Underhanded Counselling?

Would you blame David Ross if you discover he feels like the husband who was thrown over with little to no warning because the wife decided something better was available? Okay, that's not really a fair analogy. Grandpa Rossy is seven years younger than Craig Counsell. But considering the Cubs' treatment, he might as well be seven years older.

But something isn't passing the proverbial smell test about Counsell's hiring and Ross's firing.

First, let's clear this one at once. The Cubs didn't poach Counsell. Not from the Brewers or from anyone else. Counsell's contract expired first. He didn't exactly lack for interest once it became known he intended to test his own managerial market. But test it he did, as a proper free agent.

Now, that said, the manner in which the Ross firing and Counsell hiring were done was a weak look. Team president Jed Hoyer had a deal done with Counsell before flying to Ross's Florida home to meet and execute Ross, the guy from whom Hoyer said he wasn't really looking to move on. The headline on The Athletic's Patrick Mooney's take said it with jarring simplicity: "David Ross's downfall as Cubs manager? He isn't Craig Counsell."

Just like Rick Renteria wasn't Joe Maddon. Just like, as things turned out, Maddon — on whom the Cubs "soured" almost too swiftly when they faded from World Series drought busters to also rans — wasn't Ross, who'd been one of his more valuable role players for that almost surrealistic 2016 World Series run, but received a front-office grooming for the bridge to follow after his retirement.

Maddon also proved not to be Counsell. It was Counsell's Brewers who chased Maddon's Cubs down in 2018, possibly putting Maddon onto a very warm seat the heat from which swelled a year later — when the Cubs fell from contention, had a chance to knock the Cardinals out of the races, but got swept by the Cardinals in Wrigley Field in their final home set of the year.

Hopefully, someone in the Cubs' orbit has tipped Counsell to watch his back in case the Cubs' administration decides, somewhere along the road, no matter what success that administration allows him to have, that he's not whomever they'd like to romance and marry in due course.

Especially if, as they did with Ross, the Cubs announce he's their guy in public only to romance a purported upgrade behind closed doors. Especially if they announce Counsell's their guy despite a season being ended at the hands of Counsell's now-former team. With the way the Cubs are administered, nothing's impossible, including infamy.

This isn't the single most suspicious fire-and-hire I've seen in a lifetime of baseball watching. Nothing compares to the shameful Yankee double switch of 1964. They canned an undermined Yogi Berra the day after the Cardinals beat his Yankees in the World Series. Then, they hired Johnny Keane, the skipper who'd just beaten him in that Series.

We learned only later that then-Yankee GM Ralph Houk had every intention of dumping Yogi after the season, no matter what, even backchanneling during the season to gauge Keane's interest in the Yankee job, if the Cardinals were ready to let him go before their own pennant race comeback and triumph.

At least Ross didn't get it the way the Mets once dumped an embattled Willie Randolph, either. Feeling fire under his hindquarters over the Mets' blowing a 7-game National League East lead in September 2007, Randolph and his Mets opened 2008 34-35 and he was fired — after managing a doubleheader split in New York, then flying coast-to-coast to Anaheim to manage a win over the Angels, and getting fired ... at 3:11 AM.

As a manager, Ross was better than some, perhaps not as good as others. He earned his players' trust even as the Cubs administration allowed a championship team to dissipate and a seeming team of also-rans to replace it. Yet he steered them deftly through the 2020 pan-damn-ic and into that surrealistic postseason. And his Cubs played hard in 2022, especially after the All-Star Break, and despite the front office fire-selling at that year's trade deadline.

In 2023, a Cubs team not supposed to compete competed. They pulled themselves to .500 by 27 July, then to 78-67 on 11 September. But from there they collapsed to going 5-12 to finish the season. They'd ended August taking two of three from Counsell's Brewers, but ended the season losing two of three to them.

Counsell's NL Central-winning Brewers returned to first in the NL Central to stay on August 3 and probably secured it with a 9-game winning streak during that month's second half, though going 8-4 to finish the regular season didn't hurt. Then they got swept right out of the wild card series by the eventual NL pennant-winning Diamondbacks.

Except for pan-damn-ically short 2020, Counsell had only one losing season on the Brewers' bridge. They reached nine postseasons and one National League Championship Series under his command. And Counsell earned respect for managing those runs despite the Brewers not exactly being or behaving like more than a small-market team.

When his contract with the Brewers expired, many were the speculative stories sending Counsell to a very different Mets organisation, under still-new ownership and now administered by the man who hired him in Milwaukee in the first place, David Stearns. Counsell built a reputation as a communicative players' manager in tune with the game's analytic side and in synch with the human side.

I saw some speculation that Counsell leveraged the apparent Mets interest in him to carve a large contract out of whomever might win his favor at all. But I also saw smarter observations that the Wisconsin-reared and rooted Counsell — the winningest manager in Brewers history — didn't want to stray far from home in any job change.

He got what he wanted and more, the Cubs signing him for five years and $40 million to steer their Ricketty ship. That alone may do wonders on future markets for steadily successful managers who are usually expected to work for comparative peanuts and be bosses to players who could buy and sell them for the equivalent of a year's worth of sales taxes.

The Cubs may not fall into big bidding wars for this winter's free agency class, but they're expected to be active enough to fortify a team that looked like a rising team often enough in 2023. Cub fans know only too well how swiftly expectations can turn, of course, but let's leave it be for now.

I would repeat my earlier counsel to Counsell: watch your back — and not just from Brewers crowds ready to hammer you the first time you lead the Cubs to Milwaukee for a series. The next rising managerial star might turn Cub eyes toward him at the first sign of availability, too. And it may not matter whether or not you continue building a resume that might include managing the Cubs to another World Series title, either.

It took Ross — a World Series hero as a role player on the 2016 Cubs, who hit his final major league home run during that staggering Game 7 — several days to speak out about his execution. Telling Talahassee Democrat writer Jim Henry that anger is poison to him, Ross preferred gratitude:

There was a lot of people who worked really hard alongside me. ... I am really thankful for the four years I got, coming from zero coaching experience to getting the chance to manage such a great organization that has impacted my life in a great way. There's great people there. I really don't have a whole lot negative to say, to be honest.

I get mad from time to time but I have a lot to be thankful for.

Few men and women pick up and dust off from their unexpected purgings with that kind of grace. The Cubs should consider themselves fortunate that Grandpa Rossy didn't elect to stay away from future team commemorations as long as the incumbent ownership and administration is in place. As with the case of a certain Yankee legend, nobody might blame him if he did.

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