Elia's tirade becomes part of Cubs' lore

Lee Elia's tirade 20 years ago might be the defining moment of frustration in Cubs' history.

Originally Published: April 29, 2003
By Phil Rogers | Special to ESPN.com

Twenty years later, not much has changed. Except that Dusty Baker is too politically adept to pull a Lee Elia.

Many Chicago fans will never forget the profane outburst Elia directed toward them on April 29, 1983. But it is easy to forget the context.

Elia, who was in his second season as the manager, was set off by the negativity that surrounds the Cubs, who have gone longer without winning the World Series than any franchise in history. Baker can relate.

They oughta go and get a (expletive) job and find out what it's like to go out and earn a (expletive) living. Eight-five percent of the (expletive) world is working. The other 15 percent come out here. A (expletive) playground for the (expletive).
Lee Elia, former Cubs manager, on the fans at Wrigley 20 years ago.

Since taking over the Cubs last winter, the guy who guided San Francisco to the Series last October has often commented on the expectation of failure that comes with his new job. He's been asked dozens of times if he knew what he was getting into, and it annoys him every time. He's come to understand that changing the culture surrounding his team is the biggest challenge any Cubs' manager faces.

It took awhile for Elia, but by the end of April in his second season, he certainly got it.

Elia's tirade was prompted by more than just the booing of a crowd of 9,391 during and after a one-run loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The real frustration came from a feeling that fans could not see beyond the Cubs' 5-14 record to recognize that progress was being made.

This was a team that had Ryne Sandberg in his first season at second base. It had relative newcomers Jody Davis, Leon Durham and Mel Hall in the lineup and a 25-year-old Lee Smith becoming the automatic option in the ninth inning.

It was the nucleus of the team that would win 96 games and a division championship a year later -- albeit only after the addition of pitchers Rick Sutcliffe and Dennis Eckersley, outfielder Gary Matthews and manager Jim Frey. But instead of seeing the team's potential, most Chicago fans considered it only another link in the chain that was the club's miserable past.

Lee Elia
Elia

It was that dynamic that had Elia at his wit's end.

"We got guys bustin' their (expletive) ass, and them (expletive) people boo,'' Elia said. "And that's the Cubs? That's what my players get around here? ... Everybody associated with this organization have been winners their whole (expletive) life. Everybody. And the credit is not given in that respect.

"All right (it) don't show because 5 and 14, and unfortunately that's the criteria of them dumb 15 (expletive) percent that come out to day baseball. The other 85 percent are earning a living. I tell you, it's take more than a 5 and 12 or 5 and 14 to destroy the makeup of this club. I guarantee you that. There's some (expletive) pros out there that wanna win. But you're stuck in a (expletive) stigma of the (expletive) Dodgers and the Phillies and the Cardinals and all that cheap (expletive). It's unbelievable. It really is. It's a disheartening (expletive) situation that we're in right now.

"Anybody who was associated with the Cub organization four or five years ago that came back and sees the multitude of progress that's been made will understand that if they're baseball people, that 5 and 14 doesn't negate all that work. We got 143 (expletive) games left.''

Luckily for Baker, he's driven the Cubs out of the gate in a much better fashion. They were 12-7 in their first 19 for him and went into his return to San Francisco on Tuesday night 14-11 and in first place in the National League Central.

But it's easy to imagine him being just as defensive of his players as Elia -- if not as profane -- had things started badly.

"I hope we get (expletive) hotter than (expletive), just to stuff it up them 3,000 (expletive) people that show up every (expletive) day,'' Elia said, getting more worked up with every word. "Because if they're the real Chicago (expletive) fans, they can kiss my (expletive) ass right downtown. And print it!''

Like the grounder through Durham's legs and the Mets' red-hot September in 1969 -- remembered by most as the Cubs' collapse -- the Elia tirade is a significant part of Cubs' lore.

I guess after 20 years you can look back and say a lot of good has come out of it, a lot of fun has been made out of me ... No matter where I go I couldn't be treated any better.
Elia 20 years later.

