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Before he addressed the crowd in front of him Monday morning, Craig Counsell slipped on a Chicago Cubs jersey sporting the No. 30 underneath the name, “COUNSELL.” As he went to sit back down, he cracked a big smile and said, “It feels good.”
If it seemed kind of surreal, that’s because it felt that way.
Counsell was officially named the 56th manager in Cubs history, a week after president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer shocked the baseball world by hiring the former Brewers skipper to five-year, $40 million contract to replace sitting manager David Ross.
The 53-year-old had spent most of the last nine seasons managing one of the Cubs’ biggest rivals, and more recently, consistently led Milwaukee to playoff berths while the Cubs’ golden years fizzled out.
When Counsell would walk into Wrigley Field in the past, either as a player or a manager, he walked in as an opponent. Now, he’s taking the reins of the Cubs, hoping to be the next manager to help bring a World Series title back to Chicago.
So when he stepped foot in Wrigley on Monday, he could already sense how important of a step this is in his career.
“Walking into Wrigley today, the first day as a Cub, and it already starts to mean something,” Counsell said at his introductory press conference. “You walk into the history, you walk into the energy, you walk into a place that you already know it demands your best. That feeling is just a feeling that I need to have and I love to have, and I’d love that to be a part of my daily life. So, that that feeling exists right now is really, really special for me and makes me so, so excited. It really does.”
As excited as he is now, this last week and a half has been hectic for Counsell.
He said his process of making a decision on his future was coming to an end when Hoyer reached out on Nov. 1. From the Cubs’ side, only chairman Tom Ricketts and general manager Carter Hawkins were looped in, and Counsell and Hoyer met at the latter’s house.
Counsell wasn’t necessarily expecting the call. With a manager already in place, and without any communication in the process beforehand, he wasn’t thinking about the Cubs. But when Hoyer asked him to meet, he was willing to hear the pitch.
Hoyer had to play some things close to the vest, of course. How could he just reveal his entire plan forward before he knew Counsell was going to join the organization?
“You’re not really laying everything on the table in conversations like that,” Counsell said.
Regardless, after the conversation, Counsell realized this was a new challenge he wanted to take on. The time felt right to make the move.
“As you go through this process, when you’re trying to just figure out life, really, there’s self-reflection, and you’re kind of trying to figure out what to do,” Counsell said. “I think at some point over really a pretty long timespan, I just thought that a new challenge was where I had to push myself. And really, it’s about growth. It’s about just trying to push yourself to a place that you’re not at right now.
“And that’s scary. I’m sitting up here, I’m a little scared. I’m sitting up here, I’m 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.”
Since the news broke a week ago, Counsell has faced backlash from Brewers fans for going to their rival. He said he underestimated how strong the reaction would be, but he hopes time will help heal the wounds and reflect favorably on his time there.
There was also the fact that, with the Cubs hiring him, that meant they were firing Ross.
Counsell and Ross had crossed paths during their playing careers and then obviously as rival managers over the last four years. Counsell had respect for Ross, so knowing he was taking Ross’ job had to be on his mind as the process quickly played out.
Soon after Hoyer delivered the news to him at his home in Tallahassee, Ross shot Counsell a text message. Counsell immediately called him, and the two shared what Counsell said was “a very good conversation.”
Nobody would’ve blamed Ross if he didn’t take the high road, in either his conversations with Counsell and Hoyer or even in an interview with the Tallahassee Democrat last week. He just lost his job, after all. He’s allowed to be upset and not gracious in his exit from the organization.
But Ross took the news in stride, and their conversation confirmed why Counsell thought so highly of him in the first place.
“I’ve always had great respect for David; that gave me the ultimate respect for David, the way he handled the conversation. This is a part of this business that’s really difficult. It’s really cutthroat. As a player, I’ve lived it. David has lived it. Every player lives with it every day. But I respect the heck out of David Ross.”
Now that some of the difficult conversations are out the way, Counsell can get to work figuring out how he can help the Cubs better compete in 2024 and beyond. That’s the same thing Hoyer must ask himself. He’s made a move to improve the manager’s seat in his mind, but now he has to do more.
It can’t be left at Hoyer just bringing in Counsell. They are now partners trying to executive the vision that Hoyer sold in their meeting 12 days ago. They’re tied together in that; if one fails, so does the other. It’s on them to make this a successful partnership over the next five years (and maybe even beyond).
That new partnership, though, is what excites them about this move.
“You start to learn personalities and you start to learn how to communicate with each other, how to get things done, how to push a button sometimes, because that’s what you need to do,” Counsell said. “That’s how we’re going to communicate together, and that’s how we make progress. I push Jed, he pushes me and Carter pushes me. That’s the fun part about this, kind of getting to know each other and feel each other out and test each other. That’s awesome. I love that part of it.”
Said Hoyer: “He’s going to bring different things to the table that he learned or had in Milwaukee, and I’m going to bring different things. To me, that is really exciting. I mean, all of us in these jobs, you just want to keep pushing yourself and you want to get better. … I think he can push me and our front office and the organization in a lot of great ways.”
It remains to be seen if that partnership does lead to the kind of success that’s been missing at Wrigley Field in recent years. But sitting up on that podium in Gallagher Way, he knew this was the right time for a new challenge. He’d seen Hoyer’s vision and wanted to be part of it.
Now, Counsell is part of an organization he believes is on the rise. Perhaps he will show he’s the right manager to help get them back to the top.
“It’s time to be a Cub,” he said. “There is momentum happening here, and it feels close. 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.”
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