Cubs' Craig Counsell takes it in stride as Brewers fans boo their former manager's return to Milwaukee

'That's what fans get to do'

MILWAUKEE — If you didn’t know, you would have thought the dozens of media members assembled in the visitors dugout at American Family Field were there for the likes of Shohei Ohtani. But the pomp and circumstance was for former Brewers and now Cubs manager Craig Counsell, who was making his return to Milwaukee for the first time since taking his new job in Chicago.

After downplaying his return and the attention that would surround it for the past month, the Cubs manager opened up his trip back to the ballpark that he called home for nearly two decades.

“Life takes different turns, man,” Counsell said before the Cubs’ 5-1 loss to the Brewers. “I don't want to plan out my life forever. I want to do things that challenge me. That excites me, so I don't make plans like that. You gotta take the ride of life and see what happens. This was not something I necessarily expected to happen. But you got to jump on the ride and go.

“I was at a place for a long time. I think when you're at a place for a long time, you just naturally think about like, ‘What if I did something different?’” Counsell said. “That was part of it. And that happened over the last couple of years. Not just last year. Frankly, [former Brewers president of baseball operations] David Stearns leaving made you think about it a lot. I don’t know how it couldn’t. So it happens over time.”

Chicago Cubs manager Craig Counsell talks to reporters before Monday's game in Milwaukee, where he spent 17 combined years as a player and manager with the Brewers. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

While any manager returning to a place he spent a long time gets attention, Counsell’s return to Milwaukee is probably even bigger for him than it would have been for others. It’s not just that he managed in Milwaukee for nine seasons, played there for six seasons and worked in the front office for three.

It’s the fact that Counsell also happens to be one of Wisconsin’s native sons. The Cubs’ skipper grew up just 15 minutes away from American Family Field in Whitefish Bay. In fact, the park in Whitefish Bay named after Counsell was vandalized in the offseason after he was hired by Chicago. Counsell seems to realize how his departure from Milwaukee and move to Chicago has been taken by the fan base that used to cheer for him.

Brewers fans wasted no time “welcoming” their former manager back, with a round of boos during his brief tribute video and when he walked out to exchange lineup cards with Brewers manager and longtime friend Pat Murphy and when he walked onto the field at any time during the Cubs’ loss Monday.

“Cheer, boo, whatever, man. Just have a good time at the game,” Counsell said before the game. “That's what fans get to do. So just have a good time. It's Memorial Day, you don't go to work today. And let's all have a good time.”

While Milwaukee fans clearly have no love lost for Counsell, Murphy knows what both mean to each other, despite the changes over the past seven months.

“We have passionate fans. I mean, that's something I've come to know,” Murphy said. “I was here for almost every game Craig managed. And I know how much [Brewers fans] respect him. I know how much the Brewers accomplished when Craig was the manager. And I think when he walks out, he's expecting anything. … I know at the end of the day, 20 years from now when we all look back on this, Craig will be recognized as a big part of the Brewers.”

“[Craig] would do anything for this community. That's how he is.”

Counsell’s tenure in Milwaukee was highly successful, with the team going 707-625 under his charge with five postseason appearances. Following a disappointing sweep by Arizona in the NL wild-card round last season, Counsell’s contract expired in November, making him a free agent for the first time.

In a move that shocked the baseball world, the Cubs hired Counsell away from their NL Central rivals five days later, firing David Ross in the process.

If Counsell had left Milwaukee for any other team in baseball, the public response would almost certainly have been different. The fact that he chose Chicago gives a lengthy relationship between Counsell and Milwaukee even more chapters.

“It's not my job to tell people how to feel about it or even to figure it out,” Counsell said. “Let people feel how they want to feel, and I'm good with it. And it doesn't have to be all positive. We're in a public job. And we're in a job with fans, and fans are allowed to feel whatever they want.”

Unlike other sports, the nature of baseball and the fact that there are games nearly every day for seven months doesn’t often allow for sentimentality. In a series between two teams at the top of the division, with the first-place Brewers playing well and the Cubs not, it can almost be easier for those involved to not feel.

Counsell, who has always been known for his stoic, business-like manner, rarely shows much emotion. But in a way, the Cubs’ manager seemed almost relieved that the day had come for him to get some sense of closure and attempt to enjoy the moment in the process.

“When you see people and you talk to people, that's what makes you reflect and enjoy,” Counsell said. “That happened when we were in Chicago with those guys, and that'll happen here this week in Milwaukee with more people that weren't in Chicago.

“So I hope to do that and want to do that. That's going to be fun. So I'm looking forward to doing that. And that's certainly the human part of it, but it's because of your connections with people.”