To put it in context, the Cubs had just dropped a 4-3 game to the Los Angeles Dodgers (as an aside, Baker hit third for Tommy Lasorda). It was their second defeat in a row and fans were sick of seeing the home team lose -- although really, what should they have expected with Bob Welch facing Paul Moskau?

Fans let Smith have it after his wild pitch allowed Ken Landreaux to score the go-ahead run in the eighth inning. It booed as the Cubs trudged to the clubhouse after pinch-hitter Scot Thompson (who hit .193 that season) struck out to strand Keith Moreland in the ninth inning.

Elia lashed back as reporters gathered in his office. In a span of about three minutes, he strung together 448 words. Thirty-nine of those -- or about one in every 11 -- were ones that would have earned him one month's detention hall, if not a suspension, when he was in high school.

Elia used four-letter words, 10-letter words and 12-letter words. He dropped 33 of the phrases that have come to be known as f-bombs, mostly with the suffix "ing,'' which he shortened to "in'.''

In the most retold part of this loud monologue, Elia commented on the excessive leisure time of the fans who attend weekday day game.

"The (expletive) don't even work,'' Elia said. "That's why they're out at the (expletive) game. They oughta go and get a (expletive) job and find out what it's like to go out and earn a (expletive) living. Eight-five percent of the (expletive) world is working. The other 15 percent come out here. A (expletive) playground for the (expletive).''

In the early 1980s, baseball reporters didn't work with tape recorders. But radio guys certainly did. So it was that Elia's outburst came to be a part of the public domain.

The ubiquitous Les Grobstein was lurking on the edges of Elia's office, with tape rolling. It was his Zapruder moment.

While those three, blue minutes are really all that distinguished Elia's two seasons as Dallas Green's first manager with the Cubs, he wishes he had kept his cool that day. He wishes Grobstein had gotten a flat tire on his way to Wrigley that afternoon.

"I made some comments that I don't even know how they came out of my mouth, because they were not comments that I normally would make,'' Elia recently told the St. Petersburg Times' Marc Topkin. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think somebody would run out of there and put it on the air.''

Unlike Eminem and other entertainers, Elia doesn't relish the shock value of his greatest hit. But he has come to understand that there is no way to distance himself from that April afternoon in 1983. He's remained in baseball, which guarantees him one of two stays a year in Chicago.

"I think there's a little bit of a Lee Elia fan base up there,'' said Elia, now a hitting coach for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. "I guess after 20 years you can look back and say a lot of good has come out of it, a lot of fun has been made out of me ... No matter where I go I couldn't be treated any better.

"People come up and they say, 'Hey Lee, how you going? I'm a working Cubs fan,' or something like that. So, in a way, it's kind of nice. If I could, I'd wish it didn't happen. But since it did ...''

Elia's potty mouth didn't endear him to Andrew McKenna, John Madigan and others at Tribune Co., who had just turned the Cubs over to Green. The Grobstein tape contributed to Elia being fired in late August, which meant he wasn't along when the young team he had guided to a 127-158 record came within one win of the World Series in 1984.

Elia got one more chance to manage for Green, this time back with the Phillies. He took over midway through 1987 and was fired before the '88 season was over.

At 65, he's still a hard-working coach for Lou Piniella. He's respected for both his work ethic and his results, including nurturing Dan Wilson from a .216 hitter in 1994 to an All-Star in 1996. Wilson credits the work Elia did with him that gave him his staying power with the Seattle Mariners, who have paid him about $25 million through the years.

"His approach to hitting and the way he presents it has been instrumental for me,'' Wilson said. "Without him, I don't know where I'd be.''

Elia was so highly regarded in Seattle that many believe he was GM Pat Gillick's first choice to take over last winter as manager. But Elia opted to follow Piniella to Tampa Bay. He will spend his last years in baseball trying to turn a doormat into a contender.

It's not that much different than what he was doing in Chicago 20 years ago, except this time he's got to wring results out of Jared Sandberg, not his uncle, Ryne. And he'll leave the public profanity to Piniella.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.

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