Now that he's with Cubs, Counsell wants to take them to 'next level'

November 13th, 2023

CHICAGO – Craig Counsell was admittedly ready for a new challenge, but the manager did not have the Cubs on his radar this offseason. Then came a missed call from Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer that sparked an unexpected, new chapter in the team’s history.

On Monday morning, Hoyer smiled as he watched Counsell put on a Cubs jersey to the clicking of cameras in his introductory press conference at Wrigley Field. Counsell’s move down I-94 from the rival Brewers to the Cubs stunned the baseball world and announced that Chicago means business this winter and in the upcoming seasons.

“I'm sitting up here a little scared. I'm sitting up here a little uncomfortable,” Counsell said. “But that's how you get to a better place. That's how you push yourself.”

The Cubs officially unveiled Counsell as the 56th manager in club history, giving him a five-year contract that is worth $40 million, per sources. Counsell immediately becomes the highest-paid manager in baseball history, while coming to a Cubs team that boasts a solid core, highly ranked farm system and ample financial flexibility.

During his nine-year run in Milwaukee, Counsell built a reputation as a manager who could get the most out of the smaller-market payroll and roster at his disposal. He became the winningest manager in Brewers history, reached the playoffs in five of the past six years and has posted the National League’s third-highest winning percentage (.555) since 2017.

After admiring Counsell for years from afar, Hoyer felt it was important to at least see if a move to the Cubs was even possible.

“I felt like this is an opportunity that I wanted to try to seize,” Hoyer said. “I felt like it was a shot I had to take.”

Hoyer called his call to Counsell on Nov. 1 – the day the manager was no longer under contract with the Brewers – a shot in the dark. Only Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts and general manager Carter Hawkins were looped in on Hoyer’s sudden pursuit. And after Counsell initially did not answer his phone, he called Hoyer back.

Counsell, who was being courted by other teams with managerial vacancies, had a meeting in New York on Nov. 2. If the Hoyer was serious, there was a sense of urgency to the situation. They agreed to convene at the house of the Cubs’ executive, who made his pitch about the state of the team and the plan for 2024 and beyond.

“I saw quickly that the organization is just in great health,” Counsell said. “Jed presented a very compelling vision of that. It's time to be a Cub. There is momentum happening here, and it feels close. And that means there's a really exciting future ahead of us. And now it's my job to be part of taking us to the next level. And that's the plan.”

At the end of last season, when the Cubs’ September collapse left them short of the postseason, Hoyer and Ricketts were both effusive in their praise of former manager David Ross. On Monday morning, Hoyer reiterated that the season-end assessment was “genuine,” but bringing on a more experienced manager in Counsell was an opportunity he did not want to pass on.

Once Counsell was on board, Hoyer flew to Florida to deliver the news to Ross – a beloved member of the 2016 World Series team – in person. In the wake of that tough conversation, Ross reached out to Counsell via text to wish him the best in the Cubs’ managerial seat.

“I called him back immediately,” Counsell said. “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 -- the way he handled the conversation.”

Counsell said he is still working through conversations with the Cubs’ players and coaching staff.

“This has been fast for me,” he said. “I need to go slow right now just to make sure that I get things right.”

After Counsell’s playing days were over, he spent time as a special assistant in the Brewers’ front office under former GM Doug Melvin. At that point about a decade ago, when Hoyer dealt a little with Counsell on the front-office side of things, he thought Counsell was on a track to becoming a GM himself.

Hoyer then watched Counsell develop into one of better managers in the game, but the fact that he had a taste of front-office life was an attractive attribute, too. Hoyer reiterated Monday that he plans on having Counsell involved in conversations about roster construction.

“I frankly thought he was going to end being the GM there -- not the manager,” Hoyer said. “Even in our conversations the last couple of days, talking through different things with the roster, it's very clear he thinks about things both as a manager connecting players, but also thinks about it in terms of roster building. To me that was really appealing.”

The whirlwind nature of the last week made for an emotional experience for Counsell, who acknowledged he “underestimated” the backlash in his home state of Wisconsin over his decision to come to the Cubs.

“I’m very proud of what happened in Milwaukee,” Counsell said. “I think time will look favorably on what was accomplished in those nine years that I was a manager there. So, [a negative reaction] is there and it’s real and I understand it. I do. But I think time will help.”

Counsell’s only focus now is to carve out a new chapter in Chicago.

“Look,” Counsell said, “you walk into Wrigley today, the first day as a Cub and it already starts to mean something. You walk into the history. You walk into the energy. You walk into a place that you already know it demands your best.”