Craig Counsell unsurprisingly downplays his 1st meeting as Chicago Cubs manager vs. Milwaukee Brewers

Craig Counsell’s shocking decision to leave the Milwaukee Brewers for the Chicago Cubs managerial job last fall ensured he would be the focus of the I-94 rivalry for the immediate future.

While Cubs versus Brewers will never be mistaken for Bears versus Green Bay Packers, it’s been one of the more entertaining rivalries in baseball over the last decade — and Counsell’s defection only increased the intensity.

“I felt like the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry is a pretty strong one and long-lived,” Cubs pitcher Justin Steele said Friday. “Obviously now that Counsell is on our side, that adds a little juice to it. But it’s always fun to play them… always a close game and always a good series.”

The low-key Counsell, who might be the most unexcitable Cubs manager in recent history, was unsurprisingly unenthused.

“Look, we’re just trying to win a baseball game,” he said before Friday’s game at Wrigley Field. “This is a good team. You spend most of your time trying to figure out how to beat the team. There are people there I have really good relationships with … you miss people for sure.”

But Counsell said he didn’t plan on kibitzing pregame with any of his former players or manager Pat Murphy, who was serving the final game of his two-game suspension for inappropriate conduct stemming from Tuesday’s brawl between the Brewers and Tampa Bay Rays. Rickie Weeks served as manager on Friday.

But it wasn’t because Counsell didn’t like fraternizing with the enemy.

“No, I think that’s generally a rule for a different generation,” he said.

A Wisconsin native who still has a home outside Milwaukee, Counsell said he never grew up disliking Chicago teams and was unaware of the derisive term “flat-landers” that some Wisconsinites used for Illinoisans.

“I remember trips to Chicago as a kid, going to see that big baseball bat downtown,” he said, referring to the 101-foot sculpture by Claes Oldenburg called Batcolumn. “No, I probably didn’t have (the animosity). Look, when you’re with the Brewers, beating the Cubs, yeah, a lot of it is because the stadium, the home crowd, it’s a different atmosphere. That charged it up for sure.

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“And then when I was part of the Milwaukee team, early in my tenure there, the Cubs were really good. They were tough to beat.”

But now the shoe is on the other foot, and the Cubs entered Friday in second place in the National League Central, one game behind the Brewers.

Counsell, who opted to go through the final year of his contract in Milwaukee in 2023 without re-signing to explore free agency, wound up signing a record five-year, $40 million deal to replace David Ross.

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Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts and President Jed Hoyer lauded Ross’ performance at the end of the season, then fired him a month later when Counsell said he was interested. Ross has remained silent about the cold-blooded firing since, declining all interview requests.

Counsell played for Murphy at Notre Dame and brought him to the Brewers as his bench coach. Now the two will be managing against each.

“This is baseball competition,” Counsell said. “I don’t know if I’d go strong enough to (say they’re) enemies here. You’re trying to beat the other guy. That’s what we’re here to do and we have fun doing it. The competition is fun.”

In other Cubs news, Steele is on schedule to start Monday against San Diego, while Kyle Hendricks will make another rehab start in the minors Tuesday at Triple-A Iowa.

Counsell called Hendricks’ first rehab start “encouraging.” Hendricks threw five-plus innings Thursday at Double-A Tennessee, striking out seven with no walks.