Milwaukee grapples with the reality of Craig Counsell managing the Cubs

MILWAUKEE (AP) — The first sign of discontent regarding Craig Counsell’s decision to leave the Milwaukee Brewers to manage the Chicago Cubs appeared in his hometown at the Little League field that bears his name.

The word “ass” was spray-painted across Counsell’s name on the sign outside the ballpark at Whitefish Bay, the Milwaukee suburb where Counsell grew up and still lives. The sign was covered up Tuesday morning, one day after the Cubs landed Counsell with a five-year deal worth over $40 million.

The Brewers now must try to keep winning in Major League Baseball’s smallest market without the manager who led them to their greatest run of sustained success.

“We have a really good thing,” Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio said Monday. “I give Craig credit for helping to build that, and for adding all these coaches, all of whom have stayed. So we’re going to look for a manager who can continue having a terrific clubhouse culture and that can help us keep winning and hopefully get over the hump in the playoffs.”

Counsell had been synonymous with Milwaukee baseball as the NL’s longest-tenured manager.

His father, John Counsell, was the Brewers’ former director of community affairs. Counsell had two stints with the Brewers in a 16-year playing career and became their winningest manager. He took over the Brewers in 2014 and led them to five playoff appearances over the last six seasons.

Counsell told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Tuesday the opportunity for a new professional challenge and the proximity of Chicago made this opportunity appealing.

“I think as I was going through this process, it became clear that I needed and wanted a new professional challenge,” Counsell said. "At the same time, look, I’m grateful to be part of this community. And that’s going to continue, hopefully, because it has nothing to do with baseball, that part of it. I’m looking forward to being part of a new community and hopefully impact our community well, too. But as I went through it, it just became clear that I needed a new challenge.”

The fact he went just 90 miles south to the Brewers’ biggest rival made his exit doubly painful for fans.

“You know in the first ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ movie where they’re digging to find the ark of the covenant and they open this big tomb thing and they look down and Indiana Jones says, ‘Snakes? Why did it have to be snakes?’ “ said Kay Kenealy of Waukesha, Wisconsin, a Brewers partial season ticket holder since 2006. “My initial reaction was, ‘Oh my God, the Cubs? Why did it have to be the Cubs.’ “

Laura Hemming, a partial season ticket holder since the mid-1990s, said the news “felt like kind of a gut punch.”

Counsell’s exit represents the latest setback for Wisconsin sports fans the same year that the Green Bay Packers traded four-time MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers to the New York Jets, though this move to a division foe was more similar to Packers Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre finishing his career with the Minnesota Vikings.

At least in that instance, Favre spent a season with the New York Jets before heading to Minnesota rather than going directly from the Packers to a division rival. Gabe Neitzel, a sports talk show host for 94.5 ESPN FM in Milwaukee, said the Favre comparisons have been coming up on his station.

“Especially with what Brett meant to the Packers, I think the overwhelming majority of people would still lean toward Brett eventually ending up with the Vikings as the biggest betrayal in Wisconsin sports,” Neitzel said.

Attanasio said the Brewers offered Counsell a deal that would have made him the highest-paid manager in baseball “both per season and the total package.” Attanasio didn’t specify terms, but Cleveland’s Terry Francona was believed to be the highest-paid manager in MLB this past season with a salary of $4.5 million.

The Cubs went way beyond that figure by firing David Ross and luring Counsell. Attanasio was asked Monday if he felt betrayed.

“Definitely not betrayed,” Attanasio replied. “I’m so high on what we have that I can’t imagine somebody wanting to be somewhere else.”

Kenealy said the Cubs’ offer was lucrative enough for her to understand Counsell’s decision.

“If I’m him and they’re offering me $40 million and it’s relatively close to home, it’s like, as much as I’d hate to think of it, if it was me, I would probably take the chance,” Kenealy said. “But it’s the Cubs.”

Hemming said she has a “degree of disbelief that settled into some anger, except I don’t know who to be mad at.” She also noted the inconvenient timing of the Brewers losing Counsell when they’re seeking hundreds of millions in public funding for repairs to American Family Field.

“I know there are people who can look past this specific personnel transaction and see the bigger picture,” said Hemming, who lives in Madison. “But right now, I feel like it’s just a terrible look for them.”

Neitzel and Hunter Baumgardt, a sports talk producer and host at 97.3 The Game in Milwaukee, said callers were pretty evenly split between blaming Attanasio and Counsell for the breakup.

Baumgardt said slightly more callers were blaming Counsell because he’d chosen a division rival. Neitzel said he believed Attanasio would have received most of the criticism if Counsell had ended up managing any opponent other than the Cubs.

“Craig Counsell’s a very relatable person because he grew up here and he knew what baseball was all about,” Baumgardt said. “There’s promotional videos and the things he said after clinching and things like that, how important Milwaukee and baseball in this city was to him. For him to go arguably to their biggest rival, I know Mark Attanasio said he didn’t feel betrayed, but I think a lot of fans feel betrayed.”