Tuesday, April 29, 2008
Fans won't let Elia forget meltdown
By Wayne Drehs ESPN.com
It was a few years back, during some sort of a "Meet the Devil Rays" day, when Lee Elia realized he would never escape the most embarrassing 187 seconds of his life.
A man had approached the then-Tampa Bay hitting coach at the meet-and-greet, eager to talk to Elia about his infamous profanity-laced tirade from years earlier.
"I tried to politely tell the guy, 'No,'" Elia said. "I suggested we talk about something else."
But the man in a perfectly pressed suit and flattop haircut wouldn't listen. He had something for Elia to hear. See, he was a sales manager in the area with a staff of 50 employees. And on the first Tuesday of every month, he told Elia, he kicked off his sales meeting by playing a recording of the former Chicago Cubs manager's volcanic eruption.
"He said it pumped his guys up," Elia said. "It would energize all these guys to go out and make record sales. And he just wanted to meet me and say thank you. I couldn't believe it."
When the day comes to write the obituary of Lee Constantine Elia, his venom-stuffed, frustration-filled 1983 attack on Chicago Cubs fans will undoubtedly show up somewhere in the first paragraph. Long before Jim Mora snapped about "playoffs," Dennis Green "crowned" the 2006 Chicago Bears and Hal McRae cleared his office of everything he could get his hands on, Elia set the bar for postgame coaching meltdowns.
Lee Elia, shown arguing a call in 1982, had a 127-158 record as Cubs manager and was fired with 39 games left in the 1983 season.
After a disappointing 4-3 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers 25 years ago Tuesday, Elia was heading to the Cubs' clubhouse when he saw a few players, namely Larry Bowa and Keith Moreland, nearly go into the stands to confront a group of belligerent Cubs fans. Minutes later, when a reporter asked about the team's 5-14 record and the reaction of Cubs fans, Elia snapped.
In one three-minute and seven-second tirade, the second-year manager unleashed 480 words he has longed to take back. Forty-nine of them were of the cover-your-child's-ears variety. That's one every 3.8 seconds.
"I'll tell you one [expletive] thing, I hope we get [expletive] hotter than [expletive] so we can stuff it up them 3,000 [expletive] people that show up every [expletive] day, because if they're the real Chicago [expletive] fans, they can kiss my [expletive] right downtown. AND PRINT IT.
Elia added: "The [expletive] don't even work. That's why they're out at the [expletive] game. They oughta go out and get a [expletive] job and find out what it's like to go out and earn a [expletive] living. Eighty-five percent of the [expletive] world is working. The other 15 come out here. A [expletive] playground for the [expletive]."
Elia said he had no idea he was being taped. He had no idea about the firestorm his words would cause. But Chicago reporter Les Grobstein recorded the entire thing. Afterward, before putting the clip on the air, Grobstein shared the tape with Cubs PR man Bob Ibach, who took the tape to Cubs general manager Dallas Green, who summoned Elia to Green's office.
"I was completely oblivious," he said. "With God as my witness, when Dallas called me to his office, I told him I had to get to Park Ridge to umpire my daughter's softball game. And he told me, 'If you don't get up here, you can start packing your bags.' Then, when I finally heard the recording, I surprised myself. I didn't realize half of what I had said. I was like, 'Where in the world did I come up with that?'"
Elia apologized to Green and later that night, on the Jack Brickhouse radio show, apologized to the city for his venomous words. But the damage had been done. Green fired Elia later that season, with the Cubs on their way to a fifth-place finish. The next year, the North Siders won the National League East before losing to San Diego in the NLCS.
Now, 25 years later, barely a day goes by when Elia isn't reminded of his tirade. To commemorate the 25th anniversary, he is hoping to make amends with Cubs fans by partnering with a Chicago-area collectibles company to sell autographed baseballs. The balls include an acrylic case that, upon the push of a button, will play a new Elia message to Cubs fans:
"I'll tell you one thing. It's time the Cubs get hotter than hell this season and stuff it up the rest of the baseball world. The 40,000 fans who fill this ballpark every day and work hard for a living are no nickel-and-dimers. They deserve a championship. They're the real Chicago Cub fans. AND PRINT IT!"
Proceeds for the ball, which can be purchased at www.leeunplugged.com, will go to the Chicago Baseball Cancer Charities, a cause that is close to Elia's heart. Not only is he a survivor of prostate cancer, but his father died of the disease. Roger Dewey, who designed the ball and the case, also lost a parent to cancer. And Ibach, the former Cubs PR director who is helping Elia promote the ball, lost his mother to cancer and has a father who is currently battling the disease.
"I'm not the sharpest tool in the box when it comes to PR work, I think that's pretty obvious," Elia said. "But when I first heard about this and thought about the money we could raise for cancer research and the possibility of setting the record straight with Cubs fans once and for all, I thought it might be worth being a part of."
The idea is the brainchild of Dewey, a lifelong Cubs fan who designed and developed the case that holds the ball. His first idea wasn't for Elia to make amends, but instead for the case to play the original Elia rant.
"Yeah, it was," Dewey said. "But the case comes with a record button on it. If somebody wanted to put the old rant in the case, they could do that as well."
When I finally heard the recording, I surprised myself. I didn't realize half of what I had said. I was like, 'Where in the world did I come up with that?'
Over time, Elia has learned to accept what happened as well as the public's fascination with his colorful language. To celebrate the anniversary and help promote sales of the ball, Elia will attend Tuesday's Cubs-Brewers game and mingle with Cubs fans.
But it hasn't been easy. In the weeks after the incident, he said he refused to leave his Chicago apartment other than to attend games, out of fear for what fans on the street would say. Only after coach John Vukovich dragged him to a restaurant weeks after the implosion did he mingle with Cubs fans and realize most of them actually understood his frustration. But that didn't stop kids from teasing his children in school. Or fans from ridiculing him at various ballparks for the past quarter-century.
"It bothered me," Elia said. "Very, very much, especially in the beginning. I just completely embarrassed myself and was not really happy about what had happened. That's not me."
Still, he now realizes that, despite a baseball career that spans nearly 50 years, including stints as a player with the Cubs and White Sox and as a coach with the Cubs, Phillies, Yankees, Blue Jays, Devil Rays, Orioles and Mariners, it is that 3:07 that will always be remembered most.
Ibach said former Illinois governor Jim Thompson used to play Elia's rant to psyche himself up before a big political speech. Current and former players have told Elia that the rant has been used as a motivator in the Cubs' clubhouse over the years. And just the other day, Ibach read a business article that referred to someone's meltdown as an "Elia moment."
"I told Lee the other day," Ibach said, "'When we're all dead and gone and they revise the dictionary, under the word tirade, it is going to simply say, 'see Elia, Lee.'"
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.