Home News Chicago Cubs’ Craig Counsell returns to Milwaukee

Chicago Cubs’ Craig Counsell returns to Milwaukee


ST. LOUIS — The long-awaited return of Craig Counsell to Milwaukee takes place Monday when the Chicago Cubs begin a four-game series against the Brewers.

So what kind of reaction can Counsell expect?

“It’s probably going to be the same reaction it is normally in that stadium,” Counsell replied. “There’s going to be a lot of Cubs fans there and there’s going to be a lot of Brewers fans there. So there will be some good, some bad.”

“Some good, some bad” could also be a quick summation of the first two months of the Counsell era in Chicago.

The Cubs went into Sunday night’s game in St. Louis two games over .500 at 27-25 with a minus-2 run differential, trailing the division-leading Brewers by 3 games. They’ve gotten good starting pitching for the most part, but the offense has teetered since late April, and was 25th in the majors with a .228 average on Sunday.

The bullpen already has suffered 10 blown saves in 22 opportunities, including Saturday’s 7-6 loss to the Cardinals, and ranked 21st with a 4.31 average while going 14-13. The combination of a lackluster offense and sketchy relief pitching has led to eight losses in their last 11 games.

The Brewers, meanwhile, have continued to overachieve as they mostly did during the Counsell era, making a smooth transition under Pat Murphy, his former bench coach and friend. Entering Sunday, their bullpen ranked 10th with a 3.59 ERA and had a 20-6 record with only six blown saves in 24 chances.

Murphy’s in-your-face demeanor has seemingly rubbed off on his players, and they’d probably lead the majors in brouhahas if that was an official stat. The Brewers had another bench-clearing incident Sunday against the Boston Red Sox. You can take Counsell out of Milwaukee, but you can’t remove the chip off their shoulders.

Chicago Cubs manager Craig Counsell, center, talks with Milwaukee Brewers' coaches before a baseball game Saturday, May 4, 2024, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Chicago Cubs manager Craig Counsell, center, talks with some Milwaukee Brewers before a game on Saturday, May 4, 2024, at Wrigley Field. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

The fact the Cubs remain so close to the Brewers despite blowing so many close games might bode well for them in the next four months. But this four-game series would be an important step in making a statement to the Brewers and nervous Cubs fans.

The focus will no doubt be on Counsell’s return, and he said he looks forward to seeing old friends and spending more time with his family at home. He kept his house in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, and still gets home every homestand to see his wife and two daughters. His two sons play college baseball at Minnesota and Michigan.

Counsell opted not to look for an extension in Milwaukee last year, making him a prominent free-agent manager. Did he ever look across the field during those crazy Cubs-Brewers games and wonder “What if?”

“I did not think that last year at all,” he said. “I had thought that in previous years. When you’re managing you do put yourself in the shoes of the other person, always. And spending so much time in Chicago, and managing against some really good Cubs teams, I think you do, right?”

Of course, David Ross was the hand-picked manager of former President Theo Epstein and had another year left on his contract, so the idea there would be an opening on the North Side in 2024 was a long shot. Most experts assumed Counsell would go to the New York Mets, which is run by his former general manager in Milwaukee, David Stearns.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported Brewers owner Mark Attanasio offered Counsell a contract averaging $5.5 million per year, while Cubs President Jed Hoyer reeled him in with a record five-year, $40 million deal.

Attanasio tried to make Counsell out as the loser in the long run, telling the Milwaukee media: “I’ve reflected on this — Craig has lost us, and he’s lost our community also.”

Some Milwaukee fans quickly turned on Counsell, and one idiot even spray-painted a vulgarity on the sign of a Little League Field that bears Counsell’s name. Counsell admitted at his opening news conference he “underestimated” what the reaction would be in Wisconsin.

Chicago Cubs manager David Ross meets Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell at home plate on Opening Day, April 7, 2022, at Wrigley Field.

Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune

Chicago Cubs manager David Ross meets Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell at home plate on opening day, April 7, 2022, at Wrigley Field. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune)

The shock value over Counsell’s decision to leave his longtime job has long since dissipated, and the honeymoon between Cubs fans and the new manager might be ending as well. This team was supposed to win, especially after re-signing star Cody Bellinger. Injuries have been a factor, but there are no excuses for the regression of some top defenders or the many bullpen implosions.

The bottom line is what matters, and the Cubs need to do better. Counsell is managing most of the same players Ross had under him in 2023 when they fell 10 games under .500 in early June before rebounding over the long summer and then collapsing from a wild-card spot down the stretch.

It would’ve been easy for him to re-sign in Milwaukee, where he was a hometown kid who helped the franchise to five postseason appearances in six years, a stretch of successful seasons that hadn’t been seen since the 1978-83 era, when they played in the AL East and had stars like Robin Yount, Paul Molitor and Rollie Fingers. Their only World Series appearance was in 1982 when they lost to the Cardinals in seven games.

Counsell doesn’t seem to care if his legacy in Milwaukee is seen as tarnished by some fans. He said he was intrigued by the challenge of winning in Chicago, a national franchise with a strong fan base that ended its 108-year championship drought in 2016.

“If you’re competitive, you’re doing this for challenges,” he said. “Every major league manager’s job is a challenge, no question. But it was a different one, and the different part is energizing.”

Counsell said the job has lived up to his expectations, and learning the “language” of the Cubs organization has been “fun.” Likewise, learning the language of “Counselling” has been interesting for the local media. His philosophy consists of simple axioms repeated on a frequent basis: Baseball is a hard game. Good teams and players go through rough stretches. Out-getting is what matters, not how long or where a pitcher is used.

Counsell has not faced much media criticism in the early going, and he’s proven to be laid back and friendly. But he also has a sharp bite when he feels the media narrative is unfair or inaccurate regarding him or his players. He is not opposed to clapping back at reporters.

Media expectations on Counsell have increased in a larger market, which he said he enjoys despite observations from some media members that he’s already tired of talking so much.

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