Craig Counsell wanted all of it.
The big market. The shimmering cathedral of a ballpark. The fans who will welcome him with a bear hug but also hold him to account, eagerly litigating his every misstep. The record contract for a manager, oh, yes, indeed.
And the pressure that immediately comes with managing the World Series-hungry Cubs in 2024 and beyond. Counsell wanted that, too.
“There’s pressure in this job, man,” he said Monday at Wrigley Field. “There should be. I accept that and welcome it and think it should be there.”
It’s there. And it isn’t going anywhere.
There’s every reason to believe in the 53-year-old Counsell, one of the most respected managers in baseball. His work in Milwaukee, where he won three division championships and made the playoffs five times over the last six of his nine seasons — vaulting to the top of the Brewers’ career wins list along the way — was exemplary. His teams commonly pitched well, did the little things well, won close games; they reflected the player their skipper had been, a longtime overachiever. The closest thing to a known weakness of Counsell was his failure to win a World Series with the Brewers, which, given the modest spending habits of his former organization, is barely a nitpick.
This, folks, is one excellent manager. As Cubs president Jed Hoyer put it, “When you start to dig into what he’s good at, it’s pretty much the whole job.”
Hoyer went out and got his man — kneecapping David Ross in the process, cold and calculating — and kudos to him for it. It was both a swing for the fences by Hoyer and an attempt to kick former boss Theo Epstein’s shadow to the curb once and for all, and in no way is that more evident than in the five-year, $40-plus million contract the Cubs gave Counsell, blowing a hole in the managerial-compensation ceiling.
Clearly, the Cubs are ready to crack open the piggy bank to upgrade their roster, too, and must feel they’re drawing nigh unto their next World Series appearance. It’s an exciting, heady time in the executive offices attached to Wrigley. From here, public opinion of Hoyer will be informed by the fruitfulness of his marriage with baseball’s highest-paid manager. Win big — Epstein and Joe Maddon big, if not bigger — or it’s a bust.
And Counsell goes right on the hook: Is he making the Cubs better yet? Are they running away with the National League Central yet? Is it too soon to start planning that next early-November parade? Cubs fans can’t wait to see it all falling into place and won’t be OK with anything less.
“That’s what it is,” Counsell said. “That’s what it should be. We should be expected to win regardless.”
One can reasonably wonder if Counsell, despite all his experience, is fully prepared for the expectations he’ll face. He grew up a Brewers fan in Whitefish Bay, a few miles up Lake Michigan from Milwaukee. His dad worked for the team. As a big leaguer, he played primarily for the Marlins, Diamondbacks and Brewers, markets where fans just plain don’t care nearly as much as they do on the North Side. More relevant: Counsell managed the Brewers, his work seen through the lens of a small-market underdog.
Easy for us to say, but all of it seems, well, easier than managing the Cubs.
Has he ever really been ripped before? Ross sure knows what that’s like. A Cubs hero who was carried on the shoulders of teammates after they won it all in 2016, Ross was pilloried by Cubs fans for most of the 2023 season as if he was clueless, in over his head, a bumpkin. Like Ross, Counsell broke into managing in the big leagues without having any background in coaching at any level, and it took him a while to get the good times rolling. But it never seemed as if anyone was watching the clock.
Maybe Counsell is far and above Ross as a manager — we’ll have a much stronger sense of that in months to come — but the next time he’s shredded on social media for his perceived role in a losing streak will be a completely different experience.
Counsell is no bumpkin. Ross isn’t one, either, by the way. Both lasted in the big leagues as players as much because of their innate qualities — humility, earnestness, team-orientedness — as their pure athletic talents. Both were given shots as managers for the same reasons. Ross was blindsided by his dismissal, and only what happens on the field and in the standings the next few years will tell us if Counsell was worth it.
But Counsell wants this — all of it.
“You walk into Wrigley Field, the first day as a Cub, and it already starts to mean something,” he said. “You walk into the history, you walk into the energy, you walk into a place that you already know demands your best, and that feeling is a feeling that I need to have and I love to have, and I love that to be a part of, like, my daily life. That that feeling exists now is really, really special for me and makes me so, so excited. It really does.”
It really doesn’t matter unless he wins. Welcome to the North Side, where the clock is already ticking.