As new manager, Counsell focused on taking Cubs to next level

After spending the last 17 years in his hometown with the Milwaukee Brewers as a player, special assistant to the general manager and manager, Craig Counsell seemingly had no reason to ever leave.

Not only did he have all of the comforts of home, Counsell showed some serious dugout skills while guiding the Brewers to the postseason five times in the last six years.

But after managing Milwaukee for nine seasons overall, the 53-year-old Counsell developed a bit of an itch.

"A new challenge is where I had to push myself," he said. "It's about growth and it's about trying to push yourself to a place you're not at right now. That's scary."

Counsell admitted to being "a little uncomfortable" Monday morning while being introduced as the Cubs' new manager at Wrigley Field as his wife Michelle and daughters Finley and Rowan sat in the front row of his welcome gathering.

"My boys (Brady and Jack) are hopefully at class in college (playing baseball at Minnesota and Michigan, respectfully) right now," Counsell said. "I'm hoping."

As time goes by, Counsell will undoubtedly feel more comfortable in his new home.

Signed to a contract ($40 million over five years) that makes him the highest-paid manager in MLB history, Counsell has no doubts he made the right decision to join the Cubs.

"This is the right thing going on here, and this is something that's really special," Counsell said. "I saw quickly that the organization is just in great health. (President of baseball operations) Jed (Hoyer) presented a very compelling vision of that. 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. And that's the plan."

Even though David Ross seemed like a lock to come back for his fifth year as Cubs manager in 2024, Hoyer knew Counsell was available when his contract with Milwaukee expired at the end of the season.

"As the month (October) wore on, he was becoming a free agent and I thought about it and let it percolate in my head," Hoyer said. "It kind of built as the month went on. Just a rare opportunity. It's hard to rank managers, but he's at the very top of the game."

Hoyer first reached out to Counsell on Nov. 1 with a phone call.

"Didn't pick up his call," Counsell said with a laugh. "Called him back. He indicated the Cubs had interest. I was interested, but cautious is probably the best way to say it."

Counsell was scheduled to fly to New York to talk with the Mets on Nov. 2, so he met with Hoyer the same day they talked on the phone.

Two days later, the offer came and the Cubs had their new manager.

"I thought we had an awesome opportunity," Hoyer said. "I think we've put ourselves in a really good position to compete over the short term and long term. Talked a lot about how from the outside, he's a fantastic fit. To watch what he's done with the Brewers, he gets the most out of his teams, he's exceptionally bright.

"I talked a lot about him coming on board and being a partner in that vision. I'm really proud of where we are as an organization. I thought he was the perfect guy to take that to the next level."

Before the news broke, Counsell got a text from Ross.

"I called him back immediately," Counsell said. "We had what I think was a very good conversation. I've always had great respect for David and it gave me the ultimate respect for David, the way he handled the conversation. Part of this business is really difficult and it's really cutthroat.

"As a player, I've lived it, David's lived it, every player lives it every day. I respect the heck out of David Ross."

The Cubs were 83-79 under Ross last season, but they ran out of gas down the stretch and missed the playoffs.

Now it's up to Counsell to get them over the hump, in 2024 and beyond.

"There's pressure in this job, man," he said. "There should be. I accept that and welcome it and I think it should be there. I don't think, regardless of what's going on salary-wise, there's a financial component to this, obviously there is, but my job's to win baseball games no matter what. You go in the dugout, you're job is to win baseball games no matter who your team is.

"That's kind of how I see what I do. Doesn't matter what's around you, once the game starts your job is to win a baseball game. You keep it that simple."

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