said to Milwaukee. “My connection to the people doesn’t change in my eyes. I have developed beautiful, strong relationships that, if anything, have strengthened during an emotional time period. Those relationships will last forever. Your legacy to me is your relationships. Those mean the world to me, and they are strong and deep. I am proud of those.”